Being vegan doesn’t mean that you lose out on protein – just ask vegan bodybuilders and athletes. The topic was even tackled in a recent Netflix documentary, The Gamechangers, in which host James Wilks travelled the world to show that a plant-based diet can elevate an athlete’s performance, and to debunk the myth that humans can’t get strong and fit without animal protein.
There are actually plenty of plant-based protein sources to choose from. Some pack more protein than others, so it’s wise to find out how much protein you need for your lifestyle.
The general rule of thumb is 0.8 grams of protein a day for every kilogram of body weight. So, if you are a female who leads a fairly sedentary lifestyle, you will require 46 grams of protein.
Food scientists are also finding ways to isolate protein from a growing list of plants – everything from peas and soy to hemp. That means those who want to grow lean muscle can do so with plant-based protein powders and bars, rather than those with protein from animals.
The following list of vegan protein sources contains some that are already widely consumed and others that are less well known but becoming increasingly popular. Some of these foods also contain other vitamins and minerals found in animal products, such as calcium, iron and Vitamin B, that are necessary for a healthy body.
Soy products such as tempeh, tofu, edamame and soy milk have become a mainstay of the vegan diet precisely because they are protein-dense. Tofu, for example, contains 8 grams of protein per 100 grams, while tempeh contains 19 grams.
Edamame, which uses the young soybean plant, contains 11 grams of protein per 100 grams. Soy milk has 3.3 grams of protein per 100 grams.
Tofu and tempeh are also easy to cook and suit a large variety of dishes, including soups, salads, stir-fries and curries. Due to its high protein content, soy protein is commonly used in veggie meats and mock meats.
Beans are another protein-rich food that is versatile to cook and can be eaten in many ways. Chickpeas can be ground up to make hummus or falafel, while kidney beans and lentils can be sprinkled onto salads or boiled in soups. They go well with rice, flatbreads, curries and casseroles, and are great stews.
Some beans are as protein-rich as soy products. 100 grams of lentils, for instance, contains 9 grams of protein, while 100 grams of chickpeas contain 19 grams of protein.
Beans are also very high in fibre, which means they are great for your body but are also known to cause flatulence in some people. Passing gas is only human, so don’t let a couple of noisy and/or stinky farts stop you from consuming beans.
A 100-gram bag of peanuts contains 21 grams of protein, while just 20 almonds give you about 6 grams of protein. Nuts are also a good source of healthy fats. Nut butter is thus high in protein but be careful of store-bought versions, as many of them contain lots of sugar and preservatives. If this is of concern, you can opt for small-batch nut butters that use only salt for flavouring.
Spirulina is a type of algae that’s incredibly rich in protein – 100 grams of the stuff contains 75 grams of protein. Spirulina usually comes in capsules, tablets and powders. Be warned that spirulina tastes horrible when eaten on its own. Add it to banana smoothies or granola to balance out the grass-like taste.
Seitan is made from wheat gluten – that is, wheat flour dough that’s washed to remove the starch. The gluten’s stiff structure makes it great for mock meats, and it’s often added to vegetable broth and stock to give it flavour. At 75 grams of protein per 100 grams of seitan, it has significantly more protein than tofu, beans or nuts but is also highly processed. Because it’s pure gluten, seitan is also not suitable for those with coeliac disease.
Quinoa contains 14 grams of protein per 100 grams. Unlike other seeds, quinoa’s beady texture means it can be eaten like a grain. So if you are on a low-carbohydrate diet, you can eat quinoa with stews and soups or have it in your salad. Not only will you have a tasty meal, but you’ll also be consuming a significant chunk of protein.
Chia seeds have about 17 grams of protein per 100 grams. It also contains other beneficial minerals and fatty acids such as calcium and Omega 3 – for example, the gel-like substance that forms around the seed when water is added is high in soluble fibre. While they may be high in protein, chia seeds have to be eaten with other foods. You can add them into smoothies, or sprinkle them on biscuits, bread or cereal.
It can be laborious to look up the protein levels of each vegan protein source and try to incorporate them into your cooking. But before you give in and cook up a chicken breast, you might want to consider protein shakes with plant-based protein powder as a convenient shortcut.
One scoop of plant-based protein powder has 18 to 20 grams of protein, so two scoops and you will have almost hit your daily protein goal (if you are a sedentary female). Add in chia seeds, nuts, oats (which are also high in protein) and you will almost certainly have consumed enough protein for the day.
Vegan diets are also often lacking in several other vitamins and minerals that are found in meat and dairy products, such as Vitamin B-12, calcium and iron. So if you decide to include vegan protein in your meals, make sure you are getting enough of these important nutrients as well, through either supplements or other types of plant-based foods.