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Protein on a vegan diet

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While carbohydrates have established their popularity as the main source of energy in the body, there’s still a lot of stigma around protein, why and if we need it, where to get it from and how much of it we actually need. Today, we sat down with Registered Nutritionist and author Joy Skipper to debunk some of the most common myths and set the record straight on the importance of protein in the body.

Whether you follow a specific diet such as a vegan, vegetarian, ketogenic or low carb diet, or you just aim for a generally healthy diet, protein is a hugely important macro-nutrient. It is required for many critical roles in the body including:

  • providing structure and support for every cell of the body
  • repairing and rebuilding muscle
  • producing enzymes for all of the thousands of chemical reactions that take place in the body
  • supporting the immune system, by producing antibodies to help protect the body
  • acting as messenger proteins such as some type of hormones, to help transmit signals between cells, tissues and organs.
  • protein is a major component of the skin, bone, organs, hair, muscle and nails.
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The multiple roles protein plays in the body are all synergistic – they work together,  much like the way this macronutrient forms in the body.  When we talk about protein we are really talking about amino acids, which are the smaller building blocks that are combined to make up the many proteins the body needs. 

There are 20 amino acids and the specific order of these determines the structure and function of each protein.  The important thing to know is that nine of the essential amino acids cannot be synthesised by the body, so these must come from food.

Proteins are either complete or incomplete.

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Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids and come mainly from meat and dairy (animal products), but can also be found in soy, quinoa, hemp and chia seeds.

Vegan and plant-based foods such as rice, beans, lentils, nuts and grains are classed as Incomplete because they do not contain all essential amino acids on their own. However, they can be combined to provide a good source of protein. What’s more, combining a variety of plant-based foods to reach your protein goals also means that you’ll provide the body with more variety and more nutrients, which in turn may improve the gut microbiota and support overall health. 

The good news is that it is not necessary to combine proteins in every single meal or snack, as the body pools the amino acids we need over a 24 hours window. So as long as you consume enough of a wide variety of protein sources throughout the day, the body will use them as needed.

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If you are looking for delicious food combinations that will deliver a mix of amino acids, these are some of my favourite simple meals:

  1. Vegetable chilli (pulses) with rice (grain)
  2. Bean Soup (pulses) with oatcakes (grain)
  3. Tofu and vegetable stir-fry with rice (grain)
  4. Dhal with bean curry scattered with almonds and served with chapatti (lentils, pulses, nuts, grain)

Naturya also have a fantastic range of high-protein products such as Overnight Oats and SuperProtein blends that are quick and simple to prepare, and single ingredients such as Hemp protein powder, Chia seeds, Spirulina, Chlorella, Barley Grass and Wheatgrass that you can add to your favourite meals for a boost of plant-based protein.

Bear in mind that, when accessing your protein intake, that more is not always better – the body cannot store more than it needs, and any excess will be converted into sugars and fats, ultimately leading to weight gain.  The Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) in the UK for protein is 50g but as we are all individual, with differing sizes and shapes, the amount of protein we need varies too.

The simplest way to know how much protein you need is to use the guide of 0.8g of protein for each kilogram of your body weight, so if you weigh 65kg, you will need at least 52g of protein each day.  If you are doing regular exercise the recommendation is between 1.2-1.8g per kg of body weight each day, depending on the type, intensity and duration of exercise.  This can be easily achieved with a varied diet including nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, cereals and soya products*.

Generally freezing and cooking do not alter the protein content of foods, but they may be more easily digested and absorbed if slightly cooked rather than raw.” 

 

*How much protein from plant-based foods?

 

The takeaway

While it may be very tempting to turn to processed foods since there are so many choices available, a diet high in ultra-processed foods will lack the nutrients your body needs to function at its best.

A balanced vegan diet is usually centred on a variety of whole plant foods, which will provide your body with macronutrients, vitamins and minerals. It is still recommended to keep an eye on your nutrient intake, particularly protein to ensure that you get all the essential amino acids your body needs.

As with any diet, prioritise the protein on your plate, but also surround it with other colourful foods to ensure you are getting the diverse range of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function optimally.

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