Where Do Vegan’s Get Their Protein?

Various vegetarian products, raw tofu, marinated tofu, ground and ball soy protein.
Various vegetarian products, raw tofu, marinated tofu, ground and ball soy protein.

Within 1 week of going vegan you will already be exhausted of this question, friends and family will look at you puzzled and ask “you’re vegan?!”…”but I thought you need protein to build muscle?!”

The immediate assumption is made that because you are vegan you won’t be getting enough protein to build muscle.

SPOILER ALERT: Protein is abundant in every plant based food on the planet 😉

Before we get into the various different protein sources for vegans, it’s important to consider that just because you are vegan, this doesn’t mean that the laws of biology suddenly change for you. I commonly witness people go vegan and jump on the 80/10/10 bandwagon, where 80% of your food is from carbs, 10% from protein and 10% from fats.

There is nothing wrong with this diet setup if general health and well being are your goal, the abundance of carbs from plant sources will ensure that you are getting more than your recommended 5 portions of fruit and/or veg per day and the protein/fat ratios will be enough to serve your body’s minimum requirements to function..

..HOWEVER..

..I am sure you frequent my page because you want to add some lean mass and build muscle right? You don’t just want to “get by” with the bare minimum, you want to give your body the best possible chance of packing on some lean mass and/or losing body fat.

Whilst the 80/10/10 diet is fine for the average Joe, i’m guessing you don’t want to be average and therefore we have to look at the real data to determine what it takes to actually build muscle?

How Much Protein do Vegans Need?

First it depends on your goal

If you’re in a calorie deficit then you should increase your protein intake to reduce the amount of muscle loss. Remember, we never just want to lose weight…we want to lose and target FAT. An increase in protein during a calorie deficit has been shown to prevent muscle loss, aim for 2-3g protein per kg of body weight. [1]

If you are at maintenance calories or surplus, then there is likely no benefit to eating more than 1.4-2g protein per kg of body weight, save your calories for something else. [2]

Protein Timing

Regardless of whether you are vegan or not, if we keep our body in an anabolic environment by maximally stimulating muscle protein synthesis across the day we will build muscle and prevent muscle protein breakdown. Your body goes through a cycle of anabolic (build up) and catabolic (breakdown) of muscle tissue many times throughout the day, what we want to do is tip the scales in our favour.

Research shows that eating a protein rich meal at least every 4-5 hours is probably enough to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This puts the ideal amount of meals per day at 3-4, something like

  • 8am
  • Noon
  • 4pm
  • 8pm

When you eat enough protein containing the king of amino acid’s Leucine, your body flips the switch to start the anabolic process.

This will last for 2-4 hours (depending on what you ate), your body then returns to baseline at which point we want to hit it again with more Leucine rich protein to push protein synthesis up again.

Leucine is a key component to trigger muscle protein synthesis, therefore my choices of protein are based on their amino acid profile, ensuring that we provide our body with all the essential amino acids to build muscle.

Protein Sources For Vegans

My No1 protein source is Soy; Beans/Tofu/Shakes

Despite the misconception that Soy may give you moobs (look out for another article on this soon), Soy is one of the only plant based proteins that people would consider complete, meaning it has full amino acid profile, making it a great choice in your pursuit of building muscle.

  • Whole soy foods are also an excellent source of B vitamins, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • High quality protein with sufficient amounts of Leucine for muscle protein synthesis.
  • Low in saturated fat.
  • High in fiber.
  • There is increasing evidence that consumption of soy protein in place of animal protein lowers blood cholesterol levels and may provide other cardiovascular benefits.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calculated the countries where people live to full health the longest and Japan came out on top with 74.5 years.

Much of this is due to diet, they are the largest consumer of fish in the world and of whole soy!

That’s right, the healthiest people in the world eat soy..lots and lots of soy!

A typical serving of 200g of tofu provides 16g of protein, pair this up with some lentils or chickpeas (see below) and you have a nutrient dense, protein packed meal.

Quorn

Also known as Mycoprotein, Quorn is actually a protein-rich food made from an edible fungus. Similar to Soy, Quorn has a full amino acid profile, is used for many meat substitutes and if that doesn’t sound good enough…has almost enough fiber in 1 sitting to hit your entire recommended daily allowance!

1 bag of vegan Quorn pieces has 45g of protein.

Lentils

Lentils contain high levels of soluble fiber which has been shown to lower cholesterol, aid digestive health and stabalise blood sugar. They are also a great source of magnesium and folate which are good contributors to heart health.

A 240g serving of lentils has 10g protein, great to pair up with other protein sources like Tofu.

Chickpeas

Similar to lentils and soybeans, chickpeas are legumes, as such they contain similar benefits. High in soluble fiber, magnesium and folate, chickpeas also contain a much higher ratio of protein compared to lentils.

200g of chickpeas packs a whopping 38g of protein, perfect for a chickpea curry. Personally I find that the health benefits and protein content of chickpeas more than justifies my addiction to houmus 😉

These are just a few of my favourite protein sources for vegans, truth is, protein can be found in every plant based food there is, I recommend to mix and match your protein sources at each meal and rotate them across the week. This will give you a full amino acid profile at every meal and a delicious variety of combinations.

References

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19927027

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4022420/