How can I get enough protein from a plant-based diet?
Kelsey Brown, BSc
May 25, 2023
Protein is an incredibly important nutrient required for growth and is vital for building muscle mass and maintaining strength as you age. Often, due to a lack of knowledge, protein is under-consumed and it can be even harder to get the right amount for those who don’t eat animal products. Not consuming enough protein can increase your risk of the age-related muscle wasting condition, sarcopenia.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is advised to be 0.8 g per kg of body weight per day (g/kg/d) so an individual who is 60 kg, should ideally have at least 48 g of protein every day. This value is often misinterpreted as the optimal intake of protein each day, however, it is a more accurate representation of the amount of protein needed to avoid lean body mass loss. So most people will require more protein than the RDA.
If carrying out regular exercise, you will require more than the RDA to sustain your training habits. You will need to ensure your protein intake is around 1.2 - 2 g/kg/d (between 72 g and 120 g for someone who is 60 kg), otherwise, you might not build muscle/strength as effectively.
As well as aiding muscle growth, protein is required to help your muscles recover following exercise, to allow you to continue training efficiently and it helps you to feel fuller for longer so including enough protein in your diet is necessary for a healthy, active lifestyle.
Where can you get protein from?
Proteins are composed of chains of amino acids which are important for protein synthesis and growth in the body. Non-essential amino acids can be produced in the body however, there are nine amino acids that are considered essential as these can only be obtained from dietary sources.
All nine essential amino acids can be found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy. If you don’t eat animal products, you will need alternative sources of protein such as plants. However, something to be aware of is that plant sources can often have a lower content of essential amino acids compared to animal products which can impact protein synthesis.
One vegan-friendly source of protein which does provide all nine essential amino acids is tofu. Just ½ cup (126 g) of raw, firm tofu can contain around 21.8 g of protein. While tofu doesn’t contain as much protein per serving as meat, it makes a good substitute for recipes that usually contain meat. For example, you can replace the chicken in a curry or stir-fry with tofu.
Other plant sources that provide a good amount of protein include legumes such as chickpeas and lentils. 1 cup (164 g) of chickpeas can contain 14.5 g of protein and 1 cup (198 g) of lentils can contain 17.9 g of protein, making legumes a good source of protein for a vegan diet. It should be noted that these sources aren’t complete proteins but pairing them with rice or quinoa can help make the meal contain all the essential amino acids required for muscle protein synthesis.
Mycoproteins (proteins derived from fungi) are another alternate protein source that can replace meat in recipes. These are found mainly in the brand Quorn, which offers a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian meat substitutes. Roughly 100 g of mycoprotein contains around 11 g of protein and one Quorn crunchy fillet burger (190 g) contains 22.8 g of protein.
While plant-based sources tend not to provide quite as much protein as animal protein sources, it is still possible to get enough protein in your diet with these foods.
Tips when trying to build muscle
Evenly distributing your protein intake across your meals allows for greater protein synthesis and muscle growth, as opposed to consuming your daily protein intake in a single meal. For a person who is 60 kg and carrying out regular resistance training, they should aim to get up to 120 g of protein each day. Having 3 meals that have around 40 g of protein each will assist the muscle-building process.
If you find it difficult to get enough protein through the foods you eat then an alternative solution is to use vegan protein powders. These can be added to your breakfast, in your post-workout shake or even to your baking and can provide around 25 g of protein per serving.
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