Let’s talk about all things plant protein, doing some vegan myth-busting for World Vegan Month.
Check out the Plant Protein 101 Facebook Live replay here, and my summary notes below:
Where do you get your protein?
It’s one of the most common vegan FAQs! And the answer is just about everything we eat… when choosing whole foods!
That said, there’s still a lot of confusion and myths surrounding plant protein.
Since it’s World Vegan Month, let’s take a look at some other common questions around plant-based proteins.
Best vegan protein sources
These include soy products, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Of these, top sources include tofu, tempeh, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, almonds, hemp hearts, sacha inchi seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, and brown rice. There are more still, and really anything that comes from a whole plant will have some protein to it. Again it adds up quickly. For vegetables and fruits, gram for gram and calorie for calorie, broccoli, kale, spirulina, sweet potatoes, and avocados are up there.
How much should we aim for in a day?
In general, people in the west are kind of overdosed on protein. The standard North American diet sees animal protein as the center of the meal, and it’s only recently that Canada’s food guide has pushed plant proteins into the center.
For intensive muscle-building and weight maintenance in the case of specific medical conditions (like maybe cancer, eating disorders, general difficulty keeping weight or muscle tissue on), typical guidelines suggest upwards of 25%, to around 40% daily total macronutrient intake be protein.
But for whole-food vegans and vegetarians that are in good health, not sedentary, but not hyper-athletic bodybuilders either, we can generally get by with between 15-25%.
I’m personally not super into strictly following the numbers, so I usually make sure to just include one to two whole food, concentrated, or higher-protein foods at each meal and a little with snacks.
What are complete and incomplete sources?
Basically, complete protein sources contain all 9 essential amino acids, while incomplete sources are missing 1 or more of them. Generally, animal products are considered complete, while plant foods are more often seen as incomplete. So it’s generally suggested to combine plant protein sources at each meal or snack to ensure we get enough of all the essential aminos in a day. Which brings me to the question:
What’s protein combining and should you be doing it?
The idea is that by combining types of protein sources, we can create a complete protein. Typically, combinations consist of one plant food group with another: beans with grains, beans with vegetables, grains with vegetables, nuts with vegetables, and nuts with grains.
But do you need to do it all the time, if at all?
While pairing these foods comes pretty naturally on a whole-food diet, it’s not absolutely necessary to pair complementary foods at each meal in a day. Our bodies carry amino acids and kind of pair them up as needed or as complements become available, keeping them in a reserve or pool for a time. So you could have, say, a bowl of whole wheat pasta and sauce for lunch, and then have the complementary beans and vegetables for dinner to form complete proteins for the day.
Do you need protein powder and how do you find quality?
Yes and no.
Yes: a quality protein powder is a quick and easy way to ensure you’re hitting your total minimum requirement when you’re not sure your diet will cut it on any given day, and/or if you’re really too busy to cook, and/or you need to keep your protein intake for muscle anabolism.
This is where I suggest choosing ones made with whole foods, making sure they digest well for you, and if you’re adding them to breakfast smoothies, boosted with additional greens or even a multivitamin complex are decent ways to go.
No: a well-planned WFPB diet can be quite loaded with protein. Plant foods do naturally also contain some protein, and it can add up surprisingly quickly.
Including more concentrated sources like legumes and seeds goes a long way to boosting your total.
How do you know which protein powder is right for you?
Consider your activity level, eating habits, energy, and overall health goals. If you’re very active, don’t like cooking or don’t have time for it, if you want to gain or keep muscle, if you want to make your own high-protein snacks like protein balls or pancakes… then it’s worthwhile looking at protein powders.
I like to keep one or two kinds or flavours in my pantry. I tend to look for whole-food protein sources, better if it’s also got greens in it, and no sugar. Sometimes I also get ones with a full multi and superfood complex in it as well, because I treat my breakfast smoothie as a liquid multivitamin too. I usually have a vanilla or coconut or plain protein, plus a chocolate one in my pantry, and will use them in my breakfast smoothies to set me up for the day, and sometimes have some – like a half scoop – in a simple shake after a workout. I consider it insurance.
And the one that’s right for you is the one you can stomach! Literally, if you can digest it and you enjoy the taste, as long as it’s good quality too, go for it.
What to look for: typically, protein powders made from fermented or sprouted sources tend to be easier to digest than other types. Some may also contain additional digestive enzymes – especially ones designed for fitness – and probiotics to further help with digestion; and others may also contain a greens blend or a multivitamin, though these may not digest as well, and can be more grainy when mixed with just liquid. In the case of a multi-fortified powder, try to look for ones that formulate with real food vs synthetic vitamins.
If you’re worried about allergy or sensitivity, try single-source proteins (such as pure unflavoured and even unsweetened brown rice, hemp, or pumpkin seed protein). Some brands offer single-serving packets so you can try them before investing in a full-size tub. Similarly, if your favourite bulk store carries protein powders, get a serving or two (or about 1/4 to 1/2 cup) to start before loading up a whole bag or jar.
What’s really up with soy and hormones?
Soy is still considered controversial, widely believed to mess with hormone levels, elevating “female” sex hormones regardless of actual sex, and possibly influencing hormone-dependent cancers.
So first, soy does contain phytoestrogen, which takes up estrogen receptors in our bodies. This is not, however, necessarily a bad thing. By taking up these receptors, it prevents binding of xenoestrogens, or foreign estrogens (from sources like plastics or body products or environmental contaminants) from binding and exerting further estrogenic effects on the body, and instead they’re free to be swept out of the system.
But some herbicides and pesticides may act as xenoestrogens, and soy products in particular are highly likely to have been grown with or modified to withstand them. So this is why organic soy is preferable over regular or conventional.
Soy may also be allergenic and inflammatory to some, which is a stress on the body, which in turn affects hormones, so reducing or avoiding too much soy may help those with sensitivities and systemic inflammation to rebalance their hormones.
Similarly, there’s a place in the diet for vegan protein foods made to resemble animal products, but again, keeping the potential for inflammation and allergy in mind.
Barring these health concerns, having them a couple of times a week, especially if the majority of your diet (70-80%) is otherwise whole foods, is perfectly fine.
So yes, there’s still a place for Beyond burgers, Gardein chick’n fingers, and Tofurky roasts in a health-minded whole-food vegan lifestyle.
If you still have questions about how to figure out how much protein you need, what other foods are great plant sources of protein, and some delicious high-protein plant-powered recipe inspo, grab the free guide below.
Correction: In this video I mentioned a giveaway that opened up the next day as being for a Well.ca e-gift card when I meant VitSave.ca. I apologize for the confusion.
The giveaway is open to 18yr+ residents of Canada on my social media through Wednesday November 25.