Vegans: where’s the protein?

I’m a big fan of plant-centric diets, whether flexitarian, Mediterranean, Asian, vegetarian or vegan.  All of these can be nutritionally balanced and extremely healthy.  But when it comes to vegans, protein can be very tricky.  After all, a vegan diet means avoiding all of the high (and high quality) protein foods humans have relied on for thousands of years: meat, eggs, dairy, fish.  What’s left?  Soy foods like tofu, fake meat like plant burgers, nuts and legumes (dried beans).  These foods are lower protein and lower quality protein, so vegans have to include plenty of these foods every day to ensure adequate intake.

When it comes to vegans, I’ve been seeing two distinct approaches to the protein intake question, neither of which is great in my professional opinion:

  1. vegans who chow down on plant burgers day after day, drink plant milk and call it a day, protein-wise
  2. vegans who just eat whatever, as long as it’s not from an animal, and blissfully ignore the issue of protein intake

I once heard about a chef who was famous for a vegan taco, filled with corn and squash.  Well, that’s nice I thought, but where’s the protein?  Traditionally tacos have cheese, maybe meat and refried beans.  All of those add up to a a decent amount of protein.  A small modest taco would have 15-20 grams, depending on how much cheese or meat was used.  A taco made with corn and squash?  8 grams? Maybe?

A few years ago a group of waste-conscious chefs promoted the use of discarded food remnants to make meals.  They cooked up a meal for some dignitaries, including a burger made with mashed up old vegetables.  A modest 4 oz beef burger will have 25 or more grams of protein; a burger made with vegetable left-overs?  Assuming it has even 5 grams of protein is probably a stretch.  If your meal is based on a low protein plant burger, you’ll need to add some other protein sources to that meal. Keeping in mind that those plant burgers and squash tacos are filling, so not much room left for higher protein foods like beans, tofu and nuts.

Many people become vegan with no real understanding of the nutritional consequences.  Their main focus is avoiding animal-sourced foods.  If they avoid those, everything must be fine.  But in fact avoiding animal-sourced foods can have a detrimental impact on nutritional balance and health if you aren’t paying attention.  Protein quantity and quality can easily fall below levels necessary to maintain skeletal muscle, heart and other muscles, cells and tissues, biochemicals like enzymes necessary for metabolic systems and bone strength.

If you’re going the vegan route, you have to pay attention to protein intake all day everyday, day after day.  You can’t just eat vegetable tacos and drink (very low protein) coconut or almond “milk”* and pasta with plain tomato sauce and assume all will be well.  Some vegans take the fake meat approach.  They eat soy or plant-based burgers, meat substitutes and plant milk.  Soy versions usually have reasonable protein content. Non-soy versions, not so much. You’re going to have to eat those types of foods at pretty much every meal.  The potential for plant burger burn out is significant.  How much processed stuff can you tolerate everyday?

Personally, I don’t get that approach at all.  If you’re going to make a point of avoiding meat, why eat fake meat?  Not to mention, turning plants into fake meat involves a whole lot of processing.  Not exactly a natural sort of product.  The whole fake meat thing just doesn’t seem to go along with a vegan philosophy.

The best protein sources for vegans are:

  • tofu and tempeh
  • soy foods like soy milk, edamame
  • legumes (beans like pinto, kidney, black and garbanzo)
  • nuts and nut butters
  • some grains like quinoa

Because even these foods are lower protein compared to animal-sourced foods, you need to include one or more of those at each meal.  For example, breakfast can include soy milk and oatmeal sprinkled with walnuts.  Lunch can include a salad with crumbled tofu and sunflower seeds along with peanut butter on a bagel.  Dinner can include a bean and vegetable stew, such as chili.

Older Adults Need More Protein

Evidence is growing that older adults need more protein than previously assumed. The reasons are related to the aging process. Muscles start to lose mass, and boosting protein intake can slow that process, helping people to maintain strength, fitness, energy and balance — all important considerations as we age. Another issue is food intake. Aging reduces appetite. People tend to eat less food in general, so the emphasis should be on high protein foods, not tea and toast.

Older adults who are vegan can have trouble getting enough protein. Vegan diets are bulky and filling, cutting food intake even more. Preparing those high protein vegan foods can be time consuming; if someone can’t be bothered to prepare bean or tofu dishes for every meal, protein intake will be impacted. One solution might be to make smoothies for meals or snacks, with added soy protein powder.

The Take Away Message is not anti-vegan diet. It’s this: vegans need to pay attention and include high protein foods at all meals and snacks to ensure that adequate quality protein intake.

Copyright: All content © 2021 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.