Thought the hardest thing about going vegan would be getting enough protein? Chances are it’ll be the amount of time you’ll spend explaining how you get enough protein to well-meaning friends and family.
The best way to deal with the sudden interest in your macronutrient profile is to answer in such intricate detail that they’re scared to ask you again. Our ultimate guide to protein for vegans will help you do just that.
Whether you’ve gone cold-tofurky on all animal products or you’re plant-based curious, the subject of getting enough protein is a genuine concern. Every cell, every muscle, every tissue in our bodies contains protein. It’s vital for structure, growth and repair. Protein and its building blocks, amino acids, are the workhorses for a raft of bodily processes, from digestion to defense. Even our DNA needs protein to function properly.
And, while we can make the carbs we need for energy out of protein if we really had to, all the protein we need has to be obtained by the food we eat. It’s no wonder we’re all so preoccupied by it.
Luckily, it’s a common misconception that protein is hard to come by on a vegan diet because, well, plants! These overlooked protein powerhouses already supply most of the protein consumed globally, with rice, maize and wheat providing at least 70 per cent of the total protein in the world’s food supply.
A well-planned vegan diet can provide all the protein and amino acids you need to glow with good health. And although you may have to be a bit more proactive in your protein intake, it can also help you build muscle if that’s what’s required.
So are you ready to crush both your nutritional goals and that annoying ‘where do you get your protein?’ question once and for all? Read on to discover everything you ever wanted to know (and possibly some things you didn’t) about vegan protein.
In this guide we’ll be covering:
- Why do we need protein?
- What does protein do to your body?
- How much protein should I eat in a day?
- How much protein do you need to build muscle?
- What do you need to know about protein when you’re a vegan?
- Do vegans get enough protein?
- What happens if you eat too much protein?
- How to get complete protein when vegan?
- How do vegans get protein?
- What are the symptoms of protein deficiency?
- Vegan protein in food
- Vegan protein powder benefits
- Do I need protein powder to build muscle?
- Is protein powder good for weight loss?
- Vegan protein versus whey
- Is vegan protein powder gluten free?
- Is vegan protein powder soy free?
- Is vegan protein powder organic?
- Does protein powder make you fart?
- Does protein powder cause acne?
- Is protein powder good for you?
- So, does vegan protein powder work?
Why do we need protein?
Protein isn’t just a dietary nice-to-have. Every cell and drop of our blood contains many thousands of different types of proteins, and each of these is built from the protein we consume. In fact, the word ‘protein’ comes from the Greek word proteios, meaning of prime importance, so essential is it as a major structural and functional component of the body.
Part of the ‘big three’ basic macronutrients along with carbs and fat, it’s arguably the most important. Carbs can be made out of protein, fat is rarely in short supply even if you’re super lean and there are only two absolutely essential fatty acids. But protein, and more specifically the range of amino acids it contains, cannot be produced in-house. The only way to get protein is to eat it.
What does protein do to your body?
What doesn’t it do? This macronutrient multitasker has such a long to-do list it makes carbs look like a bit of a slacker.
- Structure - Protein gives ligaments, skin, muscles and bones their strength and structure. It’s a major component of the heart and brain, as well as our eyes, hair and nails.
- Defense - Our immune system needs protein to help make the antibodies required to help fight infections. You know when you have a wound and your blood clots to protect it? That’s protein in action.
- Repair - All the cells and tissues in your body are in a constant state of flux. Red blood cells live for about four months, skin cells live about two or three weeks. Colon cells die off after about four days. You need protein to repair and replenish them and if you’re recovering from illness or surgery, or you’re an athlete, the amount you need will increase.
- Growth and reproduction - Protein is the only macronutrient to contain nitrogen, without which we cannot grow or reproduce. It’s such an important building block that a child who lacks protein in the first five years of life will suffer from stunting.
- Digestion - We need protein to make the enzymes that let us digest our food and turn it into usable energy and nutrients.
- Hormones - Proteins act as chemical messengers that travel in our blood to coordinate all the processes in our body.
- Transport - Proteins carry substances like vitamins, minerals, blood sugar and oxygen to where your body needs them and helps them cross cell membranes.
- Fluid balance - Protein helps you maintain an appropriate balance of fluids and pH in different body compartments.
How much protein should I eat in a day?
Protein requirements vary based on factors like age, sex, health, activity level, the state of your health or whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. But as a baseline, the average person needs around 0.75 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight, according to the British Nutrition Foundation. So if you’re 80kg (about 12 and a half stone) you’ll need 60g of protein, while if you’re 60kg (just over 9 stone) you’ll need 45g.
How much protein do you need to build muscle?
Want to see some gains? Adding protein to your diet is key. Athletes require a bit more protein when they’re actively trying to build muscle, around 1.3 to 1.8g per kg of bodyweight (depending on who you ask).
What do you need to know about protein when you’re a vegan?
Two words: amino acids. Protein is made up of long chains of various amino acids put together in specific combinations. There are around 20 in all, nine of which are classed as essential because, while the body can break them down and recycle them, it can’t magically create them out of nowhere.
Your diet must provide a regular supply of these essential amino acids to replace the normal amount of protein we lose every day. That’s why if you’re recovering from surgery, you’re an athlete trying to build muscle or you’re a woman building a baby, your protein needs increase.
Your cheeseburger-munching friend doesn’t have to give amino acids much thought because protein from animal sources like dairy and beef already contains the full complement of essential amino acids we need. But, as vegans, things get a little trickier as some plants are lower in certain amino acids.
The nine essential amino acids are called histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. And luckily, the body has a clever trick up its sleeve to make sure anyone on a vegan diet gets every single one of them.
Do vegans get enough protein?
Vegans all around the world have access to more than enough protein needed for general health. Throw together a quick salad of tofu and chickpeas, sprinkle on some nuts and seeds and your lunch alone will give you around 30g of protein, well on your way to your total.
What happens if you eat too much protein?
The jury’s still out on that one. Although there’s no strictly defined tolerable upper limit, a dietary protein intake and human health report from the University of Texas states that a chronic high protein intake (classed as anything greater than 2g protein per kg in body weight per day for adults) may result in digestive, renal and vascular abnormalities and therefore should be avoided.
Weight gain may also be an issue as any protein not excreted will be stored as fat. However this and many other similar studies are carried out with subjects eating mainly animal protein such as dairy and red or processed meats. Very little research has been conducted into any risks associated with high protein in vegan diets.
In the short term, if you eat too much protein for your body to handle, you’ll certainly do an expensive (and potentially strong-smelling) wee. Excess amino acids are deaminated in the liver, a process which converts their nitrogen into ammonia, and then into urea which you’ll excrete via your kidneys.
How to get complete protein when vegan
As a vegan, it’s important that all nine of the essential amino acids are included in your diet to provide optimum nutrition. This is not nearly as difficult as it sounds, and may not even require that much thought at all.
A complete protein is one that has all nine of the essential amino acids. Complete plant-based protein is rare, but not impossible to find, with quinoa, hemp and chia seeds being some particularly yummy examples. No, really!
Can’t face chomping through a big bowl of quinoa, hemp or chia every day? Don’t sweat it. By combining different foods (ie eating in the way humans naturally do) you’ll get all the amino acids you need without even thinking about it.
Eating tofu with broccoli gives you a complete protein. Or just combine any legume with a grain and voila! For instance, a peanut butter sandwich made with wholemeal bread, rice and beans or even hummus and pitta gives you complete protein.
How do vegans get protein?
Eating a varied diet is key to getting enough plant-based protein for good health when you’re a vegan. And as we’ve mentioned, you don’t need to get every single amino acid from just one single food.
Even better, we don’t even need to get every essential amino acid in a single sitting. The half-life of amino acids circulating in the blood vary, but it’s at least four to six hours after digestion. The nuts and seeds in your granola can provide the methionine at breakfast, your tofu can bring the lysine at lunch, while the mushrooms, broccoli, and peas in your dinner supply the tryptophan.
What are the symptoms of protein deficiency?
Most foods contain some protein - even white bread has 9g of it per 100g. As a result, true protein deficiency is rare in developed countries, and mainly only seen in people in hospital or suffering with eating disorders.
However signs of protein deficiency include:
- Brittle nails and thinning hair.
- Muscle loss, particularly in the elderly.
- Risks of bone fractures.
Vegan protein in food
Good vegan protein sources in food include:
Tofu (100g provides 8g protein).
Wholewheat bread (100g provides 10.6g protein)
Peanut butter (100g provides 25g protein)
Oats (100g provides 10g protein)
Brown rice (100g provides 4g protein)
Lentils (100g provides 9g protein)
Peas (100g provides 7g protein)
Broccoli (100g provides almost 2g protein)
Gregg’s vegan sausage roll (100g provides 11g protein). Sorry. Just checking you were still paying attention.
Vegan protein powder benefits
It’s a great idea to get your protein via a mix of sources spread over the course of the day to ensure you’re getting enough micronutrients, calcium and fibre. But on days you’re exercising (or can’t be bothered to cook) plant-based protein powders really come into their own.
Convenient and tasty, vegan protein powders have come a long way since the gritty, earthy-tasting early days. They’re delicious, quick to mix up and contain a really hefty dose of protein, usually between 20 to 25g per scoop.
Choosing a vegan protein powder that’s made up of a blend of different plant-based sources can give you all nine essential amino acids - and peace of mind that you really are getting them all. For example, one scoop of Ritual Vegan Protein Powder, our own blend of pea, hemp and quinoa, provides 20g of protein and a complete amino acid profile.
Some even come with desirable little extras that you might be struggling to get on your vegan diet. For example, Vivo’s Whole Nutritional Shake gives you a complete amino acid profile, plus essential fats, vitamins and live cultures.
Do I need protein powder to build muscle?
Lifting weights causes a breakdown of protein in the muscle. For muscles to grow stronger, they need proteins to rebuild. A type of amino acid called branched chain amino acids or BCAAs play a particularly important part in triggering muscle synthesis. The BCAAs are called leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Theoretically, you could get all the protein and BCAAs you need to build muscle through your plant-based diet. In practice, it’s a whole lot easier supplementing an already healthy diet with a protein powder that already contains the perfect amount of BCAAs.
Using the equation we mentioned above (that athletes should aim for 1.3 to 1.8g per kg of bodyweight to build muscle) you could be looking at a protein intake of up to 144g of protein each day if you’re 80kg and looking for big gains. That’s an awful lot of chickpeas.
Protein powder can make things easier. Choosing something specifically formulated for athletes such as Perform Vegan Protein Powder with BCAAs gives you a complete blend of plant protein, turmeric and digestive enzymes to help you train harder and recover faster. But it also comes with 6g of the branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine in every serving, in precisely the ratio athletes need.
Is protein powder good for weight loss?
Constant, gnawing hunger doesn’t normally go hand-in-hand with long-term diet success. But protein powder is a great way to make you feel fuller for longer, and has the benefit of not adding too many calories or carbohydrates to your diet (although you should always read the label as some have more of these than others).
Protein-rich foods not only tend to make people feel fuller, they can blunt the hunger hormones that lead to overeating. Protein also has a higher thermic effect (20 to 30%) compared to carbs (5 to 10%) and fat (0 to 3%), meaning you’re actually burning more calories just to process it.
But protein might also work for weight loss because of the ‘protein leverage hypothesis’ discovered in 2005 by David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson. The two biologists observed the eating habits of everything from crickets to monkeys and discovered that all animals have a ‘dominant appetite’ for protein.
Given a food that is low in protein but rich in carbohydrates, they keep eating the carb-heavy food until it has supplied them with enough protein. This increases their overall calorie intake, leading to weight gain. If they’re given food that is low in carbohydrates but rich in protein, they don’t eat enough calories and lose weight. Could that be the case for humans too?
Vegan protein versus whey
Of course if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, whey is off-limits as it’s derived from milk. But are vegans missing out on anything that whey can provide?
According to a clinical study, plant-based proteins proved to be equal to whey in terms of building muscle and recovery. As well as providing good results, plant-based protein powders are easier for the body to absorb and are generally less processed than the cow-based alternative.
Is vegan protein powder gluten free?
Vegan protein powder is naturally gluten-free, but you’ll need to keep an eye on the additives because certain flavorings, stabilisers or preservatives can be problematic if you’re allergic to gluten. In addition, protein powders that are highly processed carry a significant risk for gluten cross-contamination.
Always check the label. For example, Perform is naturally gluten free and made in a 100% gluten free facility. We’re proud of this so we’ve put it on our packaging - if your vegan powder doesn’t, chances are it’s not totally gluten-free.
Is vegan protein powder soy free?
You can buy soy-based protein powders, but it’s not something we use here at Vivo and all our vegan protein powders are soy-free. Processed soy comes with none of the benefits of whole soybeans and may in fact pose certain health risks.
Is vegan protein powder organic?
The only way to know if your protein powder is organic is to read the label. Ours are grown in accordance with our strict VGANIC™ brand promise, are third-party tested and certified free from over 500 different herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
Does protein make you fart?
While protein itself doesn’t make you fart, certain food sources of vegan protein do have a bit of a windy reputation because all the fibre provides such a feast for our gut bacteria. Beans and lentils can be particularly problematic because, not only do they contain lots of fibre, they also contain raffinose, a complex sugar that we don’t process very well.
Some whey protein powders can also make you gassy due to high amounts of lactose as can protein powders with certain sweeteners such as sorbitol.
Does protein powder cause acne?
The NHS states categorically that,” So far, research has not found any foods that cause acne.” But real-life experience (and a quick Google search) tells a rather different story. In fact, take a trip to any muscle building forum and you’ll find post after post linking their unwanted skin gains to the contents of their shaker cup.
So what’s really going on? Well it could be down to the dairy-based protein powders they’re consuming. Milk contains two proteins called casein and whey, the two most common forms of protein to be found in protein shakes. Whey is known to increase the production of insulin, while casein increases hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1. Both can increase the production of sebum by triggering the production of oil-gland stimulating androgens, while insulin spikes can cause an overgrowth of skin cells and inflammation.
This correlation between protein powder and acne has only been found in whey protein products. But what if you suspect a vegan protein powder is behind your break-out? It could be down to the sugars. Added sugars can increase IGF-1 levels, too. Look for a vegan protein powder that’s minimally processed with no added sugar.
Is vegan protein powder good for you?
A vegan protein powder is a convenient way to make sure you’re getting the protein you need, but some are healthier than others. You’ll need to check that it’s been tested for heavy metals or you could be getting an unhealthy dose of cadmium, lead and mercury along with all that protein.
These are found in the soil and can build up in our cells. They’ve even been linked to problems with the nervous system, heart and brain.
We batch test our formulas every three months and share these reports for full transparency to anyone who uses our products.
So, does vegan protein powder work?
The most important thing to remember is that wherever you get your protein from, it behaves in the body in exactly the same way. Get a complete amino acid profile over the course of the day and your body won’t know whether it’s come from an animal or something that’s much better for the planet.
Whatever the source, protein is protein. So whether you want to take a protein powder for weight loss, muscle gain or just to make sure you’re reaching your recommended intake of this magical macro, having a plant-based powder in your shaker cup is a great plan. We’ll drink to that!