Think of protein and what comes to mind is meat, fish, eggs and dairy – although it’s simple for vegetarians and vegans to get protein, too. This article will explain what protein is, why we need it, and advise how to get the full profile of amino acids on a vegetarian diet.
What is Protein?
Protein has many functions, from building and repairing muscle tissue to being involved in repairing red blood cells, hormone regulation, and is made up of 22 amino acids; these amino acids are the building blocks of the body.
Protein from animal origin is a complete protein, which means it contains the full spectrum of amino acids, whereas protein from plant sources are incomplete, containing some but not all of the amino acids. The main argument against plant-based diets are that the protein is inferior or less bioavailable (less easily digested / available to the body), however the key to healthy plant based diets is variety. By eating a variety of protein sources, you can ensure you are still getting all the full spectrum of amino acids.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
The recommended daily amount for a sedentary person is 0.8g per kg of bodyweight. Whilst there’s no conclusive recommendation on the amount of protein bodybuilders and athletes need, increasing to between 1.4-1.8g per kg bodyweight for athletes is widely recommended, with some bodybuilders and intensively-training strength athletes may increase to 2-3g per kg of bodyweight.
Once you have calculated your protein needs for your bodyweight, divide it by the number of meals you eat and you will see how easy it is to get your protein! For example, a 65kg athlete on 1.4-1.8g protein per kg bodyweight per day = 91-117g per day or 5 meals at 18-23g per meal to hit target (see table below for rough protein grams per portion to work out your diet plan).
How To Get Enough Protein and All 22 Amino Acids
Being vegetarian or vegan is more than just taking away the animal products; you have to manage your nutrition to ensure you are getting enough protein and the full spectrum of amino acids. This is especially important for exercising individuals, as your body requires more nutrients for muscle tissue repair. Vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs obviously have more choice including eggs, quark, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, milk, and cheese.
As long as you eat several types of protein during a day, you should get all the amino acids you require. Sources of protein available to vegetarians and vegans include lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts & seeds, soy (tofu, soy milk) and textured vegetable protein (TVP). Other ways to increase the protein content and variety of amino acids in a meal are to include high protein grains like quinoa and wild rice. Soy and quinoa are actually complete proteins, just like meat, making them great choices on a vegan diet.
Supplementing with protein powder is an easy and convenient way to ensure you get enough protein, great after training or as a quick snack and there’s lots of choice! For those who eat dairy, whey protein has a full complement of amino acids and is quickly digested so it’s a great choice for after training, but if you would prefer a non-dairy based protein, what’s available?
The Best Sources of Vegetarian Protein Powders
Brown Rice Protein
Brown rice protein is the ideal protein choice for anyone looking to avoid dairy and soy. Sprouted whole grain brown rice is hypo-allergenic and dairy free so it’s great for vegans and anyone looking to avoid wheat, gluten, eggs, dairy and soy. Brown rice protein contains all essential amino acids – they’re the ones our bodies can’t synthesize – and healthy fiber content. Brown rice protein has around 24g of protein per 30g serving, with 3g of carbs and only 0.3g of fat. Brown rice protein is also an excellent choice to use for cooking and baking!
Soy protein isolate is a complete protein source, with all amino acids, so is the ideal choice for vegetarians, vegans and those with special dietary requirements such as lactose intolerance. However, consumption of soy has been associated with hormone disruption, so it could be beneficial to mix up consumption of soy protein with other proteins, too.
Pea protein isolate (PPI) vegetable based protein offering an excellent nutritional and amino acid profile. Made from the yellow pea and free of gluten, lactose, cholesterol. PPI is absorbed relatively slowly by the digestive system – similar to casein – providing you with a more sustained supply of amino acids, making it ideal throughout the day or at night.
Hemp protein is an excellent source of protein containing Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), packed with live enzymes, Essential Fatty Acids (EFA), vitamins and minerals. Hemp seeds are rich in essential nutrients including chlorophyll, phytosterols, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Hemp is a pure digestible protein, providing readily available amino acids for building and repairing tissue. It’s an acquired taste, though, so try mixing a scoop with a tasty smoothie rather than trying to drink it alone!
Portions of Vegetarian Proteins
The table below offers some examples of protein content per portion size in common foods. (Please note this is a rough guide – remember to check the packets as brands differ)