Worried about getting enough vegan protein sources into your plant-based diet? If meeting your daily vegan protein quota is the only thing holding you back from taking the plant-based plunge, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Getting enough protein on a vegan diet is easy once you know what you’re looking for. From nut butter and seeds to legumes and beans, there are so many affordable, tasty and versatile high-protein vegan protein foods on offer. You’ve probably got a few hanging out in your kitchen already!
If you’re looking to kickstart a healthy, satisfying and protein-packed vegan diet, we’re going to talk about the 5 best protein sources you need in a high-quality plant-based protein, so you can get the nutrients you need to power your active lifestyle.
Vegan protein sources: The facts
Before we share the need-to-know details of all the nutrient-dense, delicious and easily sourced vegan protein sources shown in the chart above, these plant-based protein facts will help you to get the most out of your vegan diet.
What Is Plant Based Protein?
Plant based protein, is simply protein derived from plant sources. Plant protein can be sourced from a variety of different places, such as peas, soy, pumpkin seed, watermelon seeds, rice, chickpeas, quinoa, and hemp. The best plant based protein sources will vary from person to person and really depends on what sources you’re looking for, intolerances, allergies, and micronutrient profile.
The British Nutrition Foundation states that:
‘protein is essential for the growth and repair of the body, as well as the maintenance of good health’
The human body is made up of around 100 trillion cells, which are each built up of thousands of individual proteins. Every single protein plays its unique part in maintaining your immune system, producing infection-fighting antibodies and ultimately, helping your body to grow, recover and repair.
Simply put? Protein is seriously important stuff. Plus, as the body can’t store it, you need to eat adequate amounts of it every single day in order to feel your best and keep your body in optimal health
How much protein do you actually need?
The British Nutrition Foundation advise that the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) is 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for adults.
This amounts to around 56g/day for men and 45g/day for women, but the exact requirements will differ depending on your weight. Your diet type (vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous) does not affect your protein requirement. There is, however, an extra requirement for children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
This might sound hefty, but most adults (including vegetarians and vegans) in the UK get more than enough protein in their diet. If you make a conscious effort to include 1 or 2 vegan protein sources with every meal, you’ll be surprised at how quickly the numbers rack up.
Animal vs vegan protein sources: How do they compare?
In the battle of beef vs. bean, many assume that vegan protein foods simply can’t compete with their animal counterparts. This is largely down to the difference in their amino acid composition. When you consume protein – be it animal or plant – your body breaks it down into organic compounds called amino acids.
These amino acids are used to help with numerous essential body functions and processes, from tissue repair to nutrient absorption.
There are 20 amino acids in total, but only 9 are considered essential to your diet. This is because your body can’t produce them, so they must be consumed in the food that you eat. If you’re wondering how this relates to the animal vs vegan protein debate, this is where it should all come together.
Complete protein sources contain all 9 of the essential amino acids that your body cannot create on its own. Incomplete protein sources only contain some of them.
- Animal proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, making them complete
- Most vegan protein sources lack one or more amino acids, making them incomplete
In reality, this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a roadblock to veganism. Your body is able to combine amino acids from the different vegan protein sources you consume throughout the day, to gain all 9 essential amino acids. Therefore, simply making sure to include a wide variety of vegan protein sources in your diet will give your body all the essential amino acids it requires.
The 5 Best Plan Protein Sources
While vegan protein foods might lose the amino acid battle, it’s still easy to get enough of them as a vegan. The key is to focus on consuming a variety of plant protein sources, each with their own amino acid composition, every day.
The best vegan protein sources below will leave your body nourished and your hunger satisfied, all whilst helping towards those plant-powered gains.
Pea protein is perhaps the best plant protein source. Supplementing with a plant protein that has a full essential amino acid (EAA) profile, is critical to initiating the muscle-building process, better known as muscle protein synthesis. As compared to other plant-based protein sources, Pea protein has the highest essential amino acid mix, almost rivaling that of Whey Protein
In a double-blind randomized controlled study published in the Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, pea protein went head to head against whey protein, to investigate the effects on muscle composition and strength. 161 male participants enrolled in a 12-week resistance training program and were randomized into a pea, whey, and placebo control group. The results showed a significant and greater effect on muscle composition amongst the pea protein group, with no clinical difference between groups in regard to muscle strength. Therefore, this study proves, that Pea protein, is a phenomenal plant-based protein source to help increase muscle strength and composition, to further improve athletic performance.
A similar study conducted at Lipscomb University in Tennesse, compare the effects of whey and pea protein supplementation in conjunction with 8-weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT) on strength, body composition, muscle thickness, IMTP peak force, IMTP RFD, and WOD performance. The results confirmed that whey and pea proteins promote similar strength, performance, body composition, and muscular adaptations following 8-weeks of HIFT
Hemp is also a complete plant protein source containing all nine essential amino acids. In addition to a complete EAA profile, hemp is another great protein source, due to its healthy fats, fiber content, and digestibility [R]. Hemp protein powder is made from hemp seeds, which removes the oil, yet still contains 10% fat content [R]. Hemp contains an essential 3:1 balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids, contributing to improved heart joint, and brain health.
Additionally, Hemp protein is rich in minerals and antioxidants phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, zinc, and copper. When looking for a quality plant-based protein. Hemp protein, is an excellent plant-based protein source, to derive the healthy fats and essential amino acids you need.
Pumpkin Seed Protein
The pumpkin seed, much like hemp contains nearly 60% protein and 30% fat with an abundance of essential vitamins and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and copper [R].
Pumpkin seeds are one of the best natural sources of Magnesium. Magnesium is a critical element in helping the body regulate blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. If you can optimize your blood sugar levels, you can, therefore, minimize your risk to contracting chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Additionally, pumpkin seeds are rich in fiber, which supports better digestive health. Pumpkin seed protein is a valuable source of protein. When looking for a high-quality plant protein powder, try to find that includes pumpkin seed protein.
Supposedly the next, “superfood’, sacha inchi is a nut native to the Amazonian jungles of South America and an amazing plant protein source. sacha inchi contains all essential amino acids making it a remarkable source of protein to help build muscle mass, strength, and improve athletic performance. Not to mention, it’s one of the most nutrient-dense nuts out there. Packed with alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), it also provides another source for healthy Omega-3 fatty acids [R].
A study published in the Journal Of Agricultural Food Chemistry found that Sacha inchi has an uncharacteristic amount of tryptophan (an essential amino acid, to balance the production of serotonin, which is involved in regulating appetite [R]. Serotonin also helps control your mood, promotes better quality sleep, and improves overall vitality. There’s a reason why sacha inchi, has been elevated to ‘super’ status.
Quinoa is a very high-quality plant protein source. With a full essential amino acid profile, quinoa is a great source of protein, to help improve athletic performance measurements, such as increasing strength, muscle mass, and optimizing body composition. Quinoa contains 7.2% leucine content to total protein. Leucine is proven to be the one branched-chain amino acid, that is responsible for initiating muscle protein synthesis the best. The more leucine, post-workout, the more muscle mass you’ll build, which translates into better athletic performance.
Other Vegan Protein Sources You Can Utilize
As well as touting an endless list of health benefits (from cholesterol-lowering power to immune-boosting qualities), oats happen to pack a mighty plant protein punch! A 50g serving of uncooked oats weighs in at 195 calories but boasts 8–9g protein, 6g fibre and an enviable list of micronutrients including manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and zinc.
If we had to crown the king of vegan snacks, it’d have to be nuts. From creamy cashews to bold brazils, these vegan protein source staples taste amazing, make for the ultimate convenience food and deliver an incredible nutritional profile.
An average handful (28g) of the following nuts contains:
- Peanuts: 7.3g protein, 161 kcal
- Almonds: 6g protein, 164 kcal
- Pistachios: 5.7g protein, 159 kcal
- Cashews: 4.3g protein, 163 kcal
- Walnuts: 4.3g protein, 186 kcal
- Hazelnuts: 4.2g protein, 178kcal
- Brazils: 4.1g protein, 187 kcal
Alongside their high protein content, nuts are high in fat—but largely the good, unsaturated kind. As well as being incredibly filling, unsaturated fat is great for your heart, your cholesterol and your overall health. To make the most of everything that heart-healthy nuts have to offer, try to opt for raw, unsalted varieties when you can.
They might be small, but they’re definitely mighty. If a generous amount of fibre, healthy fats and protein isn’t enough to make you want to incorporate seeds into your vegan diet, this next plant-powered fact might.
Best Plant Protein Sources: Takeaway
Finding a plant protein powder, that contains a mix of nutritional protein sources that offer a full essential amino acid profile, as well as additional micronutrients is crucial for a plant-based diet. Studies suggest that Pea protein is the best protein source, to help increase strength, increase muscle mass, and optimize athletic performance. However, it is essential to include other plant-based sources, to acquire healthy omega-3 fats, and nutrients like zinc and magnesium. Finally, make sure to purchase products, that provide full transparency, and disclose how much of each plant protein source, you’re actually getting.
Don’t be taken in by the myth that high protein vegan foods are fiddly, inferior or time-consuming. While getting adequate amino acids on a plant-based diet requires you to enjoy a wider range of protein foods than your meat-eating friends, the added variety will only benefit you. After all, diet diverse in plant-based wholefoods is nutrient-dense, intensely nourishing and rich in antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and minerals!