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A Vegan’s Guide to Getting Enough Protein

In the next couple of weeks, I will be doing an experiment, that will only be lasting a week – I will be going vegan.  Next week, I will be starting with going Pescatarian (vegetarianism + seafood), the following week, vegetarian (dairy, eggs and no fish), and then vegan (no animal products whatsoever).

This is an experiment that I’ve been wanting to try for quite a while at this point, but every time I’ve tried it, I’ve had a really hard time staying full.

Getting enough protein and bio-available vitamins and minerals can be hard to do with veganism.  In today’s email (part 1) I will discuss ways to get enough protein as a vegan. In next week’s email (part 2), I will discuss the vitamins and minerals you might need to supplement for optimal health if you’re a vegan and why.

What is Veganism?

First, a quick recap of what a vegan is. Vegans are those that avoid all animal-derived foods and food products, but most are fine with eating bugs (hey, cricket protein bars are a thing…and they’re not that bad). This means they avoid eggs, dairy, cheese, butter, fish, shellfish and all meats.

With that said, if you want to cut down on the meat you eat, there are a number of less intense ways to do so, listed from least to closest to veganism:

Semi-Vegetarians – These people are usually those who avoid red meat.  If you believe red meat is bad, especially for the environment, than avoiding ruminants can be a good idea. From Wikipedia:

Ruminants are mammals that are able to acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach prior to digestion, principally through microbial actions…The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination.[1][2] The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again”

Ruminants include cattle (cows), sheep, goats, deer, giraffes, antelopes, bison and camels.

The primary difference between ruminants and simple-stomach animals (called monogastrics), with the most common that we eat being pigs, is the presence of a four-compartment stomach.

In order to digest their food, they release a lot of “gas” and this can be linked to global warming.

On the other hand, if you’re going to eat chicken and pork (the other white meat), make sure you find organic, naturally raised pigs and chicken and from an environment point of view, you will be in the clear.

Lacto-ovo-pesco-tarians: These people include dairy, eggs and fish, but no other type of meat.  This is more popularly known as pescatarian.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians: include dairy and eggs.

Lacto-vegetarians:  include millk and milk products in their diets, but not eggs.

And then there are vegans, as discussed above. The more animal sources you have at your disposal, the more opportunities you have at getting relatively easy protein.  But, as a vegan, we will need to consider other options.

How much protein do you need?

To survive, the RDA says you need .8 grams per kg of body weight. In other words, you should have .36grams per pound of bodyweight. So if you weight 200 pounds, you need 72 grams per day.

What the RDA doesn’t say though is three things:
1. If you’re trying to lose weight, more protein is better.

In fact, research has shown that double the RDA was much better for those trying to lose fat, whereas those who got 3 times the RDA showed similar results to the group having double the RDA.

2. If you do resistance training and you’re on a caloric deficit (aka, you’re trying to be “toned”), you may benefit from even more protein.

Research has shown that for lean individuals, who are trying to lose fat, they need up to 1.4 grams per pound of Lean Body Mass (LBM).  Lean body mass is the amount of weight that isn’t fat in your body.

3. Vegan protein sources are usually not as easily digested and therefore, you might need even more.

With that said, we’ll say that you need, on average 1 to 1.4 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass. Since most people don’t know their lean body mass (unless you’ve taken your body fat percentage), then we’ll settle for the 1.6 g/kg or 72% of your body weight in grams of protein per day.

So for a 200-pound person, you would need 144 grams of protein per day.

Incomplete/Complete Proteins

Most plant sources don’t have a complete protein source. What this means is that of the 20 amino acids that food contains, 9 are essential, meaning that our body can’t make them from other sources and therefore, we need to consume them in order to stay healthy.

The 9 essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. That’s just a lot of weird looking words that mostly end in –ine.

Of those, when it comes to muscle, the biggest one is leucine. Leucine is the amino acid your body needs in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). In other words, leucine is the signal to turn on muscle growth. Without leucine, the flip to build muscle isn’t switched and you’re at risk for losing muscle mass (generally a bad thing).

Most vegan protein sources are low in one or more amino acids. For instance, rice has no lysine, an essential amino acid, while the limiting amino acid in beans/peas (aka, legumes) is methionine.

Bottom line: If you eat a varied diet, worrying about getting a “complete protein” is not really an issue.

Complete Vegan Proteins

With that said, there are some “complete” sources of plant protein, such as soy.  Below is a list of all the vegan/plant based sources of complete proteins:

  • Quinoa (which is mostly carbs)
  • Soy
  • Buckwheat (mostly carbs)
  • Chia Seeds (mostly fat)
  • Hemp (A balance of fat, protein and carbs)
  • Spirulina

Should you avoid soy?

Soy has been shown to have some estrogenic properties in the body at really high doses.

Overall though, you don’t have to avoid it, per say, but it comes down to moderation.

A meta-analysis (a study of research studies) showed no effects of soy on total and free testosterone, sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) and free androgen index.

Furthermore, another study found that soy protein powder as isolate or concentrate, at 25 grams, twice per day was equally effective as whey protein for increasing lean mass after 12 weeks of strength training. In this study, the researchers also didn’t find any significant differences in SHBG, total and free testosterone.

This is something that I’ve been leery about for years and I still actively avoid soy on most occasions, but the research has shown that for the most part, I shouldn’t have that fear.

Given those findings, intake of soy up to 50 grams per day, in a powdered form makes it unlikely that soy within a whole food would pose any health threats when part of a varied and balanced diet.

Sample Vegan Menu with Enough Protein

Below is a sample of what you should be eating per day to ensure enough protein overall.  This is a baseline suggestion. From there, you could alter total calories by adding either more fat or carbs and controlling for calories.

8 ounces of tempeh or tofu per day, 40 and 32 grams of protein respectively
1 cup of cooked legumes per day – About 15 grams of protein
5.5 ounces of starchy vegetables per day – about 4 grams of protein
3 ounces of quinoa or buckwheat per day, 11 or 15 grams of protein, respectively
1 slice of bread per day – 2-4 grams of protein
1.5 ounces of nuts per day – 10 grams of protein
10 ounces of cooked veggies per day – 8 grams of protein

From that list above, you’ll get about 90 grams of protein. This will allow you to hit your RDA for protein, but we’re aiming for double RDA when it comes to protein.  Thus far, the total calories from eating the foods above will be about 1300 calories per day.This is where supplements and specialty foods come in to help.

Extra Help with Vegan Protein

I’ve recommended Plant Fusion as a protein source for most clients for years.  A scoop of that would give you another 100 calories, and another 20 grams of protein (use some veggies in a smoothie and you’d be even better off).

If you do eat two servings of high protein pasta per day (about 20 grams per serving), you would easily pass the 140 gram threshold.

So there you have it – An 1800 calorie diet, made of mostly whole foods, giving you enough protein per day to not only lose fat, but stay full and healthy.

Next week, I will be back with a list of the nutrients that are missing in most vegan diets and the most important ones that you should consider taking if you’re going to go on a vegan diet.

Let me know if you have any questions for me. Cheers!