Vegan protein guide: Read this detailed guide to understand all about the protein requirements of vegans.
You may have heard this often that proteins are the building blocks of our body. People usually believe that if you are someone who goes to the gym or who works out, you need to consume more protein. This, however, is a prevalent misconception, especially among Indians. Discussion on proteins takes place often in the gym common rooms and when this happens, the basic fundamental food items mentioned are eggs and meat.
Agreed that eggs are a complete protein source but what can you do if you do not consume eggs or meat? How can you then complete your daily protein requirement? Let us find out more about proteins and their vegan sources.
What is Protein?
Proteins are the most abundant component of the body after water. They account for a sixth of the body weight, a third of the muscle mass, and a tenth of the skin. Our body contains thousands of different species of proteins and each of them have a unique structure and function. Hence, the word protein implies not just a single but a large group of complex compounds.
Proteins are very large organic compounds built from basic units called amino acids. They, like the other macromolecules, i.e. carbohydrates and fats, are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. In addition, proteins also contain 16% nitrogen which is a unique feature and this distinguishes them from carbs and fats. Some proteins may also contain sulphur, phosphorus, iron, and cobalt.
Proteins are more complex than carbs and fats as their size is large and also because the units from which the proteins are made, which are the amino acids, vary a lot in structure.
All living tissues in both plants and animals contain proteins and hence, proteins become an essential part of life as all the vital parts of every cell are proteins.
Why do we need protein?
Our body consists of about 60 percent water and 19 percent fat which is all held together by only 17 percent proteins. Hence, proteins have to carry out a variety of functions in our bodies. Let us see some of the important bodily functions for which proteins are responsible. (1)
Body-Building or Building of New Tissues
As stated earlier, proteins are an integral part of all the cells of our body. They provide the amino acids required for building new tissues and the material from which the genetic code of cells is formed. Extra proteins may be required to rebuild tissues after loss or destruction which may happen due to donation of blood, heavy menstruation, or blood loss after an accident.
Maintenance of tissues
Proteins in our body tissues are not static; they are constantly being broken down and replaced at varying rates by new protein synthesized from the amino acids which come from either the dietary or tissue sources. Thus, proteins have to continuously provide for the maintenance of tissues that are already built.
Proteins are involved in various functions which regulate the daily activities of our body. Hemoglobin which helps in supplying our tissues with oxygen is a protein. The blood which fills our body contains different types of proteins each with unique functions. They are also important in maintaining the balance of acids and bases in our bodies. Proteins even act as carriers of nutrients across cells.
Proteins as Enzymes, Hormones, and Antibodies
A small amount of protein is required for the formation of various enzymes which help in digestion and metabolism, hormones that regulate and coordinate body processes and activities, and antibodies that defend our body against infection and diseases.
Special Functions of Amino Acids
Certain amino acids like tryptophan, glycine, histidine methionine, etc have special functions which they undertake in our body and which cannot be replaced by any other molecules.
Mother’s milk is the first food for the young of any mammal. Human milk contains about 1.2 percent of proteins that are synthesized in the mammary gland from the available dietary and tissue proteins.
A very small part of the body’s need for energy (about 6 to 12 percent) is supplied by protein metabolism. Each gram of protein gives 4 calories to your body.
Now that we know that proteins are an indispensable part of our bodily functions, let us further understand our bodily requirements of this macromolecule.
How much protein does a person need on a daily basis?
Indian diet is mainly carbohydrate predominant and hence, the amount of proteins consumed by us is usually lower than what our body requires. Now, our body cannot make proteins from nitrogen directly like plants. Hence, the amino acids required to build up these proteins should be supplied from the diet that we consume. The protein requirement of our body varies at every life stage according to the rate of growth. Infants need more proteins per unit body weight than adolescents because the growth rate is maximum during infancy.
Similarly, more proteins are required during the last part of pregnancy as compared to the beginning. Below are the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for proteins as required by the Indian population. These are given by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). (2)
|Infants||0-6 months||5.4||1.16 g/kg/d|
|6-12 months||8.4||1.69 g/kg/d|
Having understood the background of proteins, let us see what is vegan protein? What benefits can we get from them and what are the different sources of vegan proteins.
What is Vegan Protein?
Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products and so, proteins for vegans also come from pure plant sources. These do not include proteins that come from dairy sources like milk or whey. Generally, it is believed that animal proteins are of high quality while plant or vegetable-based proteins are not of the same quality.
However, a combination of cereals, millets, and pulses provides most of the amino acids, which complement each other to provide better quality proteins. Nowadays, many plant-based protein powder options are available in the market which can help in completing the dietary protein requirements for vegans.
Vegan Protein Sources
It may be difficult for a vegan diet to meet the requirement of protein but that said, it is not impossible. Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some, and often much, protein. Following are the various vegan protein sources that can be easily included in the diet.
Soybeans and tofu – Soybeans can be consumed in different forms like soya chunks, soya granules, soya flour, soya milk, etc. Soya is a rich protein source while soy protein is one of the highest quality vegan proteins. 100 gm of soya chunks contain approximately 50 gm of proteins. Tofu is made up of condensed soy milk which is pressed into blocks similar to making cheese.
Soya chunks or granules can be used in varied rice dishes for snacks like cutlets, patties, and many more. You can also replace meat chunks in any recipe with soya chunks. You can even mix sprouts and soy granules for salads. Soy flour can be added to the wheat flour while making rotis. Normal milk can be replaced by soy milk in your coffee, with cereal, or in smoothies while tofu makes for delicious appetizers.
Quinoa – This is also a complete protein source. Although used as a grain, quinoa is a seed. It can be easily made into a yummy porridge or you can even prepare it like a savory dish of upma tossed with vegetables. This is one of the healthy breakfast recipes for vegans to complete their protein requirements. Every 100 gm of quinoa can provide 14 grams of proteins.
Spinach – Spinach is rich in essential amino acids as well as readily available in the Indian markets. Apart from this, it is also rich in iron and folate content. Spinach or palak is versatile and can be easily included in your daily diet in the form of subzis or in combination with different varieties of daal.
You can even have spinach smoothies for your breakfast or spinach soup as an appetizer. As it is a leafy vegetable, spinach can be consumed in higher quantities to get a substantial amount of protein. Every 500 gm of spinach will give you approximately 10 gm of proteins.
Lentils – Lentils are a staple in the Indian diet. You can get 25 gm of proteins per 100 grams of lentils. They can be easily consumed with rotis or rice, or even just by boiling or steaming them. You can make them soft or keep them slightly crunchy depending on your preferences. Lentil soup is also a good and yummy way in which they can be consumed.
Chickpeas – Chickpeas are important in the Indian diet and are used in different ways. Dried chickpeas can be soaked overnight and then cooked into various traditional dishes. You can make dishes ranging from salads to curries with chickpeas. Hummus is a very famous middle-eastern dish made using chickpeas. 20 grams of proteins can be consumed per 100 grams of chickpeas.
Plant-based protein powders – Different plant-based protein powders are commercially available. These include pea protein powder, hemp protein powder, brown rice protein powder, or protein blends that contain protein from different sources combined into one to complete the protein profile. Different powders contain different amounts of proteins which may vary anywhere between 23 to 28 grams per scoop. You can use these powders to make highly palatable smoothies as well as post-workout drinks.
Benefits of Plant-Based Protein
Below are a few advantages of plant-based proteins:
Lower in fats and calories – Vegan proteins sources are low in saturated fats and calories. This makes them a good food option for those aiming for weight loss.
Higher in fibers – Due to higher fiber content, plant proteins will keep you feeling full for a longer period of time and will also help in gut motility. They are beneficial for those who experience constipation on the consumption of animal-based protein powders.
Smooth texture – Plant-based proteins get mixed with water without any hassle and have a less chalky texture. This makes them more acceptable and easier to consume, especially for those who pay attention to these details in their diet.
Environment-friendly – Vegan protein has a lesser impact on the environment, but this being said, care has to be taken to see that it is produced from material that is purely organic and not sprayed with pesticides or fungicides.
Although vegan proteins come with their own benefits, some facts should be kept in mind while consuming them. You should take care that along with proteins, other micronutrient requirements of your body are also met. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common in vegans and these should be taken care of with supplementation. (3) Each one of us should understand our body requirements and plan a diet that will fulfill all our dietary requirements along with being sustainable.
If you are a vegan, let us know how do you complete your protein requirements in the comments section below.
Author: Dr. Pooja Nilgar (Content writer & editor)
- Mudambi, S.R., 2007. Fundamentals of foods, nutrition and diet therapy. New Age International.
- Manual, A. (1998) ‘Dietary Guidelines for Indians – A Manual’, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, 500(7).
- Schüpbach, R., Wegmüller, R., Berguerand, C., Bui, M. and Herter-Aeberli, I., 2017. Micronutrient status and intake in omnivores, vegetarians and vegans in Switzerland. European journal of nutrition, 56(1), pp.283-293.