Plant-based diets have grown massively in popularity over the past number of years. There may be many reasons why someone would transition over to a plant-based diet including ethical, environmental and personal reasons.
There are a number of key nutrients of interest when planning a healthy and balanced plant-based diet, such as B12, iron, iodine and zinc. However, the first nutrient that springs to mind when someone switches to a plant-based diet is protein. Many people find they can be somewhat bombarded with comments such as “How are you going to hit your protein goal?” and “Are you going to lose all of your muscle?”.
Contrary to popular belief, you can eat a high protein diet and be plant-based - it just takes a bit more thought and planning! And with the hashtag #vegangains having over 724,000 posts on Instagram, we can safely say that muscle building is possible on a plant-based diet.
Include a wide range of foods and protein sources. This will not only add variety to your meals and ensure you’re getting in lots of different vitamin and minerals, but it will also ensure you’re getting in all of the essential amino acids your body needs. This is because unlike animal proteins, plant-based proteins are what’s known as incomplete proteins. This is because they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids (EAAs) our body needs.
However, it is possible to increase the protein quality of plant based proteins through combining different sources to increase the EAAs in that meal. This is called protein complementation or protein combining and involves combining two plant based proteins, one which is low in a particular EAA and another which is high in that lacking amino acid. This will help you get all the EAAs needed by our bodies.
For example, beans are low in an amino acid methionine, so eating them with wholegrains such as brown rice can help make up for this, making the meal more complete. Nuts and seeds are low in lysine, so eating them with legumes such as peas, chickpeas, lentils is beneficial. The combining does not necessarily have to happen in the same meal but a combination of good protein sources should be included at each meal to optimise muscle protein synthesis.
The exception to this are soya protein and quorn protein which are of a higher protein quantity/gram and quality than other plant based proteins.
Pulses are Your Friend!
Beans, peas, lentils and other pulses can sometimes be considered the bread and butter of vegan protein sources! This is because foods such as chickpeas, black beans and red lentils are rich in protein as well as being high in fibre. They’re also super affordable. You can make dishes such as chillies using a wide variety of pulses to ensure you’re getting a high protein and filling meal. There are also a wide range of pastas available made from the likes of red lentils, black beans and red lentils which have an impressive amount of protein as well as being high in fibre!
Consider Meat Alternatives
There are also a number of meat alternatives available on the market which can be quite high in protein. These include tofu, tempeh, seitan and quorn. They can be used to replace meat and other animal products in dishes. For example, tofu can be scrambled to make a breakfast dish similar to scrambled eggs. Quorn mince also works really well in a bolognaise, chilli or lasagne made with dairy-free cheese. Soya milk and yoghurts are also a good source of protein.
One thing to be aware of is that some meat alternatives can be highly processed and can contain high amounts of additives, salt and added fat. So be sure to read the labels and to choose minimally processed options.
Choose Higher Protein Grains
Grains can also contribute to your total daily protein intake. Quinoa is a complete protein and contains all of the EAAs, as well as being high in fibre. Couscous, brown rice and oats also contain good amounts of protein.
Include Higher Protein Vegetables
Vegetables such as green peas and sweetcorn can also contribute to someone’s daily protein intake.
Include Nuts and Seeds
Nuts, nut butters and seeds also contain some protein and can be a source of protein in meals typically lower in protein such as porridge. Watch out for portion size though as nuts and seeds are predominantly fat sources and can really increase the calorie content of your meal if you’re not careful!
Supplement with a Plant-Based Protein Powder
Finally, a protein powder can be a really convenient method of helping someone reach their daily protein requirements. There are lots of different protein powders on the market including pea, brown rice, hemp and soy protein. As these sources don’t contain all of the EAAs, we recommend avoiding single source vegan protein powders, and instead opting for a blended protein ie. one that comes from a variety of sources, such as hemp, pea and brown rice.