One of the biggest fears for those finding cutting down on meat is that they won’t get enough protein in their diets. With protein so often being cited as essential for fitness goals, keen gym goers are sometimes worried their performance will be effected. But this is not something which should concern anyone according to Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of award-winning vegan restaurant Stem + Glory. We’ve got the truth about vegan protein to help sort the fact from the fiction.
“The truth is, everything we eat has a protein element to it and really, as long as your plant-based diet is varied, it will most likely contain all the protein you need, including the full spectrum of amino acids,” explains Louise. After years of being told chicken breast and steak are your go-to protein sources it might surprise you to learn that almost every food source contains an element of protein – including all vegetables! “Peas, kale, broccoli, mushrooms, asparagus are particularly good protein sources as, of course, are beans, lentils, nuts and seeds,” adds Louise.
Amino acids are the body’s building blocks and play a part in building muscle, hair and skin cells. “There is a lot of talk about getting the full spectrum of amino acids that is generally misunderstood – vegans are lectured about this often too,” says Louise. Animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, which makes them complete proteins, but it is not actually necessary to eat one food that contains everything. “Combining plant foods results in complete protein and gives exactly the same result nutritionally,” Louise adds.
The essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. To give some examples of successful combining, grains are lacking in lysine, beans are high in lysine therefore combining these two foods gives a perfect amino acid balance. Grains and legumes are therefore known as complementary proteins. ‘Rice and beans’ is fairly commonly known as a complete meal. “But lesser known is that nuts and seeds together with legumes are also complementary proteins,” explains Louise. “So, let’s hear it for hummus! This vegan staple is a complete protein – chickpea (legume) and tahini (sesame seed).”
But it turns out it is even easier than you thought to get the right protein balance – you don’t even need to eat your full spectrum of amino acids at the same meal. The liver can store essential amino acids, so as long as you eat a varied, plant-based diet that regularly includes all the aminos, you’ll be getting everything you need. Some plant sources are actually already complete proteins – soy, quinoa, chia, hemp and amaranth – but rather than focus on just those, it is far better to simply eat a combination of vegetables and plant proteins. “Bear in mind that meat eaters and lacto vegetarians eat vegetables, legumes and grains too, so it is kind of irrelevant that their proteins are complete!” adds Louise.
We also don’t need as much protein as you might think, most people eat almost double the recommended amounts and there is evidence that eating too much protein is actually detrimental to health and wellbeing. Men should get 56 grams and women need 46 grams of protein daily.
An average pork chop contains approximately 20g of protein. This is exactly the same amount of protein as 1/2 cup tofu, or 1 cup cooked beans. Add your tofu or beans to vegetables, a sprinkling of seeds or nuts and you’ll be up to more than 30g – over half your RDA. In fact, it is actually easy for vegans to eat more than their RDA of protein without even trying. In the course of trying to ‘get enough protein’ many vegans are actually getting more than they need. “I am a firm believer in fresh, tasty plant-based foods with a decent proportion served raw, with a sprinkling of nuts or seeds at every meal is the way forward,” says Louise. “If you like tofu and tempeh then great, if not then beans and lentils are great too. If you don’t like either then you’ll probably get enough from vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.”
While many people think they need to eat lots of protein to lose weight, eating too much protein is actually factor in weight gain. Any surplus turns to fat. Protein deficiency is rarely seen in affluent populations, and generally only seen in populations where all food is scarce as Louise explains, “Simply put, where food is abundant, all people, regardless of their dietary choices, will be getting more than enough protein.”