Vegan protein; aka the ultimate multitasker. It helps build muscle, is vital for protecting bone health, supports the immune system, is the secret behind the glossy hair and clear complexion of these vegan celebrities, and is an edible way of balancing hormones. No wonder then than many nutritionists consider it one of the most important elements on your dinner plate.
‘Although it’s convenient to increase vegan protein in your diet through powders and bars, it’s preferable to obtain it from whole foods,’ says registered nutritional therapist Jennie Gough. ‘Real foods contain essential nutrients such as fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that are beneficial to health. Many protein supplements, on the other hand, contain artificial sweeteners.’
And the truth is you don’t actually need to supplement if you’re eating the rainbow and aware of your macros. ‘A healthy diet that includes natural sources of protein is usually sufficient,’ Gough says. Indeed, research from the US showed that only about the first 30g of dietary protein per meal actually gets used to produce muscle so instead of ODing on the stuff, it’s a case of a little and often is best.
Health Benefits of Vegan Protein
According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has risen by around 400,000 in the past ten years and with vegan protein sources boasting numerous health benefits that can be no bad thing.
Reduce risk of disease
A Canadian study showed that substituting one or two servings of animal proteins with plant protein (ie vegan protein sources) could reduce cholesterol markers by about 5% – and prevent cardiovascular disease.
According to Gough, women can benefit from soy-based vegan protein because it contains isoflavones – a type of phytoestrogen that can help support hormone balance and improve menopause symptoms.
Research by the University of Missouri found that adding protein to your breakfast every day can control cravings and prevent unwanted weight gain. Not a morning eater? A high-protein soy-based afternoon snack has a similar effect.
So how much vegan protein do you actually need?
‘The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) is 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight for adults,’ says Gough. ‘It typically works out at around 45g per day but individual requirements may vary – if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or lead a particularly active lifestyle, you will likely need more. Vegan protein sources have also been shown to be digested and converted in the body differently to other proteins so those relying on vegan protein may wish to consider upping their intake to 1g per kilogram of body weight.’ Base the maths on your lean body mass (ie the weight you carry that isn’t fat) for the most accurate results.
A final word of warning when it comes to vegan protein – many of them are not complete sources. Which means? ‘Complete proteins are those that contain all of the nine essential amino acids that the body requires to function,’ Gough says. ‘These aren’t stored in the body so need to be topped up on a daily basis. Because vegetables, wholegrains and pulses can be missing some of these amino acids, it is important to eat vegan proteins in a combined way to make up a meal that contains everything the body needs.’
Stock up on the below – Gough’s pick of the richest vegan protein sources…
Also known as wheat gluten, this mock meat contains a whopping 75g protein per 100g. It’s made – as the name would suggest – from wheat and, because it lacks distinct flavour, can be used in pretty much any dish: stir-fry it with tamari and soy, simmer it with curry powder, grill it or add it to a chunky soup or stew. Note, although this is good vegan protein, Gough does warn that it is a highly processed option. Enjoy on rare occasion when you need an intense protein boost.
Flake them over morning porridge, crush them across a salad or simply snack on them whole; nuts of all types are a fantastic vegan protein. As ever, not all are made equal; opt for peanut butter, which contains 24g protein per 100g, first; next almonds which have 21g per 100g); and, finally, walnuts or hazelnuts, which both contain 14.7g per 100g. You’ll enjoy the added benefits of being less likely to gain weight, have better memory and be at a reduced risk of inflammation-related illnesses.
Rich in protein (there’s 8.1g per 100g), gluten-free and a source of iron, calcium and manganese, used by the body to strengthen bones. It’s also been shown to increase artery size by 45% (when eaten post exercise), which means more anti-inflammatory agents on hand to support worked muscles and you recover faster.
4. BLACK BEANS
Don’t limit these wonder beans to stews; blitz them into a homemade dip or spread, or serve them in your packed salad lunch. Black beans offer up 9g protein per 100g and, according to research carried out in Copenhagen, will fill you up more than meat – therefore not only aiding with weight loss, but also helping you to keep it off.
Hallelujah for hummus. Providing 8.4g protein per 100g, chickpeas are not only one of the top vegan protein sources, but a daily serving has also been shown to reduce bad cholesterol (and consequently heart disease) and aid weight loss. Carrot baton anyone?
Think of these as the three musketeers of vegan protein sources – not only do lentils serve up 7.6g protein per 100g but they also provide fibre and slow-digesting carbohydrates. You’ll also enjoy a healthy serving of tanycytes, amino acids that react with cells in the brain to make you feel full.
7. KIDNEY BEANS
Add these to your vegan chili for 6.9g protein per 100g. They’re also a low-glycemic-load carb, meaning they won’t cause the rapid spikes in blood glucose that can be a symptom of diabetes. They’ve also been shown by US research to reduce inflammation in the body and the risk of breast cancer.
Think you know your protein? Read about the big protein mistake you’re probably making and get to grips with how to count your macros to ensure you’re eating a balanced diet.