Protein is always seems to be one of the most talked about matters in veganism. Many people question how vegan and vegetarians can manage to get enough protein if we aren’t eating animal sources. Honestly, it’s a great question, and it’s something that even I struggle with sometimes.
Today is the second portion of my new series, Nutrition 101. The first part of the series focused on carbohydrates, and today I will give you in depth information about protein, and will give you some great vegan options for protein. It doesn’t have to be all tofu all the time, if you haven’t noticed in my recipes by now!
What is protein?
Protein is what your body is mostly comprised of, along with water and fat. It is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of everything in your body. The building blocks recombine to be made into whatever it is that your body is in need of at that point in time.
What happens to protein in my body?
Most of protein digestion occurs in the stomach. It is broken down by stomach’s hydrochloric acid, as well as by a special enzyme called pepsin. Pepsin acts by breaking long chains of amino acids into shorter chains and into individual amino acids.
After entering the small intestine, enzymes called proteases continue to break down the amino acid chains into smaller and smaller chains until they are virtually all single amino acids. In amino acid form, they enter the blood, where they are used to synthesize new compounds needed in the body or are used for energy.
Complete proteins vs. Incomplete proteins
One concern of critics of a meatless diet is that most vegan protein sources are not complete proteins. A complete protein is a source of protein that contains all the amino acids in the correct amounts needed to synthesize new compounds in the human body. Incomplete proteins are either missing essential amino acids, or do not have the correct amounts needed to make new compounds.
There are, in fact, quite a few plant foods that are complete proteins. Quinoa, soy beans and soy products, buckwheat, amaranth, spirulina, and hemp seeds are all great examples of vegan foods with complete protein.
It is also easy to combine foods throughout your day, in order to get your necessary amino acids. You don’t need to eat these foods at the same meal. Just about every plant food you eat is a source of protein aka amino acids. By eating a variety of whole plant foods throughout the day, you should not have a problem meeting your protein needs.
What are the best sources of protein?
Legumes (about 15g protein per cup)
- black beans
- cannilleni beans
- garbanzo beans aka chickpeas
- kidney beans
- lima beans
- pinto beans
Soy products (about 30g protein per cup)
- edamame (soy beans)
- tofu (closer to 40 g per cup)
Nuts (also nut butters)(4-9g protein per 1/4 cup)
- Brazil nuts
- macadamia nuts
- pine nuts
Seeds (about 8g protein per 2-3T)
- chia seeds
- flax seeds
- hemp seeds
- pumpkin seeds
- sesame seeds (including tahini)
- sunflower seeds
Whole Grains (4-18g per cup)
- brown rice
- wild rice
Even vegetables have a couple of grams of protein per cup.
How much protein should I be eating?
You should be eating about 2/3 your body weight in kilogram, in grams of protein each day. In other words, if X = your weight in pounds, then X lbs x 0.45 kg/lb x 0.66 g/kg = Y grams of protein each day. If you weight 120lbs, then 120 lbs x 0.45 kg.lb x 0.66 g/kg = about 36 grams per day.
If you don’t want to break it down by numbers, then just remember that about 15% of your daily calories should come from protein.
Either way, if you eat a variety of whole foods, you shouldn’t have any problem reaching your protein needs. If you are sick or injured, consider adding a bit more protein to your diet. It will help you recover more quickly.