What’s the deal with protein anyway? It’s a buzz word in fitness gyms and amongst body builders, it’s readily available in meat and it’s also something a lot of vegans do not get enough of. Protein is a macronutrient, along with fats and carbohydrates. Its main function is to provide the structural components necessary for growth and repair of tissues. When protein is broken down or digested, it creates 20 amino acids. Our body creates 11 of these amino acids naturally while 9 are essential, which means it must be acquired by external sources.
Animal Protein vs Plant Protein
These amino acids are the building blocks of life and they must all be available in the body in order for protein to perform its many functions. A complete protein is when 20 amino acids are readily available, as it is in meat and dairy foods. An incomplete protein is when a particular food like a bean or legume, only has a few amino acids but not all. This is the main difference between animal protein vs plant protein; its complete and incomplete nature. There are only a few vegan sources that contain a complete protein, like Quinoa and Spirulina. The great part is, there are ways vegans can still get sufficient and complete protein intake. If a vegan is unaware of these ways, then protein deficiency may occur. This can lead to rapid weight loss and muscle wasting, stunted growth and even skin and hair problems.
In this article we will discuss complete protein sources for vegans and what else we can eat to ensure that our protein intake is maintained.
The Role of Protein in the Body
Proteins are the most complex macronutrient. They make up most of our body weight after water and are the primary importance in the growth and development of all body tissues. Protein is the major source of building material for the blood, nails, hair, muscles and internal organs, including the heart and the brain. Protein is needed for the formation of hormones which controls our growth, sexual development and rate of metabolism. Enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down the food we eat, is also made up of protein. This is very important as a lack of enzymes in the body can result in incomplete digestion and further cause nutrient absorption problems.
How to Create a Complete Protein
As mentioned earlier, eating a cup of beans won’t yield a complete protein. The rule of thumb that every vegan should be aware of, is to always combine a legume and grain or legume with nuts/seeds, when preparing meals; especially if a complete protein is not present. This combination not only provides whole food variety, but ensure that all 20 amino acids are being consumed and protein levels stay up to par. Examples of this combination include:
- Kidney Beans + Brown Rice
- Peanut Butter + Whole Grain Bread
- Lentil Soup + Slivered Almonds
These are just a few options of vegan protein sources but get creative! Try out different combinations of high protein plant foods to your liking with this rule of protein completion in mind.
Best vegan protein sources
This beautiful legume is one of my favorites. They come in green, brown, black and red colors, each offering a slightly different taste. They must be cooked and can be enjoyed in burgers, as a side or the main dish in a vegan meal. Lentils do not contain all 9 essential amino acids and must be combined with a whole grain, but still offers up to 50g of protein per cup, depending on the color.
Quinoa is a whole grain and is cooked much like rice. It can be enjoyed warm with a hot meal or cold and used as the base for a salad. Quinoa is a high protein vegan food, containing all 20 amino acids, it is complete and does not need to be combined with any other whole food. 1 cup of cooked Quinoa provides 8g of protein and 5g of fiber. A beneficial non meat protein source.
Soybean is another complete protein and is also one of the richest vegan sources of plant protein. Offering 16.6g for every 100g of cooked soybean. In the west, we usually enjoy this sticky bean in the form of Tofu, Tempeh and Miso; which is quite common in Asian dishes. It is also the main ingredient for “mock meat” or non-meat protein that come in the form of chicken, hotdogs and burgers. Soybeans are also high in good fats, fiber and vitamins.
Spirulina is an algae that grows in the fresh water of rivers, lakes and ponds. It is often seen in capsule or powder form, added to smoothies, or taken in capsules as an addition to a detox regimen or vitamin intake. Spirulina is a complete protein and offers a whopping 57g for every 100g serving. Keep in mind that Spirulina has an extremely strong and somewhat overpowering taste. A little goes a long way when using it in powder form.
Goji Berries are tiny red superfruits that originate in Asia. They usually come in powdered or dried form and can be eaten on its own as a snack, or added to your favorite smoothie, cereal, salad, yogurt or oatmeal. They are highly nutritious and contain a plethora of vitamins and minerals. For every 28g of this dried fruit, there is 4g of complete protein available.
Vegan Protein Supplements
I remember being a vegan for 11 years of my life and protein powder being at the forefront of my diet. Let’s face it, there may be days where we are not able to eat the way we’d like and get the right amount of protein we know that we need. This is where protein supplements come in. Always having a plant based protein powder on hand can be a life saver. It eliminates the guessing game for vegans, providing a sense of relief. Noor’s plant protein powder offers 20g of high-quality pea protein per serving, along with superfruits, which offer an array of vitamins and fiber. This vegan protein source offers all 20 amino acids, helping to keep you full longer and also providing fast muscle recovery after workouts.
All in all, protein plays a crucial role in the function of our bodies. From the rate of our metabolism, to digestion and growth. This macronutrient deserves the attention it gets and should always be assessed as vegan, to ensure proper and complete amounts are being consumed. Vegan protein combining, complete protein sources and vegan protein supplements are all efficient ways to get your protein. Always be mindful of deficiency symptoms and keep in the mind that you can be a vegan and still have access to adequate protein sources.