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HOW TO GET MORE PROTEIN INTO YOUR PLANT-BASED DIET

Veganuary has come around again. The beginning of each year sees more and more people take up this annual challenge to follow a vegan lifestyle for the whole of January. Some do it for ethical/animal welfare reasons, others as a contribution to tackling environmental issues, or as a way to kick-start a healthier lifestyle. This year there will also be those looking to reduce their shopping spend (according to a global study, a vegan diet can be a cheaper option in high-income countries such as the UK). But whatever the reason for reducing or removing meat and dairy from your diet, it is important to pay attention to protein.


Protein is crucial in our diets – it plays a lead role in the creation and maintenance of every single cell in your body. It also controls hunger, helps keep blood sugar levels stable, and is used in the regulation of hormones. Protein has been increasingly recognised as being important for sportsmen and women to support their performance; another benefit of protein in the diet is maintaining muscle mass and in sufficient quantities protein can repair muscle and connective tissue.


Whether you are a keen sportsperson or lean more towards the couch potato, if you are a vegetarian, vegan, or even flexitarian, you are probably aware of the debate surrounding how easy (or not) it is to get protein from sources other than animal-based products.


Does protein have to come from meat?

Protein is made up of amino acids and there are nine amino acids that are considered essential (Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valin).


Traditionally, meat has been considered the go-to for fulfilling your protein needs, along with eggs and certain dairy products, as they include all of the nine essential amino acids and are, therefore, considered “complete proteins”.


This, in principle, causes questions for vegans over how they can get these supposedly important complete proteins into their diet. And with more and more people choosing plant-based foods over animal-based products, this may be a question prospective vegans are asking themselves, particularly if they are conscious of their protein consumption in relation to sporting activities. If you are one of those people, relax, you have no need to worry.


Why? Firstly, there are actually some plant-based foods that do contain complete proteins, including soy, quinoa, hemp, and chia. But it would still be pretty restrictive if those were the only foods you could rely on. So, it’s even better news that the idea that you need to consume all nine amino acids in one sitting is, in fact, not true. Your liver will store amino acids. So, by eating a combination of plant-based proteins throughout the day you can easily consume all the amino acids you need, without ploughing into an 8oz beef steak.


Indeed, one study published earlier this year concluded that “… the diverse composition of amino acids from plant protein sources offers simple opportunities to build protein blends that target certain amino acids profiles”.


Brown or white rice combined with beans or lentils give a complete protein, and there are numerous recipes from around the world providing a huge variety of flavour options for this classic combo.


Are vegan protein sources healthier?

While it’s widely accepted that a vegan diet is more sustainable and ethical, is it really healthier? It stands to reason that if you are consuming large quantities of meat in order to boost your protein levels, you are also likely to be ingesting larger amounts of saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol and, therefore, your risk of cardiovascular disease. Consumption of large quantities of meat is also linked to cancer. So, you could assume that turning to plant-based proteins is automatically healthier.


However, it isn’t quite that simple. Take, for example, peanut butter on whole-wheat toast. This is widely heralded as a good way to boost protein, particularly as the amino acids found in whole-wheat toast combined with those in peanut butter gives you the magic nine in one sitting.


And, if you look at two average slices of peanut butter on toast, this does boost your protein intake by about 12g (around a quarter of your daily requirement). However, it is also likely to contain over 500 calories and 40g of fat, including saturated fat and the dreaded trans fats that we really should be avoiding as much as possible. So, while this may be a tasty way to boost your protein intake, its healthy option credentials can be challenged. Baked beans on toast however also give you the magic balance and are much healthier. So, like all dietary choices, there needs to be balanced and you cannot just assume that vegan always equals healthier.


What are good sources of vegan protein?

If you want to consume vegan protein, look out for simple ingredients that are high in protein and that contain a good mixture of amino acids. The entire list is surprisingly long but here are some I definitely recommend that you keep an eye out for when making your food choices:


Grains: These contain almost all amino acids, although they lack lysine.


Beans: Beans are high in lysine and, therefore, are great combined with grain in the diet (not necessarily in the same sitting, as mentioned earlier). Fava beans (or broad beans) are a favourite of mine, as they are absolutely packed with nutrients and utterly delicious, particularly when young and tender. Try them with a little garlic olive oil drizzled over them.


Broccoli: You’d have to have been hiding under a rock not to know that this is a renowned superfood. But did you know it also boasts more protein than most other vegetables? Not to mention the fact that it is highly versatile and can be eaten cooked or raw in salad and goes with pretty much everything.


Chickpeas: Largely known as the main ingredient of hummus, chickpeas can also be used in curries and stews, making them filling and hearty while packing in protein.


Peas: Yes, the humble pea, which might be found as a predictable accompaniment to many meals but rarely the star of the show. Well, step forward little legume! Pea protein is considered a superior plant source because peas contain high levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine, which support muscle recovery and lean muscle mass.


Seeds: These are a convenient way to top up your protein. They can be scattered over salads or avocado toast, for example, and can be transported in your bag easily. Flax seeds also contain branched-chain amino acids, not to mention being a great vegan source of essential fatty acids. Pumpkin seeds are a tasty snack in their own right and great to have in a bowl by the side of your laptop while you work. They also contain all nine of the essential amino acids, albeit they are too low in threonine and lysine to be considered a whole protein.


Getting enough vegan protein

You can use an online calculator to determine just how much protein you should have in your daily diet – you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. On average, women need around 45g per day and men need 55g, although sportspeople and/or gym enthusiasts may want to include a bit more.


Eating the foods mentioned above plus other protein-rich vegan foods are the obvious route and it will get easier as you go along to know what to choose and how to incorporate these foods into your diet. There are also plenty of protein powders available, but these can be faffy and don’t always fit into a busy lifestyle any more easily than transporting hummus from home to the office, to the gym, or making high-protein lunches to take to work.


A great way to conveniently top up your protein is ready-made protein shakes from companies like B’liev. If you have tried shakes in the past and found the taste to be a bit predictable, there are some great new flavours available. Look out for chocolate brownie, blueberry muffins, cookies & cream, and again, seek out shakes without added processed sugar or artificial flavours. These shakes are also great to have in the fridge for the end of a busy day when you might be worried that you haven’t packed in enough protein. You can grab and gulp.


Now you know a protein-rich vegan diet is achievable the sky is your limit – enjoy!



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


B'liev Aria Beheshtaein

Aria Beheshtaein is the founder of B’liev, a new plant-based, protein shake available in three unusual, but utterly delicious flavours: Blueberry Muffin, Cookies & Cream, and Chocolate Brownie. Packed with protein and fibre, and fortified with vitamins and minerals, B’liev delivers much more than hydration and great taste, and encourages us all to believe that anything is possible, we just have to believe in ourselves.


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