Are we whey too obsessed?
One of the questions I am asked most frequently when people learn that I am vegan is ‘but how do you get enough protein?’. It’s an understandable query – the last few years have placed so much emphasis on protein as the answer to all our health and fitness queries, it’s hard not to believe that the more protein we eat, the healthier we are.
But is protein really the be-all and end-all of a healthy diet? How much protein do we really need and what are the best sources? Are protein powders good or a waste of money?
Contrary to popular belief, if you eat a wide variety of foods containing plenty of wholegrains, meeting your daily protein requirements as a vegan is not too difficult. One argument against veganism is that there are very few ‘complete protein sources’ (protein sources containing all nine essential amino acids we need in our diet. Whilst complete proteins sources are primarily found in animal products, such as meat and eggs, consuming a mix of plant-based foods means it’s possible to consume all essential amino acids in a vegan meal, e.g. peanut butter on toast, or rice and beans.
It was indeed once thought that vegetarian and vegan diets couldn’t supply adequate amounts of the necessary amino acids, but updated views suggest that “protein from a variety of plant foods eaten during the course of a day typically supplies enough essential amino acids when caloric requirements are met”.
Supplements or food?
Protein supplementation is big business – in the UK we spend more than £66m a year on sports nutrition products, and research suggests that around 25% of us have consumed some sort of sports nutrition product in the last year. Thanks to this market boom, there are plenty of great protein supplements out there (as well as some really, really bad ones), but protein is thought to be best consumed primarily in food rather than supplements for a number of reasons.
According to Euromonitor figures, which cover ready-to-drink beverages, protein powders and protein bars with a minimum of 20g of protein, the sports nutrition market has grown by about 160% since 2011. Another market analyst, Nielsen, said there was a 63% rise in sales of protein bars in 2015, compared with the previous 12 months, while Mintel figures, published in August, said there were 40% more launches of high-protein products in 2016 compared with 2015 – The Guardian.
- Protein powders lack vitamins, minerals and fibre that you get from eating food, which are important in every diet
- Many protein powders contain artificial chemicals, such as sweetener, which may have some negative health effects if consumed in large quantities, and taste kinda weird.
- Excess protein is either excreted in urine or stored as fat and can lead to weight gain. Just because shakes are drinks, it doesn’t mean they don’t contain calories. It is harder to overeat on a meal, which is usually much more satisfying.
Having said that, protein powders can make a quick and easy ‘snack’ after a workout, which is why so many people take them. If you struggle to hit daily calories, they can be a useful way of increasing them, but using them in lieu of a meal, for example, can lead to decreased overall nutrient intake, which is best avoided.
How much protein should I be eating?
The recommended daily allowance of protein is somewhere between 0.8g and 1.2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Certain factors can push you towards the higher end of this, such as having a very active lifestyle, and older people also have higher protein requirements, but the majority of people are fine towards the lower end of the scale. In fact, some evidence suggests that reduced protein consumption is linked to increased longevity. However,there is little evidence to suggest that eating excess protein is harmful for an otherwise healthy adult, but excess protein cannot be utilised by the body, which is why protein supplements are possibly more fuss than they are worth: excess protein will go straight though you, so you’re literally flushing money down the drain!
So what are the best plant-based sources of protein?
Tofu is derived from soya (another great source of protein) and can be cooked in many ways, taking on the flavour of whatever it is being cooked in. 100g tofu provides 8g protein and is also incredibly low in fat.
While you may think of oats as a carbohydrate, they are also one of the best vegan protein sources. Oats pack a protein punch at 10g protein per 100g! Buy whole or steel-cut oats rather than instant to get the full benefits.
Whist not extremely high in protein (4g in 100g cooked), quinoa is one of the few plant-based foods that is a complete protein. Contrary to its appearance, quinoa is actually a seed, but makes a great alternative to other carbohydrates.
Pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas and beans are not only extremely healthy, but also cheap and easy to chuck into any meal. Chickpeas come in at 7g protein per 100g, lentils at 8-9g protein per 100g and peas at 7g per 100g. These should make up a large proportion of any plant-based diet.
Although high in fats and therefore best consumed in moderation, peanut butter contains 25g of protein per 100g, making it also an excellent (and cheap) source of protein. When combined with wholemeal bread, it acts as a complete protein source (i.e. all essential amino acids are present).
What’s important to remember is that you don’t have to eat a steak in order to consume adequate amounts of protein. All foods contain a mixture of fats, protein and carbohydrates in differing ratios. Eating a varied and wholegrain-rich diet is a simple way of ensuring you are consuming enough protein (and vitamins and minerals) everyday.
Eating a healthy plant-based diet doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult, and even if you are extremely active, you can rest assured that you are probably consuming enough protein day to day.
For what it’s worth, I consume protein powder from time to time. If there’s a chance it’ll make my DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) better after an intense workout, I’m happy to try it. Having said that, when I run out I rarely bother buying any more, because I know the benefits are marginal. Some protein powders taste great though, so they’re nice as added flavouring in cereal, smoothies etc! Just bear the above in mind if thinking about purchasing some.
What are some of your favourite vegan high protein meals? Do you take protein powders?