First things first: let’s start by busting the myth that you need meat to get enough protein in your diet. Lean protein from animals is a great source of the necessary macronutrient, but there are a slew of plant protein sources out there. And they work for anyone—vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters alike.
We already know that a plant-based diet comes with a number of health benefits. It may help protect against heart and kidney disease. It may help also keep diabetes and hypertension at bay by lowering blood glucose and pressure. And, fortunately, you can gain all of the benefits of a plant-based diet and still get enough protein. If you know how.
We tapped registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto and board-certified sports dietetics specialist Kim Feeney to talk all things vegan protein sources. Read on to learn more about how plant-based nutrition can benefit your body and workouts.
What makes plant protein different?
“The primary difference between animal and plant proteins is their amino acid profiles,” explains Rissetto. “Animal-based proteins are more similar to human proteins and are used more readily and rapidly than plant proteins.” While the process may be slightly slower, our bodies can still receive the protein they need from plant-based proteins if meat is not a part of our dietary choices.
Don’t worry, plant proteins do still have amino acids. “We need to eat foods that supply us with the nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t make on their own,” says Rissetto. Some plant-based foods, such as quinoa, buckwheat, soy, chia, and hemp seed, have them all. But others don’t. “Most grains, nuts, and seeds are missing lysine and most legumes do not have methionine,” says Feeney. “So, consuming a complete plant protein or having legumes in addition to grains, nuts, and seeds can ensure adequate essential amino acid intake.”
What can I eat for plant protein?
There are many natural whole food options jam-packed with proteins. The key to a balanced diet featuring plant proteins is choosing those that have the most bang for your buck, something with at least eight grams of protein per serving with moderate fat, explains Rissetto.
The best plant protein sources are probably already staples in your kitchen.
“When I’m looking for a good protein source, I want nutrient density. Legumes are great but seeds and other grains can also work well. Amaranth has nine grams of protein for every one cup. Chickpeas have 14 grams per cup and pumpkin seeds have 10 grams for a quarter-cup,” she says.
If you’re looking for a protein-packed breakfast before you start the day, Rissetto suggests making a porridge from amaranth. “I heat up some almond milk and cook the amaranth in it then add two tablespoons of PB2 and a half cup of fresh raspberries. It’s an amazing fall breakfast with about 16 grams of protein which will keep you full until your mid-morning snack.”
Nuts are a major source of protein. One ounce of almonds contains about six grams of protein, for example. But keep the fat content in mind. So, you might not want to make a full meal out of them.
“Remember nuts have fat and if you were to eat enough almonds to give you a decent amount of protein for a meal you’d exceed your intake of fat for that meal. If you ate a full cup of almonds, you’d get a necessary 20 grams of protein. But you’d also ingest 45 grams of fat, which would be about 69% of your recommended daily allowance.
That said, nuts make an excellent high-protein and high-fat snack.
If you’re relying on a plant protein powder or supplement, Rissetto suggests pea, hemp, soy, or rice powders, ideally in blends. “Many single plant-based varieties aren’t complete proteins, consuming a blended plant-protein powder (like one that contains both pea and rice, along with a variety of sprouts) will ensure you’re getting more amino acids and thus the most bang for your buck,” she says.
When meal planning keep food pairs in mind that combine amino acids to make up the total nine you need. Some examples are:
– Rice and beans
– Hummus and pita
– Pasta and lentil-based sauce
Am I missing out on any important nutrients?
Plant-based proteins don’t typically contain Vitamin B-12. But before you start a supplement regime, consider that B12 is added to many foods now, says Feeney. “Easy sources of vitamin B12 include some nutritional yeasts, fortified cereals, and non-dairy milks,” she says. If you’re worried about a B12 deficiency, talk to your doctor about what supplement options work best for you.
What about the lack of omega-3 fatty acids? If you follow a strict plant-based or vegan diet, you wouldn’t consume a fish oil supplement. But there are ways to still get the levels you need. Walnuts, flax, canola, and hemp seeds and oils are great options, according to Feeney. “Although the omega-3s found in these foods are not the same as those found in fish oil, we can interconvert them within our bodies,” she explains.
Iron and Others
As far as other deficiencies go, if you’re eating mindfully, you don’t need to worry. “A vegetarian or vegan diet made up of whole, unprocessed foods can provide adequate volumes of most nutrients,” assures Feeney. Iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D can be harder to eat in adequate amounts on a plant-based diet but don’t necessarily require supplementation. “Most nondairy milk is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Most beans and grains have zinc. Look for iron in leafy greens, fortified cereals, and some other vegetables.”
Since the form of iron found in plants is not absorbed as well as that found in meat, vegetarians or vegans may need 1.3 to 1.8 times more iron a day than someone eating meat, adds Feeney. So, a source of vitamin C, such as tomatoes or citrus fruits, can help with iron absorption.
Can eating plant-based proteins help me reach my fitness goals?
If you’re focused on strength training, Feeney suggests you aim for 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Those focused on endurance should aim for 0.5 to 0.6 grams. Mixed-sport athletes can shoot for a value in the middle. “We do not have a good storage system for protein so anything beyond that volume will either get turned into fat or metabolized in place of carbohydrate based on the body’s needs,” she explains.
“The best plant-based food for our muscles are beans as they’re higher in leucine than most other plant-based proteins,” explains Feeney. “Leucine is an amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis, making it important for those exercising. Ingesting two to three grams of leucine multiple times a day can help maximize its role in muscle building.” You can get that from a cup and a half of most beans or lentils or one cup of most nuts.
That said, most vegetarians and vegans don’t need more protein than a meat-eating athlete, says Feeney. So, as long as you’re making smart, mindful decisions about your meals, you should be fine.
If you have any doubts or worries, talk to your doctor about the best options for you.