When talking about protein rich food sources, most people automatically think about meat. I know I used to. Chicken, turkey and beef in particular. Whenever I heard about bodybuilders and weightlifters fuelling their bodies for their workout, there were always stories about guys who ate 6 chickens a day – doing whatever they could to make sure they were getting enough protein into their diet. That’s a lot of chicken. Eggs were always another source of food I associated with being high in protein. I can’t help but think that the chickens are getting a raw deal here.
But when you don’t eat meat, where do you get your protein from? If you’re vegetarian, then eggs and cheese are two sources that spring to mind. But what if you’re vegan? Two of the most common questions vegans get asked are where do you get your protein from and aren’t you worried you’re not getting enough protein?
Having exercised regularly since I was 16 years old and figuring out a healthy balanced diet over the last decade or so, I still never gave my protein intake much attention until earlier this year. I decided to study for a Diploma in Sports Nutrition and Exercise and it was a real eye opener to see what my body needed in order to fuel it correctly for my lifestyle. And while the protein requirements vary widely from a sedentary person to an athlete, the fact is, we all need protein.
Why is protein so important?
Quite simply, protein is responsible for the growth and repair of our tissues and cells.
If we don’t have enough protein in our diet, our muscles will struggle to strengthen and repair themselves. Protein gives us energy, helps maintain the PH balance in our blood and helps our immune system produce antibodies to fight off infection when we get ill. It helps regulate hormone function, such as insulin and it also carries other nutrients around our body. On top of all that, protein helps keep us feeling fuller for longer. So, if you’re trying to lose weight, getting more protein rich foods into your diet can help reduce any cravings you might be having. Not bad, eh?
Protein sources for vegans
Protein sources for vegans can be found in plants, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, beans and vegetables. So, with meat off the menu, which foods can provide a healthy amount of protein for those of us following a plant based diet?
I’ll start with the most obvious. Some people still associate vegans with the image of a sandal wearing, tree hugging, lentil eating hippy. And while this may be the case for some, it certainly isn’t true for all. But, there’s a reason why lentils are so popular with people following a plant based diet – it’s because they’re high in protein (not to mention cheap). They’re also versatile and can be used in different ways. When cooked, 100g of lentils can provide up to 26g of protein.
Tofu is commonly used to replace meat in a vegan diet. Although, it can be used in other ways too – specifically in smoothies and desserts. Made from soya beans, tofu can provide 12.6g of protein per 100g. I realise soya is a bit of a grey area regards its benefits – but we’ll leave that debate for another time.
It looks a bit like couscous, although I commonly refer to it a frogspawn. Like tofu, quinoa can be used in main meals and desserts. Despite it being filled with protein rich goodness, I must confess – I’m not a fan. But it’s a great source of protein and can provide 8.8g per 100g when cooked.
I love rice! Depending whether you’re using white or brown, long grain or short grain, protein intake can vary from 2g to 3.2g per 100g when cooked. Although to help retain the protein qualities, you might think about steaming it when you cook it.
Whether being used in sauces or spread on a bagel for a post-workout snack, peanut butter can provide a good source of protein any time of day. You can expect to find 29.6g per 100g or 7.1g per 24g (approx. a tablespoon sized serving)
A good source of protein that can provide up to 5g per 100g.
Hailed as a superfood over the last few years (but let’s face it, there’s a new one nearly every week), 100g of this leafy green can provide 4.3g of protein. It’s versatile too and can be used for cooking, smoothies or added to a salad.
Another superfood that provides us with a good source of protein. Just like kale, it’s very versatile and can be used in curries, as part of a salad, added to smoothies or boiled into burgers – I love spinach! You can typically find 2.9g of protein per 100g.
Small trees! Great to add to stir fry’s. You can expect to find 2.8g of protein per 100g.
Chia seeds are another versatile food that can be either sprinkled or used in a dessert – they can even be used as a replacement for egg in recipes. I like to add them to my muesli in a morning. You can find up to 17g of protein per 100g. (Typical serving size, 24g)
Seeds and nuts are a great source of protein. Almonds are popular to snack on, can be used in baking and also made into almond butter. Almonds contain 21g of protein per 100g. (Serving size approx. 30g)
Pumpkin seeds can be used as a snack throughout the day, sprinkled on foods, added to salads or used in baking. You can typically find 30g of protein per 100g. (Serving size approx. 35g)
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but it gives you an idea of where to look for protein if you follow, or are thinking of a following, a plant based diet.
As you can see, you don’t need to eat meat to get a healthy level of protein in your diet or help with your athletic performance. Tennis players Serena and Venus Williams, ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek, former Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier and US Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris all lead a vegan lifestyle. Which just goes to show, if they can manage without protein from meat and dairy, there’s no reason why everyone can’t.