It is important to have all the right tools and knowledge to be able to get protein on a vegan diet, absorption being key. As a vegan, everywhere I go to lecture on veganism, or every dinner party where I am surrounded by meat-eaters, people ask me this question… So… how do you get your protein? Today, we are going to explore how to get protein on a vegan diet. And I’m not just going to brush you off by saying that protein is not important. Protein is important. Moreover, it is a huge part of many of our body’s functions. I’m going to give you the facts about protein, and how to get protein on a vegan diet. A diet where all of your protein will be coming from plants, and plants alone. Vegans are always protecting themselves from “protein deficiency” arguments. And they are partially right. Protein is not that big of a deal. However, all of those who choose to eat mostly plants must arm themselves with the knowledge of how to get protein on a vegan diet. In addition, vegans should know how to optimize their protein absorption. Because it is not just the intake of protein that matters, it is the absorption. Which is much lower for plant sources. Stay with me, and I’ll show you how. And check out Part 2 of this blog post on Raw Vegan sources of protein here.
Table of Contents
- What are Proteins?
- Do We Need Complete Proteins Only?
- How does your body process, digest, and absorb protein?
- The Reason for Our Obsession with Animal-Sourced protein?
- The Hazards of Animal Protein
- The Positive Side Effects of Plant Protein
- How to Get Protein on a Vegan Diet
- A Note on Protein for Athletes + Protein Powders
- Tips for Increasing Protein Digestion
- Main Takeaways
1. What Are Proteins?
Protein is a building block in the body. Protein abounds in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and other tissues. There are over 10,000 different types of proteins. 22 amino acids make up all proteins. Amino acids link together in different ways. As a result, different proteins are formed. Human babies require 9 essential amino acids, while grown humans require 8. Our bodies do not make the essential amino acids. We get them from food.
2. Do We Need Complete Proteins Only?
In the early 1970’s, Frances Moore Lappé argued for “complete proteins” – meaning eating all 8 essential amino acids in one meal. She retracted this idea 10 years later (see here). However, this misconception still lives on. The myth impacts how humans view plant protein – because few sources of plants contain all 9 amino acids. Unlike Lappé’s original argument, your body can bring together and keep amino acids over the course of a 24 hour period. Therefore, as long as you eat foods that contain all 8 throughout the day, you will get all of the amino acids you need. You don’t need to make sure that each of your meals contains all of the essential amino acids. In sum: unless you are extremely impoverished, and living on a single source of protein like rice, your chances of becoming protein deficient are essentially nonexistent.
3. How does your Body Process, Digest, and Absorb Protein?
While the body has lots of storage space for carbs and fat, it uses protein from food the moment it is eaten. as such, the body either uses protein to build itself, or transforms it back into glucose to be used as energy, or into fat. To do this, the liver strips off nitrogen (which goes into DNA, RNA, or nonessential amino acids). Excess nitrogen can also go into urea or ammonia, and both are excreted in the urine using water. All cells in the body contain protein, and this protein is constantly broken down and remodeled for the growing needs of the body. The different amino acids are constantly mixing and matching to create different proteins that your body needs at that particular point in time. This process starts in the mouth and ends in the small intestine, using digestive juices and enzymes.
4. The Reason for Our Obsession with Animal-Sourced Protein
Humans discovered protein in 1839, and ever since, the obsession began. As Dr. T. Colin Campbell writes, this protein-loving paradigm has shaped much of human nutrition studies. Significantly, animal protein is the focus of this reverence. Through the 27-year long China Study, Dr. Campbell found the most relevant carcinogens are casein, the main protein in dairy, and very likely a majority of other animal based proteins. Animal protein, not saturated fat and cholesterol, are to blame for the big C! Why didn’t we know this earlier, and why do people still not know this? According to Dr. Campbell, It is possible to reduce the intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, without reducing the intake of animal foods. It is possible to leave out some of the fat (such as in skim milk, lean cuts of meat, and other options), yet it is impossible to create animal-protein reduced animals. In other words, we will do everything in our power to keep animal protein in our diet, even though it causes disease. If you are clinging on to animal protein, it is important to ask yourself why that is… is it habit, conditioning, or false beliefs about the supposed health benefits of these foods?
5. The Hazards of Animal Protein
Colin Campbell found unequivocally: “people who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. Even relatively small intakes of animal-based food were associated with adverse effects. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease.” Research links Consumption of animal protein to:
- Various types of cancer, especially when cooked at high temperatures;
- Accelerated aging;
- Inflammatory bowel disease;
- Impaired kidney function and kidney stones;
- Diabetes related blindness;
- Childhood obesity and diabetes in later life;
- Lastly, conditions such as: acne, female infertility, infant sleep apnea, autism, crib death, and premature puberty.
6. The Positive Side Effects of Plant Protein
- Yap, even mainstream literature suggests, “people should consider eating more plant proteins than animal proteins”. A 2016 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that a high intake of protein from plant sources was associated with a lower risk of death, as opposed to animal protein.
- Additionally, plant sources of protein contain enough protein. Excess of vegetable protein is heart protective. It also aids in weight loss and increased ability to treat Parkinson’s disease. (Read more on www.nutritionfacts.org).
- Importantly, while the downsides of animal protein have already been mentioned, plant protein comes with the following positive side effects: antioxidants, fiber, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals.
- For example, 1 ounce of chia seeds has about 137 calories, 72 calories from fat; 0 cholesterol, 10.6 grams of fiber, 4.7g of protein, 18% calcium, 27% phosphorus, 30% manganese, and significant amounts of: Zinc, Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Potassium, Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) and Vitamin B2.
7. How to Get Protein on a Vegan Diet
The current Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is .8 g of protein per body weight in kg (or about 10% of calories from protein). To get protein on a vegan diet, you must consume that amount, in plant form. For example, for me, that means only 48 grams of protein. Woops, I just gave away my weight didn’t I? 😉 As we age, we need a bit more protein. As such, we need to eat foods that supply all of the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make. Some plant foods have all of them at once (like quinoa, buckwheat, soy, chia and hempseed), and others have some. As long as you eat foods like nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, veggies, and legumes, you will get protein on a vegan diet, including all 8 essential amino acids. ALL plant foods contain amino acids, and protein deficiency is basically unheard of in the Western world.
It’s easy and delicious to get all the protein you need on a vegan, whole food plant-based diet. Grab my protein-rich vegan daily meal plan, with more than 90 grams of protein in one day:
8. A Note on Protein for Athletes + Protein Powders
In a recent study, a group of healthy college-aged men with previous training experience did a weight training program. They trained 3 days per week, for 8 weeks. The two groups consumed 48 grams of protein (one group consumed whey, which is animal derived, while the other consumed the same amount of rice protein). After 8 weeks, both gained a similar amount of muscle. If you’re an athlete or bodybuilder who wants to gain more muscle, aim for about 1.3 to 1.9 grams of protein per kg per day. Significantly, this can definitely be attained without taking protein powders, which are processed foods. Check out this extremely informative video about vegan bodybuilding, where Robert Cheeke, one of the original vegan bodybuilders, explains that he no longer takes protein powders.
9. Tips for Increasing Protein Digestion
- It is important to chew protein-rich foods well to increase their surface area and allow quicker digestion
- Additionally, a strong acidic stomach helps the protein digestion process. This is because it unfolds the proteins in food and activates enzymes that split the proteins into smaller molecules. Here are tips on stomach acid:
- Symptoms of low stomach acid include a ton of stuff that can also point to other issues… things like constipation, diarrhea, and undigested food in stool, acid reflux, gas, bloating, belching, skin issues, nutrient deficiencies, and even hair loss, brittle nails, dry skin, adrenal fatigue and autoimmune disease in prolonged cases.
- Furthermore, Stress, consumption of processed food, candida, aging antibiotic use, drinking ice water with meals, and mineral deficiencies all increase the risk for low stomach acid.
- In order to test your stomach acid, you can take the Heidelberg Stomach Acid Test (which is pricy). Alternatively, you can do an at-home baking soda test, which you can find described in detail here.
- To increase your stomach acid, you can consult a specialist about Betaine HCl supplements. Additional, you can add vegan digestive enzymes to your diet (which really helped me increase the strength of my digestion).
- Foods that help increase stomach acid include: lemons and limes, apple cider vinegar (1 tablespoon in a small amount of water before every meal), digestive bitters (a tincture you can purchase in a health food store), papaya, and pineapple. Other things that increase stomach acid include: bitter greens, like dandelion, good gut bacteria through fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented salsa, and miso paste. Drink lots of water, but always before your meal, not during or right after. It is critical to reduce stress to increase stomach acid.
3. While keeping your stomach acidic is important, it is equally as important to keep your intestine neutral. As a result, more protein-digestion enzymes do their work. The absorption cells of your small intestines carry amino acids to your blood. Then they carry them to the different cells in your body.
- One of the best ways to neutralize your body is by eating a lot of leafy greens. I recommend doing this by juicing and making smoothies. I have a great guide on how to add leafy greens to your diet here.
- Proteins are building blocks in the body. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids link in different ways to form different proteins. There are 9 essential amino acids, 1 of which is only essential for babies.
- We can get all the protein we need by consuming all 8 essential amino acids within 24 hours.
- The body does not store protein. It either uses it to build itself, or transforms it into carbs and fats.
- The obsession with animal protein has shaped how we view nutrition in general. According to Dr. Campbell, the link between saturated fat, cholesterol (instead of animal protein) and disease is incorrect. Due to this link, humans could continue to eat animals by just creating low-fat milk and meat, etc. Taking out animal protein from the animal is not possible.
- There is a link between animal protein and many illnesses, according to research. They include cancer, IBS, kidney issues, diabetes, and many more.
- Unlike animal protein, plant protein has only positive side effects. These include antioxidants, fiber, nutrients, and phytochemicals, which are unique to plants and are not present in animals.
- The current RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
- Plant-powered athletes can thrive. They may aim to get a bit more protein – between 1.3 to 1.9 grams per kilogram of body weight.
- Lastly, to increase protein digestion, chew your food well, make sure your stomach acid is very strong, and alkalize your body.
To read part 2, click here. There, I discuss how to avoid protein deficiency on a raw vegan diet. I also provided more amazing tips for absorbing protein better with a few simple food tricks!
- Edward Giovannucci et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2016 DOI:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182
- Campbell, T. Colin, and Thomas Campbell M. The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2005. Print.
- Becoming Raw
Remember, I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. Information presented here is my opinion alone. If you are experiencing any issues, please be sure to consult a licensed professional.
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