For a variety of reasons, more and more people are adopting a plant-based diet. Arguably the most popular question (apart from, “But don’t you miss cheese?!”) that vegans get asked is, “Where do you get your protein from?”.
In this blog, we will answer that question, sharing top plant-based sources of protein, as well as some tips for incorporating them into your diet.
Before we delve into it, first a quick word on the two different types of protein. Animal protein is often referred to as being a “complete” protein, because it contains all nine essential amino acids that our body needs. Plant-based proteins, conversely, are labelled “incomplete”, as they rarely contain all of these protein building blocks. This can lead to the misconception that vegan protein is in some way inferior, or that a vegan diet is by default lacking in nutrients, but this is definitely not the case!
You can very easily get all the amino acids you need from a vegan diet by simply eating a variety of plant-based proteins. For example, including legumes and wholegrains into your daily diet will ensure that your body has all the amino acids it needs. What’s more, you don’t need to combine these incomplete proteins together in one meal – as long as you incorporate these different proteins throughout the day, you will get everything you need.
So – where do you get protein on a vegan diet?
Yep, veggies contain protein! This is commonly overlooked, but important to understand. People often equate protein with meat, and can be surprised to learn that plants have protein in them, too. 100g of spinach contains about 7 grams of protein, for example. 1 cup of green peas offers about 9 grams. Other veggies to include for a little extra protein include broccoli, kale and corn. Even the humble potato offers a little bit of protein.
Quinoa is one of the best grains you can opt for in terms of protein, providing 14 grams per cup as well as all nine essential amino acids that our body needs. Wild or brown rice provides about 7 grams of protein per cup. Bulgur, barley, aramanth, buckwheat, kamut and millet are also great ones to try that offer around the same amount.
Beans and pulses are a cheap way of adding lots of protein to your diet, alongside fibre and a whole host of other nutrients. Lentils are a particularly great source of protein, offering 26g of protein per 100g. They’re super versatile – try making lentil dhals, mashing them to form the base for veggie burgers or using them to thicken soups and sauces.
Some other great high protein options include chickpeas, edamame, black beans, kidney beans and butter beans. Tip: these are considered an incomplete protein. But, by combining any of these with a grain like brown or wild rice, you’ll get all nine essential amino acids in one meal.
Although they are also high in fat, nuts and seeds (and the spreads made from them) pack a great protein punch too. Peanuts, for example, are one quarter protein. Try adding a tablespoon of peanut butter to a smoothie – this is a great way to incorporate some healthy fats as well as protein. Similarly, almonds are made up of over a fifth protein – try adding flaked almonds to salad or a spoonful of almond butter with some apple slices.
Adding seeds to salads is a good way to up your protein intake – sunflower seeds, for example, have 21g of protein per 100g. However, like nuts, they are also high in fat, too, so eat them in moderation.
One cup of soy or almond milk can pack about 9 grams of protein, as well as a host of other nutrients. There are a ton of different plant-based milks out there to try – soy, almond, coconut, oat, hazelnut, rice, hemp… Different brands and varieties have different nutritional properties and flavours. Just be aware that there are some sweetened varieties that contain lots of sugar – avoid these.
You can pick up cheap soy mince, either frozen or dried, in every supermarket nowadays. Low in fat but high in protein, it’s a perfect alternative to meat for your spag bol or chilli. Add some beans or lentils for some extra protein and texture (check out the chili in our sample day of vegan meals if you need recipe ideas).
Tofu, which is made from soy milk in a similar way that cheese is made from animal milk, is considered a complete source of protein as it contains all the essential amino acids required by the body. A small 100g serving contains just 70 calories, broken down into 2 grams of carbohydrates, 8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fat. It has a host of health benefits – for example, it has been shown to boost heart health and reduce the risk of some cancers as well as diabetes.
Tip: tofu tends to be pretty overpriced in supermarkets. Instead of picking it up at your local Tesco, head to an oriental supermarket where it will be a fraction of the price. Plus, you can pick up some cheap soba noodles and edamame at the same time, to cook up a protein-packed stir fry. Bonus.
Tip 2: opting for firm tofu means you get more soya bean and less water, and therefore a higher protein content. Softer versions are great for making tofu desserts, but for acting as a meat substitute, it’s the extra firm variety you want.
Like tofu, tempeh is also made from soybeans, but is fermented into a firmer and denser food than tofu. As well as undergoing less processing, it has more protein, fibre and vitamins and less fat than tofu, so it is slightly healthier – but it tends to be harder to find and more expensive.
The last 12 months have seen veganism explode in the UK, with 7% of the population now following a plant-based diet (up from just 1% in 2016). Brands have been forced to respond, causing not only a steep rise in the availability of soy-based products, but also the appearance of some more creative options, like seitan. Made from wheat gluten, it’s 75% protein which is pretty impressive.
Um, no, we’re not suggesting anything untoward here. The seeds of the hemp plant (not the leaves) can be used to create protein powder, with one scoop providing about 10 grams of veggie protein. It has a somewhat earthy flavour, so one of the best ways to use it is in baking – try adding to healthy brownies or protein balls for a post-workout treat.
You can also buy hemp hearts (hemp in seed form), three tablespoons of which contain 10 grams of protein with all essential amino acids.
While you can easily get sufficient protein on a vegan diet without using protein powder, depending on your goals it may be useful to incorporate some into your diet. Try to opt for ones without an ingredient list that contains lots of unpronounceable flavours and sweeteners. An unflavoured blend that contains mostly whole, natural ingredients, is ideal – you can mix with both savoury and sweet dishes. Try sweetening with vanilla, cinnamon and cacao.
There are loads of options to choose from when it comes to vegan protein powder – we’d recommend one that uses a blend of different sources as it’s more easily digestible (e.g. a blend of pea, rice and hemp protein).
A mixture of soy, hemp, pea, rice and sunflower seed proteins, this protein is available in a wide variety of flavours and packs in a powerful 26g protein punch per serving.
Made up of pea, rice and hemp protein, this is good if you’d rather avoid soy. It only comes in two flavours (chocolate and unflavoured), however My Protein does a range of Flavour Drops that you could try. It blends well and offers 22g of protein – and thanks to My Protein’s near-constant promotions, is one of the cheapest options available.
This is a little pricier, but if you’re looking for the most natural, organic vegan protein powder, then this is the one for you. Available in chocolate or vanilla, each serving provides an impressive 25g of protein.
In line with government guidelines, the NHS recommends an intake of 50g of protein per day for the average person eating 2,000 calories. This is incredibly easy to achieve on a plant-based diet – as you can hopefully see from the blog! If you do regular exercise, are trying to build muscle, or want to drop some body fat without losing hard-earned muscle, then you may need some more protein – depending on your goal, this could range from 0.8 to 2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight.
We’ve put together an example day of plant-based meals and snacks, to show you how easy it is to get adequate protein on a vegan diet. As mentioned above, your macro targets will vary depending on what your goals are – it’s a good idea to chat to a trainer about this.
1 medium banana
Almond milk 250ml
Ground flaxseed 1 tbsp
Chia seeds 1 tbsp
Calories: 423, Carbohydrates 60g, Fat 14g, Protein 12g
Snack: sliced apple with 2 tbsp almond butter
Calories: 272, Carbohydrates 24g, Fat 19g, Protein 5g
Lunch: chickpea and quinoa salad
½ cup cooked quinoa
½ tin cooked chickpeas (try gently roasting them in a pan with a dash of oil and spices like cumin, paprika and chili powder)
A handful of spinach or kale if you prefer
½ cup chopped cucumber
Small handful of cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
Olives and sun dried tomatoes, plus your favourite fresh herbs chopped up
Calories: 456, Carbohydrates 55g, Fat 17g, Protein 20g
Snack: energy ball
Recipe – thanks to @biancaerrigofitness! – for 10 balls
90g smooth peanut butter
80g rolled oats
3 scoops of vegan protein powder – we like Protein Works Vegan Vanilla
40gt maple syrup
2 tbsp ground flaxseed
1 tbsp chia seeds
Calories per ball: 144, Carbohydrates 11g, Fat 6g, Protein 12g
This should make about 5 servings
Red lentils 100g
Soy mince 400g
Kidney beans 400g
800g tinned tomatoes
Veggies: onion, garlic, 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks, 2 red peppers and a handful of kale to serve
To serve: handful of kale (steamed), ¼ avocado, ½ cup brown rice
Calories per serving: 461, Carbohydrates: 70g, Fat 7g, Protein 29g
Snack: yoghurt with blueberries
200g Alpro coconut yogurt
Calories: 135, Carbohydrates 10g, Fat 6g, Protein 8g
Calories: 1,891, Carbohydrates 230g, Fat 69g, Protein 86g
Macros: Carbs 49%, Fat 33%, Protein 18%
As ever, if you need any more guidance on what we’ve covered in this blog, just chat to one of our trainers who would be happy to help!