The Best Vegan Protein Sources


vegan protein

Many folks, when you tell them you want to become vegan, ask where you will get protein. You may also get to hear some comments like, “Don’t you feel if you go vegan, you’ll become protein deficient!” Which is not going to happen anyway.

But thinking if you can get sufficient quality of protein on a vegan diet is an entirely correct question. I appreciate you for being eager enough to find out about this issue, as several people on the vegan diet ignore their protein quantity and quality.

So, what is the aptest source of protein on a vegan diet?

If you talk about protein quality as per PDCAAS – the highest standard in protein quality scores, the most important is soy.1 If you speak about the density of foods with the max percent of calories from protein, mock meats, protein powders, and legumes are some of the best sources.

To improve quality intake, if you take numerous plant proteins like legumes, rice, wheat, potatoes, then you don’t have to think of single best-sourced food items.

This is just a brief answer. Like any logical solution, the longer reply is: well, it depends. If you observe, the protein quality isn’t the most critical aspect to worry about. There’s the crux of the protein itself i.e., how complete the amino acid profile is), but food source is another aspect. A food product may have the best amino acid profile here, but it may not be of much use if it has only had 2-3 gm per 1000 calories. It may be an overstatement, but you should get the point across.

Also, the best vegan protein source is dependent upon your overall goals. Do you want to shed weight? Are you eating to increase your age? E.g., for anti-aging, avoiding methionine proteins may be of some use.

Also, the quality of protein may be subdivided into the amino acid profile and digestion ability or bioavailability. You may also consider GI comfort. You cannot bear some plant protein sources that could be wonderful with protein quality or density.

You also need to take into account the contents of lysine in plant foods. Lysine is an avital amino acid (EAA) that are generally not seen in vegetarian and vegan diets.

Protein Density

This is significant to note because many plant foods have a little amount of protein in them, the grams of protein per calorie (density)changes drastically. Different websites mention density by weight. What we want to tell is the percentage of calories from a food protein.

The total weight of these food items is not essential for our query, because of water and fiber may change quite a lot.

You may come across several articles online with headings like The top ten vegan sources of protein.

Then they will talk about different grains and legumes. The fundamental issue is, if you depend on these sources that are usually mentioned, you’ll be consuming more calories than you need.

Let’s say, say you require 60 gms of protein. One of the sources of vegan protein with high density, which is usually recommended, is quinoa, a grain that’s become more prevalent in a few years. Websites may say that these are fully packed with protein, a protein powerhouse.

Excellent grain, but a protein powerhouse?

Let’s say that you choose foods with a protein density approximately the same as that of quinoa. You may be having more than 2600 calories every day only to get sufficient protein!

What will happen to all the other nutrients that you also require? And in case you’re one of those bodybuilders who is aiming for 1gm protein per pound of body weight, a universal remedy for those wanting to add muscle weight, then only God could help you! So, ultimately, it boils down to real protein density in the vegan diet.

Don’t misunderstand us; several plant sources of protein are having density much higher than quinoa. But our point is simply to explain that the particular source also matters a lot.

But, Alas, many website pages don’t show any importance to that, usually finding the differences between quinoa and tofu.

First, Determine If Protein Density Should Be a Goal

Who should prioritize density?

Those who are trying to lose weight. If you are willing to lose weight, you’ll have to reduce calorie intake. The issue, however, is, even if you’ll be reducing calories by cutting back on food, your necessity of protein doesn’t alter. So, if you are deficient in calories, you may increase your protein consumption. Due to this, you may have to add a higher quantity of protein into a low-calorie portion.

Bodybuilders. They have a more significant necessity of protein as compared to an average guy. Therefore, in case of a weight loss, you must increase the ratio of protein to calorie. If you depend on low protein sources, you’ll not be having sufficient protein or consuming calories much higher than you probably need. You may soon become fat, and have to burn off the extra fat.

Choosey eaters. They are the ones who for any reason may be always falling short of fulfilling their protein needs. Their preference for food could be unusually low in protein. Perhaps they’re sort of strict vegan and not much into a whole or wellness scenario. In that case, they could be having the right quantity of cereal and pop tarts, and foods mostly low in protein.

Some people take too many nuts and seed products. Nuts and seeds have protein, but they’re not dense protein as they have fat, which has double the calories gram by gram than just protein. It takes us to the next section.

Secondly, You’ll Need to Determine Your Individual Protein Needs

You’ll be required to find out your protein needs before finalizing the exact sources of protein. If you are not an athlete with strength training, bodybuilding, etc. or you’re not checking protein needs for children, this doesn’t change much. It is 56g for men and 46g of protein per day for women. Otherwise, you can have 0.8g per kg for both men and women.2

Below I’ve mentioned a detailed list of protein needs as per age or gender. I’ve also mentioned protein needs for children as well as infants because a number of folks are interested in bringing up their children on a well-planned vegan diet.2

Kids

Boys and girls 1-3 years: 13g/day

Boys and girls 4-8 years: 19g/day

Boys and girls 9-13 years: 34g/day

Adolescents (14-18 years)

Guys: 52g/day

Gals: 46g/day

Adults (19 years and over)

Men: 56g/day

Women: 46g/day

If you’re into bodybuilding, then you need to try a bit higher, say 1gm per pound of body weight, or whatever the latest prescriptions are. There is a huge amount of bodybuilding information on the web on how much protein you should be taking, and the same applies to vegans also.

Vegan Protein Density Ranking

The values are mentioned high to low as a percentage kcal from Protein:3-27

  1. Protein powders: ~83-84% for pea and soy protein isolates (two popular proteins). That’s from a nutritional database, but we have seen higher.Even if you’re not a fan of protein powders, you have to agree that they account for the max intake of vegan cake when it comes to density.They begin with a denser source of protein, then strip away everything else. Can’t get much thicker than that.
  2. Vital wheat gluten: 81%
  3. Peanut flour, defatted (PB2, etc.): ~56%. We like this a lot. Not a excellent amino acid spread, but remember we’re talking about density now.
  4. Nutritional yeast: ~55%
  5. Seaweed, spirulina, dried: ~48%
  6. Tofu: ~40-48%
  7. Tempeh: ~33%
  8. Lentils: ~26%
  9. Hempseed: ~25%
  10. Black beans: ~23%
  11. Green peas (cooked): ~22%
  12. Whole wheat bread: ~20%
  13. Pinto beans (canned): ~19%
  14. Teff and spelt (cooked): both ~15%
  15. Chickpeas and quinoa (canned, cooked): both ~14% kcal from protein. Both are considered real protein “powerhouses.”
  16. Amaranth (cooked): ~13%
  17. Chia seeds and oats (raw): both ~11%
  18. Mixed nuts: ~10%
  19. Brown long-grain rice (cooked): ~8%
  20. Potatoes (baked): ~7%

The above is referenced with data from nutritiondata.self.com.

Protein Quality: Digestability and Bioavailability

Firstly, we ‘ll explain the importance of protein sources for obtaining the amino acids into the body’s system.

Bioavailability is a sub-category of ability to digest or absorb, for our explanation, both may be considered same.28

Here we want to check the degree to which your body can make use of the consumed nutrient. When you consume protein food, it is irrelevant how great the amino acid composition is if you quite can’t digest the protein.

If a nutrient is not digested or absorbed, it passes through the GI tract as waste.

Let’s continue with our quinoa example. We mentioned that one needs more than 2600 calories to get enough protein on a given day from quinoa alone.

Well, that was only in terms of density.

Since a noteworthy share of the protein in quinoa isn’t even existing, you’d need more than 4000 calories to meet your protein needs.21

It’s not only about quinoa. Most plant proteins aren’t suitable in this filed. Animal proteins are responsible for the pathophysiology of a lot of chronic disease conditions. Animal proteins are 90% to 99% digestible, as compared to only 70% to 90% for plant proteins.29

The proteins in meat and cheese have a digestibility of about 95%, while eggs have a 97% score. Soybeans are the number one in plant proteins when we talk of quality. Cooked split peas are 70% digestible; tofu is about 90%.29

Vegan Protein True Digestibility Ranking (Best to Worst):

The data on digestibility of some proteins and amino acids are not easily available as compared to the density data.28,29

  1. Soy protein isolate: 98%
  2. Peanut: 96%*
  3. Wheat gluten: 95%
  4. Rice and tofu: 90%
  5. Rolled oats: 88%*
  6. Wheat: 87%
  7. Lentil (autoclaved): 85%*
  8. Mung bean (cooked): 82%
  9. Corn: 81%
  10. Pinto bean (canned): 79%*
  11. Barley and sunflower seed: 78%
  12. Kidney beans (cooked): 74%
  13. Wheat bran (cereal) and field beans (cooked): 73%
  14. Peas (cooked): 72%
  15. Soybean (cooked): 68%
  16. Potato (dehydrated): 56%
  17. Coconut (extracted): 54%

*These values were based on rats, not human beings. That was the nearest estimate.

Protein Quality: Amino Acid Profile

We have digested and absorbed the plant proteins; now, we can discuss the suitability of the Amino Acids in our bloodstream. Why could they not be appropriate? As human beings, we require9mandatory amino acids (EAAs) from our food products. These AAs are important because our body can’t create them on its own, and we still need all of them, so they have to come from our diet.30

But, in terms of convenience, not all proteins are equal when it comes to even distribution of EAAs that we need for our bodily functions. A particular protein could have a considerable quantity of a required building block, but very little or none of another.

To make sure that you get the complete range of needed amino acids as a vegan in the correct proportion, you can do the following:

1. The first one is to eat the right quantity of the few complete plant proteins available e.g., soy protein. Soy is not only digestible plant protein, but it’s also made of required proteins.31 Soybeans contain the full range of essential amino acids in correct ratios.32 Several people hate soy or don’t tolerate it properly, but if you’re not among those people, then take benefit of this beautiful bean!

2. Another option could be to buy a protein powder made of complementary proteins. The best part is that sellers do the research for you, and mix the complementary amino acid sources. That spares you of an additional headache.

3. Finally, you can eat a variety of plant proteins like legumes, nuts, beans, rice. This may be the best alternative. You’ll get the required range of amino acids, though getting targeted protein requirements in a day may be more difficult. You’ll need to pay attention to it.

It’s Story Time: The Importance of Essential Amino Acids

Just to inform you about the importance of proper intake of EAAs, we’ll end this section with an asdrenal story. Earlier people knew the importance of amino acid structure, there was a diet called the “Last Chance Diet,” wherein they were required to eat a superfood with the lowest possible calories to reduce fat as soon as possible.

The first error was that they consumed approx. Only 300-400 calories daily. They were correct in thinking that they’d need to get 100% of their calories from protein at such a low calorie, the author of the diet had those people made them get all of their protein requirement from collagen which is a dangerous source of protein in terms of the content of amino acids. Many of those people died of heart attack.33

Vegan Protein EAA Content Ranking

Ranking the EAA quality of a protein becomes complexes ways of deciding the quality of a protein per EAA content depends on a chemical score.

Chemical score checks the exact AA content of food items about a person’s individual needs of the AA, say depending upon age, etc.

Luckily, we need not be bothered about the chemical score because the experts have calculated it for us as the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) — quite a mouthful.

How Overall Protein Quality Is Determined

PDCAAS is the best way nowadays to compare the protein quality of different foods. It takes into account the digestibility as well as the EAA content.34

This way of calculating protein quality is so popularly used that meals for individuals just above age one and foods having health claims must mention the scoring system to provide information on the product’s label.

How does it work? The limiting amino acid is the AA in minimum supply compared to what the human body needs. The PDCAAS way compares the limiting AA of a test protein like chickpeas to the amount of the same AA in a reference protein, usually eggs. This value is then multiplied with the protein’s digestibility, as mentioned earlier.

Gropper, Sareen S.; Smith, Jack L.. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (Page 239).

Vegan Protein Overall Quality Ranking:

Best to worst – PDCAA values.1,34,35

  • Soy protein (isolate): 1.00
  • Soybeans: 0.91
  • Chickpeas: 0.78
  • Fruit: 0.76
  • Black beans: 0.75
  • Vegetables: 0.73
  • Hempseed: 0.61
  • Cereals: 0.59
  • Peanuts: 0.52
  • Wheat gluten: 0.25

Putting It All Together

Complementary Proteins

If you’re don’t like some of the high score proteins, don’t worry. The variety goes a long way in meeting standards for protein quality. When you obtain your protein from a variety of sources, the condition takes care of it automatically.

Besides, there are synergic groupings of proteins—what we know as complementary proteins.

Two or more plant proteins having additional AA profiles better the protein quality. E.g., sulfur-containing AAs having methionine and cysteine, tend to be the limiting AAs in legumes, whole cereals like rice and wheat tend to come up short when it comes to lysine.

However, grouping rice and beans increase the overall PDCAAS values.36

This could be the miracle by which many people in developing countries get their required AAs. E.g.peopleeating mostly plant-based foods also consume complementary proteins like legumes and soy in Asia.37

Here are some examples

A Note on Protein Source Tolerability

After all that detailed technical information, we need to check one more thing. E.g., Where do I get vegan protein from a source that doesn’t include beans?. It is called the “gas factor.”

Now, this doesn’t apply to all of us. Some of us have a stomach wit iron lining and can eat just anything. But, believe us, food intolerances are incredibly prevalent in plant-based proteins.

Some gas is standard in a vegan diet and can even suggest an enjoyable process. But, acquiring a significant portion of one’s protein from specific sources like ODMAPs may be too much for some. And it could be

understandable.

Those who fall into this category need to pay attention to how some specific food sources affect your digestion. The protein may digest well enough to be absorbed and assimilated into your tissue. Still, if you must tolerate loud and uncomfortable GI symptoms during the process, it may not be worth it.

This is highly variable, so ranking here is quite tricky. Again, you’ll be required to pay heed to the food items you tolerate best.

That was the fact file of how to best go about getting enough protein on a 100% plant-based diet.

References

  1. Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo. Protein – Which is Best? J Sports Sci Med. 2004 Sep; 3(3): 118–130.
  2. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D – NCBI Bookshelf. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56068/table/summarytables.t4/?report=objectonly
  3. Pea Protein Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/custom/630722/0?print=true
  4. Soy Protein Isolate Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4389/2
  5. Vital Wheat Gluten Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/7738/2
  6. Peanut Flour, Defatted Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4367/2
  7. Nutritional Yeast Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/custom/861742/2
  8. Seaweed, Spirulina, Dried Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2765/2
  9. Tofu, Firm, Prepared with Calcium Sulfate and Magnesium Chloride (nigari) Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4393/2
  10. Tofu https://www.walmart.com/ip/Mori-Nu-Extra-Firm-Shelf-Stable-Tofu-12-3-Oz/38282148
  11. Tempeh Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4381/2
  12. Lentils, Mature Seeds, Cooked, Boiled, Without Salt Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4338/2
  13. Hemp Seed (shelled) Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/custom/629104/2
  14. Beans, Black, Mature Seeds, Cooked, Boiled, Without Salt Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4284/2
  15. Peas, green, Canned, No Salt Added, Drained Solids Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2888/2
  16. Bread, Whole-wheat, Commercially Prepared Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/4876/2
  17. Beans, Pinto, Mature Seeds, Canned Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4313/2
  18. Teff, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10358/2
  19. Spelled, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10356/2
  20. Chickpeas (garbanzo Beans, Bengal Gram), Mature Seeds, Canned Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4327/2
  21. Quinoa, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10352/2
  22. Amaranth Grain, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10640/2
  23. Seeds, Chia Seeds, Dried Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3061/2
  24. Cereals, Oats, Instant, Fortified, Plain, Dry [instant Oatmeal] Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/breakfast-cereals/1599/2
  25. Nuts, Mixed Nuts, Dry Roasted, with Peanuts, Without Salt Added Nutrition Facts & Calories. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3125/2
  26. Rice, Brown, Long-grain, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/5707/2
  27. Potato, Baked, Flesh, and Skin, Without Salt Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2770/2
  28. FAO (2011). Protein Quality Evaluation in Human Nutrition: The assessment of amino acid digestibility in foods for humans and including a collation of published ileal amino acid digestibility data for human foods. Document prepared by Dr Shane Rutherfurd of the Riddet Institute, Massey University, New Zealand.
  29. Gropper, Sareen S.; Smith, Jack L. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (Page 239).
  30. Protein and Amino Acids. National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary Allowances – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234922/
  31. Messina, M. Legumes and soybeans: overview of their nutritional profiles and health effects. Am J Clin Nutr (1999) 70 (suppl): 439s-450s.

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