Word Count: 1200 | Time to Read: 6 minutes
I’ll soon be coming up on four and a half years of veganism. That’s 54 months worth of eating nothing but plants, plants, plants. (In total, I have avoided eating nearly 1,000 animals in that timespan.)
In those four years, the question that I’ve fielded most deals with my consumption of protein. Specifically, how do I get enough of it?
Whether a result of misinformed parents or misguided information perpetuated by governments, it’s a deeply-rooted idea in Western society that a plant-based diet cannot provide the required nutrients, namely protein, that an omnivorous diet otherwise would.
However, recent research has proved this notion to be entirely baseless. Not only do plants supply adequate amounts of protein, one does not even have to ‘combine proteins’ with meals like beans and rice to order to gain a ‘complete’ protein, which contains all nine essential amino acids.
The Internet is currently flush with articles about the best vegan protein sources and how one can most easily get the appropriate amount of protein within 24 hours. But, as is true when you search for anything on the Internet, you’re going to get a lot of misinformation.
There’s a somewhat misleading statistic I’m fond of:
- For every 100 calories of beef, you consume about 5-6 grams of protein
- For every 100 calories of broccoli, you consume about 9-11 grams of protein
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Swap your steak for some skewers of broccoli and you’re set.
Keep in mind, however, that broccoli is by no means a caloric food. To consume 100 calories worth, you’d have to eat more than three servings of the green flowery plant. While there are undoubtedly benefits to doing so (you also gain large amounts of dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C), most people are down for one serving at most.
Thus, while vegetables are definitely nutritious and can potentially provide protein, they are by no means the end-all when it comes to a plant-based diet.
Before expanding on vegan protein sources, I want to address the topic of protein itself– what exactly is the right amount and how much is too much?
Protein for Dummies
If you don’t already know, I am by no means a certified nutritionist and I’m not going to pretend to be one. I’ll put links to the organizations where the information below is from.
- Based on research by the World Health Organization, one needs about .8 grams of protein for every kilogram of weight. They define the average male1 as needing 56 grams of protein a day while the average female needs 46 grams.
Keep in mind that these figures are often said to be the bare bones minimum for protein consumption, below which one experiences a decrease in muscle mass, the speed of nerve transmission, and the synthesization of blood cells. Not fun.
- Based on a 2011 study by the National Institutes of Health, endurance athletes, using the same ‘average’ measure as above, require about 90-120 grams of protein daily for optimal performance. (That’s 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight.)
- According to bodybuilding.com, which is actually somewhat reputable, the average male bodybuilder needs upwards of 150 grams of protein per day to maintain optimal muscle growth. (2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of weight and above.)
Note that after my experience with bulking, I have many qualms with the ‘sport’ of bodybuilding, which I’ll save for another post.
Protein is the Answer
Granted that over 40% of Americans can be classified as sedentary2, holding down desk jobs and (unfortunately) having few opportunities to exercise on a daily basis, and consume meat two or three times a day3, they are well exceeding the baseline amount for protein consumption. In fact, American adults ages 19-30 years old eat about 91 grams of protein4 on a daily basis, an amount that should be reserved only for true endurance athletes.
While there aren’t any inherent side effects of the overconsumption of protein*, it can be safely assumed that if one is consuming that much protein, they’re probably losing out on vital nutrients that are found in grains, fruits, and vegetables.
* If you suffer from liver or kidney problems, eating too much protein is problematic as those organs are already taxed and must now work to remove excess nitrogen in your system. This can be ameliorated with appropriate hydration, which, if First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Hydrate” campaign is any indication, is something most Americans do not do.
Where’s the Beef?
As I touched on above, it’s a misconception that vegans need to combine certain foods in order to gain a complete protein. In 2003, the American Dietetic Association released a position paper stating that the human body can combine complementary proteins that are consumed at different points in the day.
In effect, one can eat black beans for breakfast and later, brown rice for dinner, and be totally fine in terms of consuming a complete profile of amino acids. Hmm so maybe it’s not that hard for vegetarians and vegans to get protein.
Hear that? It’s the sound of rumors being dispelled.
If you’re still concerned about eating complete proteins, here is a list of plants that contain all nine essential amino acids, ranked according to how much I like them:
- Chia seed
- Hemp seed
- Amaranth (which coincidentally is my nickname at the Greek society I belong to)
Other high protein foods, again ranked in order of my preference include,
- Oatmeal (see my special recipe below)
- Peanut butter
- Nuts (especially almonds and walnuts)
- Beans (my favorite are black beans; once you go black…)
- Brown rice
- Lentils (Mom’s lentil stew mmm)
My Typical Diet
And to give you an idea of how an actual, living, breathing vegan eats, I’ve also included the foods that I normally consume in the span of a day.
- Two big bowls of my famed loaded oatmeal
- Protein shake with pea and brown rice protein powder
Protein content: ~ 50-70 grams
- Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
- Chopped vegetables (usually celery, carrots, tomatoes)
- One to two bowls of spinach
- Handful of nuts (usually almonds and walnuts)
Protein content: ~ 40 grams
My dinner, unlike my breakfast and lunch, usually varies greatly. So, I have instead listed my favorite meals below. With each meal, I will typically have a large salad with spinach or kale, and a host of vegetables. Black olives are a must for me. No dressing.
- Classic beans and rice
- Falafel sandwiches
- Tempeh stir-fry
- Pita pizzas
- Banana and blueberry pancakes with tempeh bacon
- Layered taco salad
Protein content: ~35 grams
So, in a typical day, I have consumed roughly 130 grams of protein, which is just right for me :)
I hope this piece has decreased at least some of the misinformation that pervades society. At least now when you see a vegan or vegetarian, where they get their protein from won’t be a mystery…
1. The ‘average’ man is here defined as weighing 150 lbs (note that the average American male weighs about 190 pounds (CDC)), while the ‘average’ woman weighs 126 lbs (American women weigh, on average, 166 lbs. (ibid))
2. Global physical activity levels: surveillance progress, pitfalls, and prospects. The Lancet. July 2012. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60646-1/abstract
3. How Much Meat do Americans Eat? Wall Street Journal. October 2014. http://blogs.wsj.com/numbers/how-much-meat-do-americans-eat-then-and-now-1792/
4. Current protein intake in America. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. May 2008. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/5/1554S.full