Going meatless is always a good idea, but for some, taking the additional step of going totally animal-free is daunting. After all, how are you supposed to get enough protein if you don’t eat animal products such as dairy and eggs? Following a vegan lifestyle or even incorporating a simple vegan meal or two doesn’t need to be difficult. For the uninitiated, going vegan does require knowing a bit about protein. Why is it important, and how do you find the best protein to eat in a plant-based diet?
What Is Protein?
Protein, fats and carbohydrates are the three vital macro-nutrients your body needs so it can operate. Carbohydrates are a source of energy, fats help store that energy. Proteins facilitate tissue repair and growth, improve digestion and boost metabolism, and are essential to the function of vital organs. Without protein, humans would never have evolved to where we are today, or perhaps even at all.
The most common source of protein around the world is animal-based, whether that means meat, fish, eggs or dairy products. Vegetables, legumes, and grains also contain proteins but do not paint a complete picture. They are missing essential amino acids. So where does that leave vegans? Is it even possible to get protein on a vegan diet?
Our body requires a complete set of amino acids to function properly, and if you don’t rely on animals for them, finding complete protein becomes a bit more of a problem. But with careful planning, it’s easy to combine various vegetables, legumes, and grains with simple (incomplete) proteins to create a complete protein package.
Best Protein Sources for Vegans
½ cup raw soybeans = 34 grams and ½ cup tofu = 10 grams
Soy is one of the most well-known meat substitutes on the planet. It’s long been the go-to, meat-free substitute for vegetarians and vegans. Soy is processed into a few popular formats, such as tofu, tempeh, natto, and milk. Unlike many other beans, soybean products are complete protein products. Tofu, tempeh and the like make great meat alternatives, but with GMO soy products, there is a dark side, because conventional soy could harbor high levels of pesticides that eventually accumulate in your body. Also, always strive to obtain high-quality, non-GMO and organic soy products to avoid the many soy dangers.
A little-known grain from South America that took the world by storm only a decade ago, quinoa is a very popular choice for vegans as an excellent source of plant-based protein. Most of us have experimented with quinoa as a rice substitute, but it makes a fabulous protein-packed addition to any meal. It’s easy to add it to a morning oatmeal bowl and to bran muffins and makes one great veggie burger. In addition to its protein powder, quinoa’s packed with iron, magnesium, and fiber.
3. Rice and Beans
½ cup = 3.5 grams
If you’ve traveled anywhere in Latin America, you know that rice and beans are staples for every meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And, you can always find gallo pinto in Central America. Although neither rice nor beans provide adequate protein on its own, together they complete each other. Rice is very low in lysine but high in methionine, while beans have the exact opposite balance. It doesn’t hurt that they also are some of the cheapest protein-packed foods you can buy.
4. Hemp Seeds
Hemp seed products are powerful, but incomplete protein punches. Easy to add to smoothies and oatmeals, and to sprinkle on salads, hemp seeds are highly digestible because of their high fiber content. Like the rice and bean option above, hemp seeds require a partner to form a complete protein. Some typical ingredient pairings for hemp seeds are grains, lentils, beans, and nuts.
Garbanzo beans provide a simple vegan protein, high in lysine, and complemented by other foods such as grains. A quick snack of hummus (chickpeas) and pita (grain) is one way to ensure you get the full set of amino acids, and therefore a complete protein. Another good suggestion is to toss a handful of roasted organic chickpeas into your stir fry rice bowl. It’s all about experimentation; getting creative in the kitchen is one of the best parts of being vegan.
½ cup = 32 grams
This vibrant green superfood is another excellent smoothie addition to help boost your daily protein intake, although again, it’s incomplete and requires a few other ingredients to reach its full protein potential. Spirulina lacks two amino acids, methionine and cysteine, but these are in other foods such as oatmeal, soybeans, and nuts. There are many recipes out there that incorporate soy milk, peanut butter, and even oatmeal into a smoothie, so why not add a scoop of organic spirulina powder? Learn more about other superfoods to add to your smoothies here.
7. Nutritional Yeast
2 Tbsp = 9 grams
Nutritional yeast has helped many newbie vegans make the transition away from dairy, due to its exceptionally cheesy flavor. It’s not like traditional bread yeasts, because nutritional yeast is dehydrated and deactivated. Interestingly, nutritional yeast is a complete protein. However, it’s not a food you can eat in excess. One or two tablespoons is usually all you need in a meal.
8. Peanut Butter
½ cup = 19 grams
Peanut butter, like other nut butters, makes the perfect mid-afternoon protein pick-me-up. As with other incomplete proteins, it requires a bit of help to reach completion. Combine peanut or other nut butters with a grain product to get all the required amino acids. Peanut butter sandwich anyone?
100 grams = 75 grams
Seiten is a traditional alternative developed by Buddhist monks, but often left on the sidelines by the gluten-free movement. It is a perfectly textured meat alternative, but It is not a complete protein on its own. When simmered in soy sauce, which provides the missing amino acid lysine, it not only tastes great, it suddenly completes.
½ cup cooked = 3 grams
Popeye ate tons of spinach for a reason; it’s packed full of protein. Unfortunately for Popeye, he may not have realized it is incomplete by itself. But good news for vegans, spinach is one of the most widely valued vegetables in the grocery store. Part of its charm is its usefulness in all types of meals. Toss a handful in your tofu scramble, add some to a smoothie, layer up a sandwich, and don’t forget to stir some into your dinner. When combined with other foods, such as nuts or beans, spinach is a complete vegan protein source.
There are more than a few ways to enrich a vegan diet with healthy and complete sources of protein. Vegans (and often vegetarians) have to get creative in the kitchen sometimes. Planning a well-balanced meal takes a bit of practice and nutritional understanding. Fortunately, there are always inventive ways to combine what otherwise would be simple protein foods into a perfectly balanced plate.