This is probably the most common question posed to vegans. There is the common misconception that animal flesh or animal products such as eggs and dairy are needed to provide humans with an adequate amount of protein. I always find this notion quite absurd though since some of the strongest creatures on earth are herbivores – elephants, rhinos, bulls…..Bottom line – you don’t need to eat muscle to make muscle.
That guy is a vegan bodybuilder. In fact, there are many vegan bodybuilders and athletes and many of them don’t take protein supplements at all. Of course, some may take a protein shake for convenience sake, just as many non-vegan athletes use protein shakes for convenience, but with a little planning, it is not essential.
Protein is made up of little building blocks called amino acids. There are different types of amino acids and it is important that we have all of them in our bodies in order to function optimally. Some of these amino acids are called essential amino acids because we are unable to make them ourselves and it is therefore essential that we get these from our diet. The other amino acids can be made by our bodies using other compounds. The term complete protein refers to food that contains all of the essential amino acids.
Plants contain plenty of protein and all of the essential amino acids. Some plant sources are complete protein sources, while others are not, but by combining different plant sources in your diet, you ensure that you get an adequate supply of all of the essential amino acids. This is not rocket science. You do not need to sit with a chart of all 9 amino acids and calculate how many amino acids you are getting from this vegetable so that you can eat it with another vegetable that provides the other amino acids. Just by being aware of which plant foods are rich in protein and by eating a variety of these – you will automatically be getting enough of all your essential amino acids. A good principle is to include some protein with every meal and snack and to try to let this protein come from a variety of sources. If you do this, your protein needs will easily be met.
There are a range of vegan protein shakes on the market and I feel that they do have their place. For those that are very physically active, more protein is needed to build and repair the extra muscle. This protein can all be achieved by eating natural vegan foods alone, but since these protein requirements are quite high, it requires some planning as you may be full before you have met your protein requirements. Many meat-eaters have the same issue and they therefore supplement their protein intake with whey protein shakes – some find it easier to drink a convenient shake on the go than to down a 600g T-bone steak for lunch. Many vegan athletes use no shakes at all – it is a personal choice. I workout between 1-2 hours per day, 5 days a week – swimming, cycling and running. Initially I used vegan protein shakes as I was eating a relatively high fat vegan diet and found that the protein shakes were necessary for muscle recovery. For the past 1.5 years, however, I have been following a high carb, low fat vegan diet and that has really changed everything for me. I try to eat a 80/10/10 ratio – a minimum of 80% of my total calories from carbohydrates and a maximum of 10% of my calories each from fats and protein. I definitely feel the best on this approach to a plant-based diet than I have ever felt before. I have lost a lot of weight without restricting calories/portion sizes at all, my metabolism has sped up so much that I now eat 2500-3500 calories per day on average while before I ate about 1600 calories per day and my energy level and muscle recovery is better than ever. On this lifestyle, as long as your overall caloric intake is sufficient, you will build beautifully strong muscles while eating a minimal amount of protein – your body will synthesize it’s own protein using the carbohydrates that you eat. Many vegan athletes promote this lifestyle as you can be fit and strong while eating a wholefood diet which does not require artificial supplements like protein bars and shakes.
Here are some vegan complete proteins:
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Sprouted lentils (sprouting makes them complete)
The following combination of plant foods result in a meal containing all 9 essential amino acids (complete protein):
- Rice and beans/lentils/chickpeas
- Peanut butter sandwich
- Pita with humus
I have only listed a few plant-based complete proteins above – the list is way too long for this article. A simple internet search will provide you with more than enough information on the amount on protein in different plant-based foods, including a breakdown of their amino acid profile. Websites like http://www.cronometer.com give a detailed breakdown of the nutritional content of most foods and this can help you make sure that you incorporate a bit of protein with every meal.
For those of you who are very active – do not be scared to go vegan out of fear of losing muscle and fitness. There are so many athletes that have seen the benefits of going vegan firsthand – you feel lighter and far more energetic and muscle recovery time is significantly reduced. If you still have doubts – look here. By eliminating the inflammatory effects of animal protein (meat, dairy, eggs) from the diet, along with an increase in anti-oxidants and vitamins/minerals, vegan athletes recover way faster than their omnivorous colleagues after strenuous work-outs and injuries.
Get healthy! Go vegan!
PS: Check out this fantastic article by Kris Carr about protein – it is very informative.