Chances are, if you’re vegan, you will get asked about your protein at some point. I almost just feel like it’s a rite of passage. You’re cruising through life, no one cares about your nutrient intake, then BAM – you become plant-based and suddenly everyone is very concerned and expertly knowledgeable about protein. I’m being a little snarky because *eye roll* about the protein question, but there is truth to it. Protein has been one of those tricky topics that vegans can’t seem to shake, and I think a lot of it has to do with two main things: one, generally speaking, people have a preconceived idea of what a ‘vegan’ looks like (lanky, frail, pale, doesn’t wear shoes or deodorant…that’s the gist), and two, we – as a country and a culture – have a distorted idea of what protein is and where we can get it from.
Let’s tackle number one first, because that’s the easiest. Gone are the days of thin, grass-eating vegans (though I’m not really sure that was ever a majority representation anyway). One . More . Time . For . The . People . In . The . Back . Seriously, check out all of those links and see for yourself. Endurance athletes. Bodybuilders. Basketball stars. Football stars. Extreme sports athletes. Olympians. And that’s really just scratching the elite surface. Do any of those people look like they’re lacking in the protein department (would you even be brave enough to ask them)? Truly, the ‘face’ (and body) of veganism has drastically changed over the years, and it’s refreshing to see plant-based folks showing up on a typically ‘mainstream diet’-forward magazine like Muscle and Fitness . And these are just the cream of the crop. I would say that generally speaking, you won’t find many vegans who are super overweight simply because of the types of food we are putting into our bodies, but vegans come in all body shapes and sizes just like any dietary preference. This dated version of an unhealthy plant-fueled body really comes from a misunderstanding of what protein is/does and where we can find it. Which leads us to number two in this post: our confused relationship with protein.
There are a lot of people much smarter than me who have done a lot of work explaining all the science behind protein, why we need it, and how much we need, so we’re not going to spend too much time nerding out about that on here. If this has peaked your interest (I hope it has!) you should absolutely check out this podcast (Dr. Garth Davis is super knowledgeable, and breaks all of this down perfectly. Plus he has a book all about this subject if you really want to dive in.) In short sum, ‘Protein is one of the three macronutrients needed by our bodies. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. Our bodies need each of these in large amounts for growth, metabolism, and for other body functions.’ Protein is kind of like a house. When we eat foods that contain it, it gets broken down into blocks that then get sorted and stored according to where they’re needed and what amino acid(s) they’re comprised of. You may be familiar with the terms ‘complete proteins’ and ‘incomplete proteins’; complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids on their own (this is key because our bodies can’t produce them, so we rely on the protein we eat). Incomplete proteins are also important as we don’t always need to eat a complete source at every meal since our bodies are capable of storing amino acids.**
So why is protein more popular than Jon Snow ? Well, because it’s actually pretty important. Our entire body relies on this part (and the other two parts, maybe we’ll cover those another time) of the nutrient trifecta (this includes cells, organs, muscle tissue, bones, etc). Going back to that whole house analogy, you can look at protein as a large part of the foundation. You probably don’t need as much of it as you think you do (most of the athletes/bodybuilders out there don’t even closely track their protein intake and protein deficiency in our country is almost non-existent), but it’s an essential part of your makeup.
I wouldn’t bring you this far without loading you up with the nitty gritty food details. You can find protein in so many plant-based foods. For real, it’s everywhere. But here’s a little breakdown (I noted which ones are ‘complete’ proteins all on their own):
- Tempeh – 16g/3 oz (a little over 0.3 C) (complete)
- Hemp seeds – 13g/3 T (complete)
- Tofu – 10g/0.5 C (complete)
- Quinoa – 8g/C (complete)
- Brown rice + black beans – 7g/1 C (complete)
- Chia seeds – 5g/2 T (complete)
- Spirulina – 4g/1 T (complete)
- Seitan – 20g/0.3 C
- Lentils – 9g/0.5C
- Edamame – 9g/0.5 C
- Nutritional yeast – 9g/2 T
…should we keep going? Ok, cool.
- Peas – 8g/C
- Pumpkin seeds – 8g/0.25 C
- Black eyed peas – 8g/0.5 C
- Peanut butter – 8g/2 T
- Almonds – 7g/C (or 2 T almond butter)
- Chickpeas – 7g/1/2 C
- Whole wheat bread – 7g/2 slices
- Oats – 6g/C
- Spinach – 5g/C
- Broccoli – 4g/C
- Plant-based protein powder – varies, but usually in the 15-20something g/serving (I like this one , this one , and this one ).
So there you have it, a relatively short list compared to the extensive amount of plant-based protein-rich foods that exist. And all without the added cholesterol, elevated risk of heart disease, IGF-1, or lower fiber intake found in animal protein.*
Happy to shed some light on this question that seems to be sticking around (for now). Drop me a note with any additional thoughts!
Now go eat some peanut butter toast and Google more plant-based bodybuilders (very productive). 😉
(Important note: I’m not a doctor, expert, or guru. But I do have my own personal experience and I know how to research, so I like to share what I learn. Obviously do your own reading and digging, and consult the necessary professionals if you see fit! :))