Veganism has gotten a bad rap from some nutritionists and health nuts, and a lot of that has to do with the misconceptions regarding the sufficiency of plant-based proteins. Part of the pseudoscience that led to these misconceptions involves amino acids. Every protein is made up of amino acids, and there are 20 of them. Of these 20, nine can’t be manufactured in the human body, which means that we need to get them from the food we eat.
These nine amino acids are called essential amino acids, and yes, it is true that most sources of meat, poultry, and fish contain all nine essential amino acids. Many plant-based sources of protein do not contain all nine of the essentials, and therefore are not considered “complete proteins.” For a long time, it was thought that humans couldn’t be healthy unless they consumed all nine in one meal. Vegans were advised to consume “complementary proteins,” which were pairings of plant-based protein sources that together created a complete protein.
However, the myth of complementary proteins has long been debunked, and it’s well known that the plant world contains enough variety of protein compounds to satisfy our daily needs. The only exception would be a diet consisting solely of fruit. A vegan lifestyle will provide an abundance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, but it is important to note that it can occasionally be difficult for vegans to get enough methionine and lysine, which are two important essential amino acids. But not to fear! Oatmeal, whole wheat, peanuts and other nuts (along with nut butters,) and broccoli are all great sources of both of these aminos.
If you’re overly concerned about it, or just want to know more about how your food interacts with your body, this article highlights all nine essential amino acids and gives a hefty list of plant-based foods that are a good source of each. If you’re worried about creating complementary proteins, well … it’s as easy as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a bowl of rice and beans. Combining nut butter with a slice of whole wheat bread or legumes with a grain like rice is all it takes to get all nine essential amino acids in one sitting.
While you don’t need to worry about eating complete proteins in every meal, it doesn’t hurt to know which sources are and aren’t, so I’ll make sure to note this information as I cover some of the best sources of protein for vegans:
- Seitan is a meat-like substance created from gluten, which is the main form of protein in wheat. A 3.5 ounce serving contains 25 grams of protein. Most varieties of seitan are complete proteins, but not all. The gluten alone is very low in lysine, but since most varieties of seitan are seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce), which is high in lysine, most are actually complete proteins.
- Soy products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all great sources of plant-based protein. The protein content depends on which one you are consuming, but will be between 10 and 19 grams per 3.5 ounce serving. If you’re eating tofu, keep in mind that the firmer it is, the more protein it contains. Soy is a complete protein, as are the vast majority of soy products.
- Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and beans are all high in protein, containing six to eight grams per half cup serving. Legumes also have a number of other health benefits, like the fact that they’re high in fiber and vitamins and low in fat. Most legumes are not complete proteins.
- Hempseed is incredibly high in protein, containing 10 grams in every 2 tablespoon serving. It’s also packed with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hempseed does contain all nine essential aminos, but it’s too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein.
- Quinoa is another complete protein, and you’ll get about 8 grams per 1 cup serving. It’s a great substitute for rice, and can also be ground into flour to create baked goods.
- Buckwheat, contrary to its name, is not wheat and does not contain any gluten. It is, however, a great source of plant-based protein, providing six grams per cup. Buckwheat is also a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids.
- Nuts and seeds, along with nut and seed butters, will give you around five to seven grams of protein per ounce. Nuts and seeds are not complete proteins, and are best consumed raw.
What about vegan athletes and bodybuilders?
Can they get enough protein from a plant-based diet? The answer is an absolute, definite, yes. There are many vegan athletes who can attest to this. It’s true that athletes need more calories than others overall, and the more you work out, especially when it comes to weight training, the more protein you will need in your diet. But a plant based diet can, and has, provided enough protein for even the most rigorous of regimens.
Some athletes training for the Olympics eat over 10,000 calories a day. That’s a lot of food, in fact, too much for the average, everyday person. It’s no surprise that many athletes supplement their diet with protein powders, and there’s really no shame in this. There are several good non-dairy, plant-based protein powders that can fuel marathoners, bodybuilders, and workout junkies alike. The best protein powders for vegans are rice or pea based, because they have the lowest chance of causing allergic reactions, but soy-based protein powders are a popular choice as well.
So, cased closed.
It is definitely possible for vegans to not only get enough protein, but enough of the right kinds of protein, from their everyday diets. You don’t have to be meticulous about what is in every bite you eat because the plant world is abundant with healthy sources of nourishment that can support every function of the human body, but it never hurts to be mindful of how much protein you consume. What is your favorite protein-packed vegan snack?