How to get all the protein you need from plant-based foods

If you decide to make the switch to a completely plant-based diet there are certain parts of your diet you need to pay close attention to to make sure you’re getting the nutrition you need to stay healthy. One of those is protein, because as a general rule omnivores tend to get the bulk of theirs from meat and dairy foods.

Getting all the protein you need from a vegan diet is eminently achievable, even if you have the high protein demands that come with an athletic lifestyle. You just have to know what to eat – so we asked Heather Russell, dietitian at The Vegan Society for advice on exactly that.

What are the best sources of protein for vegans, particularly if they train frequently?

The quality of all sources of protein varies, and a good way to work out what the best vegan sources is to look at the amount of lysine, which is an amino acid. Good sources include beans, peas, soya, peanut butter, quinoa, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds. Ensure you keep to the low FODMAP serving in the Monash app. Soy in particular is a great source of plant protein – the quality of the plant protein in soy is similar to meat and dairy, so that can be particularly valuable especially for people who have higher protein needs like athletes. If you’re a vegan who trains regularly, it’s a good idea to eat regular meals containing protein-rich foods, including a bedtime snack.

What about vegan meat substitutes?

I wouldn’t encourage them as everyday sources of protein because they contain quite variable amounts of salt. There’s a variety of soy mince which comes dry. You rehydrate it and use it like normal mince, and that tends to have no added salt. That can be handy as a healthy everyday protein source that replaces meat.

I would certainly encourage people to eat things like lentils, beans, chickpeas and tofu rather than using meat replacement products, because it’s best to eat minimally processed foods most of the time. There are good reasons to eat certain foods that are more processed, but if you want to make the most of a vegan diet I’d suggest going for those other less processed sources of protein.

What’s the best type of vegan milk for protein?

Using fortified soy milk is useful because the soy variety contains much more protein than other plant milks. However, there is presently no low FODMAP soy milk in the US. If you’re athletic you need a bit more protein so that’s a good choice. You can fortify other plant milks with vegan low FODMAP protein powder.

Should vegans be concerned with “complete” proteins?

I think this may come from an outdated concept of protein combining. People used to talk about having to eat certain plant proteins in the same meal to get the complete mix of amino acids, but the reality is that as long as you’re having good-quality sources of plant protein across the day you don’t need to worry about combining specific foods. It’s more about choosing good sources of protein.

There are three points. You need to have enough calories overall; you need to get enough protein for your requirements in terms of grams per day; and the protein sources you’re eating across the day need to be of good quality. As long as you tick those off then you don’t need to worry too much.

Can vegan protein supplements be useful?

I always say it’s better to obtain protein from food, because foods are a whole package of nutrients – it’s not just the protein you get from them. The only situation where I would suggest that someone uses a protein supplement is if they’ve tried their best to hit their protein target across the day but for some reason they’re struggling to do that, and they find that using a supplement enables them to do that.

People focus a lot on protein but really you need to look at the overall eating pattern and the quality of the food you’re eating, and if you’re eating lots of processed food and nutrients by themselves you’re not going to be getting the benefit of all the other things that come with a good source of plant protein like vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Medically reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD

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