You may have noticed that plant-based diets have been on the rise, showing no intention on stopping. There are now about 8 million adults in the United States who are vegetarians or vegans. But even with the increasing popularity of plant-based protein foods, they’re still not widely accepted by all. Time and time again we hear the same concern: protein, and in particular, finding “complete protein” sources.
The good news: this is a widely held misconception. We’re going to clear this up with some vegan and complete proteins facts, including how you can incorporate more into your life.
What is a complete protein anyway?
Protein is an important nutrient that helps build tissue and muscle, produce hormones, and keeps our immune systems strong. It’s recommended that adults should eat about 0.8g of protein per kg of their body weight each day. For example, a man who weighs 80g would need about 64g of protein. A woman who weighs 65g would need about 52g of protein. These are targets, so less protein on some days is totally fine. But not getting enough protein over a long period of time can lead to fatigue, low immunity, hair loss, and a whole basket case of other health problems.
Now that we have the overall picture of a “protein” established, what are complete proteins? Well, proteins are made of building blocks called amino acids. Think of protein as being a house, and the amino acids as being the bricks that create the structure.
There are 20 different types of amino acids: our body makes 11 of these, and 9 are “essential”, meaning that we can only get them through the foods we eat. So “complete protein” refers to foods with all 9 of the essential amino acids to help build protein in our bodies.
What about vegan complete protein?
Animal-based sources like meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs often take all the credit for being “complete proteins.” This is where the much of the misconception about insufficient protein in vegetarians and vegans comes from.
However, the spotlight has recently shifted to bring more awareness to vegan complete proteins. Did you know soy, hemp and quinoa are all amazing sources of vegan complete proteins? When you eat these foods, you’re getting the exact same quality of protein as you would in a piece of steak or a chicken breast.
So what about the other plant protein sources that aren’t complete? Don’t worry, you’re still covered here. Mixing and matching nuts, seeds, beans, and brown rice ensures that at the end of the day we still get all essential amino acids. These are called “complementary proteins”, and the classic example is rice and beans. Rice is low in the amino acid threonine, and beans are low methionine and tryptophan. When you combine them, you get a deliciously satisfying meal that has all essential amino acids.
We can eat complementary proteins throughout the day — it doesn’t have to be at every meal. What ultimately matters is getting a mix throughout the day, which means that variety is key. In North America we’re fortunate to have such a diversity of foods that the typical vegetarian and vegan meets, and often exceeds, protein requirements.
A sample plant-based menu
Eating with “variety” means incorporating foods such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, nuts, seeds into your everyday diet. A good rule to follow is to have at least 2 sources of plant-based protein at every meal, and 1 source at every snack. Here’s an example of what that looks like:
- Breakfast: Whole grain cereal with 1 cup soy milk, topped with sliced almonds and chia seeds (20g protein)
- Snack: Peanut butter and sliced apples (8g protein)
- Lunch: Black bean couscous salad (10g protein)
- Snack: Homemade protein bar with grains and almond butter (10g protein)
- Dinner: Homemade vegetarian chili (12g protein)
Daily total: 60g protein
See how each meal and snack had 1-2 high-protein ingredients, such as grains, nuts, seeds, soy, beans, and other protein sources?
The main takeaway here is to eat a variety of vegan complete proteins and incomplete proteins, and you’re good to go. Which brings me to my next point.
The big picture: The power of plant-based
Food is so complex and amazing. Rarely do foods provide only a single nutrient or benefit. Plant-based proteins are often the superior choice compared to animal-based options thanks to additional nutrients that come “packaged”with the protein.
Sharon Palmer, RDN explains: “It’s possible to meet one’s nutrient needs for protein with plant-based proteins, which tend to have a better protein package; the protein they provide is packaged with nutrients such as fiber, heart-healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.”
For example, by eating a chickpea salad that’s high in protein, you’re also fueling your body with:
- fiber to regulate your blood sugars,
- folate to help prevent anemia, and
- antioxidants to reduce your risk of developing certain cancers.
By incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, you can benefit not only from complete proteins but tons of vitamins and minerals. These nutrients are all designed to work together to keep your mental and physical health in top condition. This may be one of the main reasons why vegans have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancers than non-vegans.
How to incorporate vegan proteins into your life
Like I mentioned before, so long as you’re eating a variety of healthy, whole foods, rest assured that you’ll most likely get all essential amino acids. What does that look like? Here are some amazing options to get complete proteins:
- Seitan: 21g protein per 3oz
- Prepare and enjoy a a meat substitute for any dish (it can mimic the taste of meat very well)
- Chickpeas: 15g protein per cup
- Enjoy roasted chickpeas or turn them into hummus
- Tofu: 10g protein per ½ cup of firm tofu
- Marinate with soy sauce, sesame oil and tahini and add it to a vegetable stir-fry
- Quinoa: 8g protein per 1 cup.
- Make “quinoa bowls” and top it with pulses and mixed vegetables
- Hemp hearts: 10g per 3 tbsp
- Sprinkle it on top of your avocado toast or salads
- Chia seeds: 4g per 2 tbsp
- Add on top of porridge, and blend into smoothies
- Peanut butter: 8g per 2 tbsp
- Enjoy the “adult version” of a classic PB&J by adding a spoonful of chia seeds and top with a sliced banana
If you’ve been thinking of incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, now is a great time to do so. As you can see, there are many vegan complete protein sources, and complementary protein sources, can be easily incorporated into your diet.