Getting enough Protein as a Vegan: Apparently we're still debating this.
I really wanted to push this message out, as I feel that it's one of the areas that a lot of new vegans really struggle with. It really depends on your lifestyle, but since a lot of people try veganism to improve their overall health and improve the way they look, it’s going to be something that you take a look at, and wonder, just ‘how do I get my protein?’ Did you consider that on a traditional western diet? Probably not!
But since you’ve now started to question it, you’re much more likely to take your health more seriously, and that’s one of the best things about being vegan.
So, where do we get our protein?
Well, it’s been hard to come by and has taken a lot of research, but on average, it looks like vegan athletes consume a diet that is broken down like so:
Vegan athletes diet:
Carbs - 65%
Protein - 20%
Fat - 15%
Doesn’t that look pretty normal? Well, it’s certainly not out of the ordinary, or extreme.
Let’s talk about an olympic weightlifter who is 100% vegan. He can clean-and-jerk 209kg. That’s a record in the 94kg men’s category, so it stands that he’s an incredibly dedicated athlete, and his diet clearly doesn’t affect him in building strength.
So what does he eat?
According to his wife, a lot of oats and vegan pancakes in the morning. Protein shake as a midday snack. Black bean crisps with guacamole and quesadillas. Then more quesadillas for dinner.
Other than a love affair for quesadillas, the protein content in there has to be between 70-120g per day, depending on portion sizes.
So if Kendrick can consume this much, why are we all advised to consume approximately 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight? For Justin and myself that would mean that we should consume 165g of protein each day. Does it make sense?
Well, many arguments get knocked around the internet on various blogs that suggest we can only absorb 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. But is this necessarily true?
The Science of Protein Absorption
Protein is made up of amino acids, and there are 9 essential amino acids that our body doesn't produce, so it's important that we know how to get a sufficient supply of each one:
The digestion of all these branched amino acids begins in the stomach, where the stomach secretes something called pepsinogen, which once secreted will convert to pepsin. Pepsin hydrolysis peptide bonds which break the amino acid bonds.
Now, we could go off on a scientific frenzy here, but since you’re just concerned with the amount of protein vegans consume, let’s stay on that topic.
To understand if there is a limit on the amount of protein absorption per meal, then you need to look at the protein synthesis and protein breakdown. Synthesis is consumption and the breakdown concerns the use of protein. Simple right? Well, have you ever had a friend of yours tell you that it’s good to have a balanced diet? While this is incredibly vague, it has some validity when it comes to the synthesis of protein.
Consuming a whole meal can drastically improve protein absorption. Let me explain. When you consume fats and protein together then this releases a hormone called cholecystokinin, which rapidly slows down gastric emptying, which gives your digestive tract more time to absorb all the nutrients. Then with the presence of carbohydrates, insulin levels are likely to rise, which drives energy fueling, but also signals for protein synthesis and inhibits protein breakdown, shifting the body into a complete anabolic state that’s optimum for muscle growth.
So, does it make sense now? Consuming protein on a vegan diet through the methodology of getting fats and carbohydrates as well is showing the sources to be quite favourable. Because below, I’m going to highlight some complete vegan protein sources that also have a decent balance of fat and carbohydrates.
Complete Vegan Protein Sources
Amount of Protein
8g per 1 cup
10g per ½ cup
15g per ½ cup
Rice and Beans
7g per 1 cup
21g per ⅓ cup
Hummus and Pita bread
7g per piece of whole wheat pitta bread
Peanut Butter on Toast
15g per slice of toast
Chia Seeds with seeds/cashew nuts
4.7g per oz
What’s so great about these complete sources of protein is that they have such a wide variety of other micronutrients as well as a great balance of Carb/Fats/Protein. So the absorption and breakdown is going to be optimum for building lean muscle.
How can we claim that? If it’s good enough for an athlete to consume a vegan diet consuming between 70-120g of protein per day and clean-and-jerk 209kg then it’s good enough for you!
Calories and protein - The Misconception
When people typically switch to a vegan diet, if they’re sticking to whole foods, it’s really quite easy to lose weight being mindful. Consume a lot of water, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep and it’ll be pretty easy. But when a lot of people switch over to a vegan diet, they eat a lot less and as a result, come to the conclusion that they aren’t getting enough protein?
Firstly, most people end up eating a lot less due to literally doubling their fibre intake overnight. It’s very clear that a vegan diet packs a tonne of fibre due to the number of foods that contain soluble fibre which slows down digestion and makes us feel fuller for longer. This is not a problem if you’re looking to lose weight, but if you’re trying to sustain muscle, or gain, then it’s important to have a good balance of insoluble and soluble fibre so that you don’t always feel full.
Secondly, it’s highly unlikely that you’re deficient in protein. To this date, no one has died from a protein deficiency. No one. But a lack of calories is a cause, and this is unfortunately what’s likely to be happening when you’re making the switch.
When vegans don't consume enough calories, they're deficient in almost everything and so instead of actually realising this, believe that they're feeling awful because of the whole foods plant based diet as a whole. But it's just not the case.
Here’s what we eat in a typical day:
Porridge with banana, milled linseeds and chia seeds
(650 calories, 96g carbohydrates, 18g fat, 27g protein)
(432 calories, 71g carbohydrates, 9g fat, 21g protein)
Peanut butter on toast for a snack
(268 calories, 23g carbohydrates, 17g fat, 10g protein)
Red Thai Tofu Curry
(1,021 calories, 96g carbohydrates, 32g fat, 42g protein)
268g carbohydrates (58%)
76g fat (24%)
100g protein (18%)
Does that really sound like protein deficiency? No doubt, some may say that it’s not enough. But if it’s enough for someone like Kendrick Farris, who are we to question that when he can achieve on a whole foods plant based diet.
No matter what your goals are, you're likely to need your muscles to stay strong and fed and avoid atrophy. If you're a vegan who currently has this problem, or you’re considering changing your diet, but you're concerned that you're not going to get enough protein, then I really hope this post has helped you to have a different outlook on protein, and also understand more about a vegan diet.
Remember, it may just be that you need to eat more, and who wouldn’t want to do that?