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One of the biggest misconceptions is that it's hard to get enough vegan protein to sustain a healthy body weight and energy levels.
Anyone who's been a vegan for more than a few weeks realizes that a well-balanced vegan diet provides you with amazing energy levels, recovery times from exercising, and stamina in all activity.
If you're a new vegan and aren't feeling energetic, or if you are considering becoming vegan and want to make sure your new diet will be healthful, there are some easy tips you can follow.
The reason we hear the "how do you get your protein" question so much is because in common nutrition knowledge, we always talk about complete proteins. When nutritionists release lists of complete proteins, it leaves out the rest of the story about protein intake and confuses people into thinking that only complete proteins are good sources of protein.
Each protein compound is made up of 20 amino acids, and animals (and humans) can only make 11 of those amino acids on their own, so they need to get the other 9 "essential" amino acids from their diet.
A complete protein is a protein source that has a good proportion of those 9 essential amino acids. Simple enough?
In case you're wondering, the human essential amino acids include isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine, and histidine.
Typically, any protein that comes from animals, including meat, dairy, eggs, and fish, is a complete protein. This might seem like a great case against the vegan diet, but the problem is that animal protein is highly acidic and causes illnesses within your body.
There are also many good plant-based sources of complete vegan proteins, including soybeans, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, hempseed, salvia, and spirulina. Some plant proteins have smaller amounts of one or two of the essential amino acids, and that's why they aren't promoted as often as the animal proteins.
When Frances Moore Lappe wrote Diet for a Small Planet in 1985, she announced that vegans needed to combine proteins by matching up foods according to which essential amino acids they had and which other foods had. Her book is absolutely fantastic except for this one part, which freaked out a lot of potential and current vegetarians.
The interesting thing about her theory is that many of the examples she gave are perfectly natural and make nice meals, like beans and rice, peanut butter sandwiches, hummus and pita, all of which make for nice meals anyway. But, the concept of needing to combine proteins at every meal was too intimidating for people.
In a later update of the book, Lappe recanted this statement and said that as long as vegans ate well-balanced diets, they didn't need to combine proteins. Nutritionists and medical scientists agree that protein combining is unnecessary, as long as vegans eat enough calories and get plenty of vegan protein.
By that point, the idea of combining proteins had already scared enough people to keep the myth about vegan protein alive even to this day. It just seemed like too much work to ensure that every meal was perfect, and it truly was more work than anyone needs to do.
As long as you eat a wide variety of grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, you will absolutely get enough vegan protein. The USDA's Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for a non-athlete adult is only 0.8 grams per kilogram (or .36 grams per pound) of body weight.
If you're extremely worried about getting enough protein in your diet, you can keep track of your daily protein intake and calculate your body weight in pounds by 0.36 to ensure you're eating the RDA recommended protein intake.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding you will need to increase your protein intake, and the same is true if you are an athlete. The easiest way to add more protein is to increase how much food you are eating overall.
If you get far enough in your discussion of vegan protein, eventually someone is going to ask you if you eat a lot of soy, and they'll probably tack on a, "doesn't soy give you breast cancer?"
I usually tell people that many vegans actually eat less soy than non-vegans, especially if the vegan is somewhat health-conscious.
Soy makes inexpensive filler and can be broken down into minute parts, so it tends to be in just about everything, especially convenience foods.
If you're a regular person who eats a "normal" diet, you probably eat soy in breads, crackers, cakes, rolls, pastries, cereal, pasta, fruit drinks, fruit mixes, coffee, pork sausage, lunch meat, canned soups, commercial foods, ice cream, hard candy, nut candy, fudge, caramel, margarine, salad dressing, gravy, mayonnaise, sauces, according to childrenshospital.org.
So, even if you don't choose a soy burger for yourself, you get soy from soy flour, soy oil, hydrolyzed soy protein, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, soy protein powder, flavorings, hydrolyzed plant protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, natural flavoring, vegetable broth, vegetable gum, and vegetable starch.
If you choose a natural, plant-based diet and prepare your own meals, the chances of you avoiding soy altogether are much higher than if you eat a standard, typical, normal, average, everyday diet.
If you're a vegan, next time someone asks you if you eat a lot of soy, you can say, "No, but I bet you do!" Just kidding... don't do that. Be a joyful, humble vegan and don't forget that at one point in your life, you didn't know about food either.
There's a huge soy controversy that revolves around the potential health hazards of eating soy. It's confusing because Asian cultures have been eating soy as their fundamental source of protein for thousands of years and have some of the lowest rates of disease of any culture in the world. There are obviously some amazing health benefits of soy.
Yet, every so often an article pops up saying that people should avoid soy. What's the deal?
Most of soy's nasty reputation actually stems from the particles of soy used in the above mentioned food products, not for whole soy products like tofu and tempeh and miso paste, or natto beans, or even high-quality soy sauce.
In general, fermented soy bean products like tempeh, natto, and miso are going to be healthier and full of better vegan protein than unfermented versions.
I highly recommend making sure that any whole soy products you buy were grown organically because soy is often genetically modified, and because genetic modification of food crops was only started in the late 1990s, it's difficult to know the potential health hazards of eating modified foods.
The Vegetarian Resource Group has a really nice, complete list of the amount of protein in different food. I found some protein in places I'd never expect it, like in bagels, spaghetti, potatoes, and even chocolate. Here are a few suggestions from their list:
1 cup tempeh has 41 grams (wow)
3 oz. seitan has 31 grams
1 c. soybeans has 29 grams
1 c. lentils has 18 grams
1 c. black beans has 15 grams
1 c. kidney beans has 13 grams
1 c. chickpeas has 12 grams
1 c. pinto beans has 12 grams
1 c. quinoa has 9 grams
4 oz regular tofu has 9 grams
2 Tbsp peanut butter has 8 grams
1 c. spaghetti has 8 grams (varies by brand)
1/4 c. almonds has 8 grams
1 c. bulgur has 6 grams
1/4 c. sunflower seeds has 6 grams
1/4 c. cashews has 5 grams
2 Tbsp almond butter has 5 grams
1 c. brown rice has 5 grams
1 c. cooked spinach has 5 grams
1 c. cooked broccoli has 4 grams
If you are following a basic vegan food pyramid, you will absolutely get plenty of vegan protein. The food pyramid shows 6+ servings of grains in a day. Each piece of bread, ounce of dry cereal, 1/2 cup of hot cereal is a serving and has about 3 grams of protein.
If you are having the recommended 3+ servings of vegetables a day, each has about 2 grams of protein. A serving of vegetables is about 1 cup raw, 1/2 cup cooked, or 1/2 cup vegetable juice.
Also, if you are eating 3+ servings of legumes, which could be 1/2 cup cooked beans, 4oz. tofu/tempeh, 8 oz. soy milk, 1 oz nuts, you will get anywhere from 4-10 grams of protein per serving.
An average vegan female needs 46-58 grams of protein per day. With this meal plan, I am on the high end of my protein needs. So, without having to eat this same exact meal every day, I know that my eating a balanced diet ensures I will have plenty of protein.
Sample Female Vegan Meal Plan
Here's one of my favorite breakfasts:
2 pieces of whole wheat toast -- 5 grams of protein
1 tbsp freshly ground peanut butter -- 4 grams of protein
2 tsps ground flax -- 1 gram of protein
1 banana -- actually has 1 gram!
(11 grams of protein just at breakfast!)
Here's one lunch I love:
1/2 cup Black beans -- 7.5 grams of protein
1 cup Brown rice -- 5 grams of protein
(12.5 grams of protein in this lunch)
I love to snack:
6 oz. soy yogurt -- 6 grams of protein
2 tbsp almonds -- 4 grams of protein
(10 grams of protein in my snack)
For dinner I enjoy:
1/2 cup cooked lentils -- 9 grams of protein
1 cup cooked bulgur -- 6 grams of protein
(15 grams of protein in dinner)
TOTAL 48.5 grams
Sample Male Vegan Meal Plan
An average vegan male needs anywhere from 56-70 grams of protein each day.
1 cup Oatmeal -- 6 grams of protein
1 cup Soymilk -- 7 grams of protein
2 tbsp almonds -- 4 grams of protein
2 tsps ground flax seeds -- 1 gram of protein
(18 grams of protein at breakfast)
2 slices Whole Wheat Bread -- 5 grams of protein
1 Veggie Burger -- 13 grams of protein
(18 grams of protein at lunch)
2 Tbsp Peanut Butter -- 8 grams of protein
6 Crackers -- 2 grams of protein (varies by brand)
3 oz. chocolate -- 3 grams of protein (he loves his chocolate!)
(13 grams of protein at snack)
5 oz firm tofu -- 11 grams of protein
1 cup quinoa -- 9 grams of protein
1 cup broccoli -- 4 grams of protein
(24 grams of protein for dinner)
TOTAL 73 grams of vegan protein
While worries about vegan protein are understandable, as you can see, they are totally unnecessary. Make sure to eat a well-balanced, varied diet full of vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, fruits, and nuts and seeds, and you have nothing to worry about.