Plant-Based Protein: Requirements, Foods, Combinations
Protein, one of the three macronutrients, is quintessential to a healthy diet.
A protein-rich diet allows the body to repair cells and make new ones, making it vital for building muscles and maintaining healthy bones, skin, hair, and nails.
Protein also plays an important role in the immune system, blood clotting, hormonal changes, and enzymes.
In addition, it helps cultivate lifestyle changes, such as reducing cravings for late-night snacking because consuming protein during the day can be quite filling.
In the era of climate change and worsening human health, veganism is a robust growing trend.
As a result, more and more research is being done on the best protein-rich foods that vegans can consume in order to enjoy sound health and proper nutrition.
There is a myriad of ways in which vegans can fulfill their protein requirements without any compromises or worries.
In addition, there are now readily available tools, insight, and expertise to help formulate a good protein diet, making it easier for vegans to meet recommendations for protein.
How Much Protein Do We Actually Need?
It is recommended that anywhere between 10 and 30 percent of a person’s calories come from protein.
For instance, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, it is beneficial to incorporate between 200 and 700 calories, or 50 and 175 grams, from protein-rich sources.
This boils down to a recommended dietary allowance of 0.8 grams per kilogram (kg) of body weight to prevent deficiencies in an average adult. So, if a person weighs 90 kg, they should consume 72 grams of protein per day.
The number is higher if they indulge in frequent exercise. For those who lift weights frequently or are involved in sports such as running and cycling, this is about 1.1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram because their bodies need more muscle strength to cope with the frequent grit.
An increased protein intake of 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram is also beneficial for those approaching the ages of 40 to 50.
Aging comes with a loss of muscle and asks for a stronger hold on a diet so that one can maintain a good quality of life for many more years and decades to come.
A helpful tool to determine the apt number of calories for one’s body is the basal metabolic rate, or the rate of metabolism, which converts calories and oxygen when one is resting to energy, i.e., the number of calories a body burns when performing basic life-sustaining functions.
Amino Acid Profile: Complete and Incomplete Proteins
A food source containing all these can be termed a complete protein.
Also called whole protein, it is basically a food source that contains an adequate proportion of the nine essential amino acids for optimal health, like soy and soy products.
Food items such as tofu, beans, and specific nuts that do not contain the nine essential amino acids mentioned above are called “incomplete proteins.”
Incomplete proteins found in plant foods can be mixed together to make a complete protein, thus making them valuable foods still.
Combining incomplete proteins to hit the whole protein requirement is fairly easy. A classic example is peanut butter on whole-grain toast. In this sense, composition matters.
Best Protein Sources for Vegans
Tofu comes in many varieties and textures. It is a form of processed soybean curd, making it an excellent source of complete protein. It is made with soybeans soaked in water, heated, and solidified with minerals like salt.
Originating from Asia, people all over the world have come to relish it as a smart meat substitute.
In doing so, they experience the additional health benefits of tofu, which has no cholesterol or saturated fats. In addition, a firm block of tofu has nearly 22 grams of protein per serving.
Tofu in the vegan diet can be found practically anywhere, including soups, tacos, wraps, rice, and curries.
A flowering plant of the amaranth family and a complete protein, quinoa is an excellent plant resource, grown as a crop mainly for its edible seeds.
A cup of quinoa has eight grams of protein or about 16 percent of the average daily requirement.
It has a slightly nutty, mild flavor that makes it a highly versatile raw food to mix with a variety of vegan recipes, such as a seasonal vegetable salad or cooked in one pot with lentils.
Additionally, quinoa provides more magnesium, iron, fiber, and zinc than many other common grains, such as rice. Quinoa can also be used in sweet dishes such as pudding or a breakfast bowl with fruits.
Legumes, also known as pulses when they are dried, work as charms for a protein-rich vegan diet. In addition, they are typically low in fat and have no cholesterol.
Some commonly cooked healthy legumes include lentils (17.9 grams of protein per cup), chickpeas (14.5 grams of protein per cup), soybeans (31.3 grams of protein per cup), peanuts (18.9 grams of protein per cup), and kidney beans (15.3 grams of protein per cup).
In order to make legumes a complete protein, one can make meals using combinations of foods such as whole grains with beans (e.g., beans with rice or tortillas) or incorporate nuts and seeds (e.g., salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds).
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae, biomass of cyanobacteria that humans can consume for its strong antioxidant effects.
Because its components contain 60 to 70 percent protein, it is ideal for vegans. One tablespoon of spirulina contains about four grams of protein.
Spirulina has several species, out of which three are most commonly found, known, and studied for their nutritional and therapeutic values:
- Spirulina platensis
- Spirulina maxima
- Spirulina fusiformis
They are generally sold in the form of pressed tablets or as loose powder.
There are tons of easy ways to add spirulina to an existing vegan diet. It can be mixed into smoothies and juices and sprinkled on salads and soups.
However, Spirulina should not be used as the primary source of protein since it is not a complete protein in itself.
5. Chia Seeds
A super high-quality protein known for its antioxidant properties, chia seeds are not only great carriers of protein but also promote intestinal and heart health.
They contain 19 percent protein, amounting to 16.5 grams of protein per 100 grams of chia seeds.
Chia seeds contain all the essential amino acids, making them a complete source of protein.
It can be argued that they’re the most potent ingredients in vegan cooking. Though they are tiny, they are huge in their nutritious offering and often substitute eggs in the vegan diet.
The easiest and quickest way to consume chia seeds is to make ‘chia gel’ by soaking the chia seeds in water.
The seeds’ soluble fiber absorbs the water and makes them swell, adding a gel-like texture to them, which can be used to dress salads, thicken foods, or be consumed as is.
6. Dry Fruits
Dry fruits are an excellent option for a vegan-friendly snack. They are full of benefits for the body, easy to munch, and power-packed with the healthiest vitamins and minerals.
The best protein-rich dry fruit options include almonds (21 grams of protein per 100-gram serving), Brazil nuts (14 grams of protein per 100-gram serving), cashews (18 grams of protein per 100-gram serving), and walnuts (15 grams of plant protein per 30-gram serving).
Except for some, like cashews and Brazil nuts, most dry fruits and nuts are not complete proteins in themselves but can be combined with other nutritious foods such as grains and seeds to offer the nutrition of a complete protein.
Made out of wheat gluten, seitan is a form of flavorsome plant-based meat used in a number of dishes. Gluten is the main protein of wheat. For making seitan, the wheat dough is rinsed to remove starch, leaving a residual protein.
Seitan includes 75 grams of protein per 100-gram serving, which is enough for most adults for a day.
While seitan lacks the amino acid lysine, making it an incomplete protein, it is usually seasoned with soy sauce while cooking, which adds the missing amino acid to the meal.
Complete Protein Sources
A complete protein is essential from a consumption point of view because, of the 20 amino acids that can form a protein, the human body cannot produce nine of them on its own.
Hence, we take complete proteins to get a sufficient amount of each amino acid daily.
Proteins can be made complete by eating a variety of foods spread over the day that balance and complement each other well in a person’s diet.
Some plant-based complete proteins include quinoa, soy, chia seeds, spirulina, and amaranth.
There is also buckwheat, commonly used in Japanese noodles and soba; hummus and pita, lovely go-to vegan snacks; tempeh and edamame beans, forms of soy like tofu; Ezekiel bread, which is made from sprouted grain; and hemp and pumpkin seeds.
As the name goes, protein powders are a powdered form of protein. Vegan protein powders are derived from plants such as soybeans, peas, potatoes, hemp, or rice.
They are sold in various flavors and are available as a variety of products, and they are usually mixed with water or plant milk products or added to foods to boost their nutritional value.
The products have become excessively popular for reasons such as athletes wanting to gain muscle faster, vegans wanting to add whole nutrition to their diet in place of meat or eggs, and others simply wanting a quick substitute for a meal.
The most obvious benefit of a protein powder is its convenience and quickness in providing the body with an adequate amount of protein.
It is also very filling, thus helping one to overcome the tendency to overeat, and it contains all nine essential amino acids.
However, protein powders come with their own drawbacks. Too much protein can give rise to health concerns such as fatigue, nausea, and bloating.
Further, some products are sold without a proper ingredient list, making it possible for them to include stimulants or steroids, as well as added sugars and oils that add calories.
Some medical experts say protein powders require the kidney to work harder, leading to potential complications such as calcium excretion that may cause bone loss.
Consulting a dietician regarding protein powder intake is a wise idea.
A licensed professional can inform one of the potential health concerns or whether or not one needs extra protein in their diet at all, considering that all bodies are built differently and with different needs.
As per Redefine Meat’s Vegan Statistics of 2021, there are an estimated 79 million vegans globally.
However, it is predicted that by 2040, only 40 percent of the world’s population will still be consuming meat.
Veganism is changing the food industry and how we approach and interact with food. Consequently, it is transforming our habits and practices surrounding food intake.
It is opening up new possibilities for exploring alternatives to fulfill our dietary and nutritional needs, including those of the macronutrient protein.
Protein is the building block for our muscles and, by extension, our health.
Vegans are generally required to consume more sources of protein because while there are plenty of plant-based proteins available, they are not as easily digestible as other sources of protein.
The good news is that there exist many great resources and incredibly ground-breaking tried and tested methods that ensure one’s best health in terms of a well-rounded protein intake–all while doing one’s bit to protect the planet and add to the sustainability movement.
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