Our Sports Nutritionist Specialist Elissa shares some insights into vegan protein goodness.
No doubt you’ve heard how important it is to eat protein, particularly if you’re training hard in the gym multiple times per week, trying to lose bodyfat or looking to add mass.
Why protein is so important
Protein is the most satiating nutrient of the three macronutrients, and the only one which the body cannot create on it’s own. Protein must come from the diet if we are to repair, grow and potentially build lean muscle tissue. Protein is also essential for the creation of specific digestive enzymes within the body and for the regeneration of specific cells such as those within the intestines and gut.
For fat loss, high protein diets have shown time and time and time again to be superior. Regardless of if you choose a high fat low carb, or a high carb low fat diet, if protein is kept high and calories kept in a deficit – you will drop bodyfat.
Quality and quantity matters
So now that we know that proteins are so important, I’ll wager that if you are vegan you’re probably sick to death of the question “where do you get your protein?”
The creator of this infographic below, probably used it with the intention to retaliate and show that all foods contribute some amount of protein to the diet,including plant matter.
Sadly, infographics like this one are terribly misinformed and confusing.
Plant matter DOES contain protein, but quality and quantity is harder to come by.
Although you can get enough protein from plant based foods and you don’t “have to” use animal products as your protein, there’s a few things we have to consider.
1. Protein quality
Protein sources from vegetable and plant matter are inferior to proteins from meat products when it comes to changing your body composition, maximizing muscle protein synthesis and getting high quality amino acids for recovery and repair. All meat products contain essential amino acids (in particular, leucine, which is required to be present within the plasma of our blood for muscle protein synthesis to occur) whereas plant based proteins may be missing some key amino acids.
Protein should be spread out evenly throughout each meal in order to maximise muscle protein synthesis and to prevent a loss of muscle tissue, particularly when dieting. So if we assume that you are a 60kg vegan female, and an 80kg vegan male, here’s how much of each of the pictured “protein sources” you’d need to eat in a single meal to get sufficient protein, keeping in mind your protein intake needs to be slightly higher again than if you were to eat an animal based protein source.
2. Protein quantity
Because of the fact that some plant based foods do not contain essential amino acids or enough quantities of aminos to contribute to muscle protein synthesis which means that we both a) need more of them to fully stimulate the repletion and growth of muscle or b) we need to combine them to ensure that essential amino acids are present within a meal.
For the average gym goer, training with resistance, training heavy and seeking to optimise muscle tissue – we need 1.6g per kg of protein at a minimum (more advanced trainees need less) and for those in a calorie deficit, anywhere up to 2.2g per kg is needed.
At least 20g of a complete protein source will promote MPS, however this would not be the optimal dose if using a plant based protein. If you only eat plant based proteins you need to eat more protein to enable the leucine content to stimulate MPS. Therefore, adding supplemental essential amino acids would be advantageous to vegan dieters on lower calorie intakes.
Please don’t get your nutrition information from infographics
Sadly, most of these so called “protein sources” pictured are inferior and the amount of fats and or carbs they provide with their insufficient amino profile makes them truly TERRIBLE sources of protein.
This is how much you’d need to eat to get 25g of protein from some of these foods:
Peanut butter: 6 tablespoons, also yielding 700 calories and 60g of fat
Almonds: 130g, also yielding 770 calories and 70g worth of fat
Wholegrain bread: 8 slices, also yielding 130g of carbs
Potatoes: you’d only need to eat 3/4 of a kg of cooked potato! Plus 130g of carbs with it…
Spinach: just 30 cups of fresh spinach leaves will get you enough protein, bam!
Oats: Just 1/4 of a kilo of raw oats! Plus an extra 140g carbs.
If you were a highly active vegan male, weighing 80kg or more, getting your protein from these plant based sources would be a full time job.
You’d have to eat 4,000 calories, 165g of fat and 430g of carbs just to get 160g of protein.
There is a better way
Some protein sources on this list aren’t actually too bad, and they do FAR BETTER for your goals namely tofu (220g gets you 26g of a whole protein source with only 15g fat), 2 cups of cooked lentils or beans and believe it or not, but things like broccoli yield about 15g per 2 cooked cups. PRANA ON do an INCREDIBLE plant based protein powder which is a complete protein with 30g per serve.
Much better than eating 30 cups of spinach for lunch, wouldn’t you say!?
Get better results
If you base your choices on those I’ve suggested above, and use them as the foundations of your meals whilst also mixing them with small amounts of other sources (such a those in this picture), you can get your total protein intake up MUCH higher without having to eat from morning until night.
You CAN do it with plant based proteins, just do it smarter.
Don’t get your nutrition advice from pictures of peanut butter, please….
If you are a vegan and you want help with your nutrition, get in touch! I’ll be at The Fit Project every second Thursday to answer your questions, talk nutrition plans and guide you through some steps you can take towards improving your eating habits.
Elissa is a strength coach and sports nutrition specialist with nearly a decade of experience in coaching.
Starting out her fitness career with bodybuilding, and in her personal experiences in disordered eating and body dysmorphia, she realised that a focus on body image, aesthetics and leanness leads to some very shallow and unsustainable paths.