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Can vegans get enough protein?

By August 17, 2017Green Food

Can Vegans get enough protein?

It’s the age old question! Odds are that if you’re vegan you’ve been pestered about this. Maybe you’ve even heard comments such as:

“I would go vegan…but I like my protein too much”

“But there’s no protein in that rabbit food you’re eating”

“You can’t gain muscle mass on plants”

So I’m here to bust a few myths around how to get protein on a whole foods plant-based diet.

Did you know that protein deficiency is actually very rare in healthy adults who are consuming enough food (aka adequate calories).(1)

Let’s look at the science shall we…

Firstly how much protein do we actually need?

Secondly, how much protein does the average adult (vegan and non-vegan) consume?

Protein Needs

Well, under normal circumstances, we need less than 1 gram (g) of protein per kilogram of our body weight, daily.(1) Our protein needs do increase a little at times of growth and/or repair such as childhood, pregnancy and breastfeeding, elite athletic training or when you are ill or injured. But our needs are still less than most people assume.

To calculate your daily protein needs as a healthy adult the equation is:

 0.9 x kg (body weight)

This is factoring in an extra 10% for compounds in some plant foods that may reduce protein absorption.(1)

Say for example you weighed 70kg. You would need roughly 63g protein daily, because 70×0.9=63.

Based on Australian national guidelines, on average men need 64g of protein daily, while women need 46g daily. (2-3)

To put things into perspective 1 cup of firm tofu contains roughly 30g of protein. (4)

Now for the second question…

Australian Protein ConsumptionCan Vegans get enough protein

According to the National Nutrition Survey, Australian men consume roughly 109g protein daily, while women consume 74g protein daily. (5) This is well above recommendations! Meanwhile, large Australian studies show vegan men consume roughly 81g of protein daily, while vegan women women 54g protein daily. So yes, technically this is “less” than the omnivores…but it’s still well within the 64g and 46g recommended. (7-8)

So what?? It’s still less than omnivores…And you can never have too much protein right?  Well not quite…

Excess protein consumption is actually linked to bone and kidney damage, as well as certain cancers. (6, 9-12) Meanwhile high protein diets, especially when based on animal protein such as meat and dairy, are often also high in fat, particularly saturated fat. Thus excess consumption has been linked to increased risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. (13-16) So getting the right amount is pretty important.

Vegan Sources of Protein

All natural whole foods are a combination of fat, protein and carbs, meaning that even fruit has protein in it!

So where do vegans get their protein?? Everything they eat!!

It was also once believed that vegans and vegetarians need to combine different plant proteins at every meal. For example eat beans with rice or nuts with tofu. Science has now proven that this is not true!

Some plant foods, such as potatoes, amaranth, quinoa and tofu contain ALL the ‘essential amino acids’ we need (amino acids are the building blocks of protein). Other plant foods are missing one or two. However, this is OK because when we eat foods, including plants, the protein from them gets broken down in our body and transported to what’s called an ‘amino acid pool’. (1, 6) Kind of like a recycling plant. We then use the amino acids in this pool to re-make all the new proteins our body needs. Kind of like recycling used paper to make new products such as clothing or magazines.

This means that as long as you eat a variety of plant foods daily including:

veggies, grains, legumes and fruit

You can make all the protein your body needs to function and thrive

Plant Power

Another benefit of getting protein from whole plant foods is that wholegrains, legumes, veggies and fruit all contain fibre, which most Australians are actually not getting enough of! (1, 5) These foods also contain beneficial plant nutrients (phytonutrients) that promote health in numerous ways and protect against cellular damage. (6) This magic combo of fibre and phytonutrients is why eating plant proteins rather than animal proteins has been shown to reduce the risk of ‘irreversible’ chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. (17-18)

So that’s the basics on vegans and protein.

If you found my video helpful, check out my YouTube Channel ‘Green Minded Nutrition‘ for more plant-based nutrition tips, with more to come.

This information is intended for general healthy adults. For more specific information on nutrition and protein for certain lifestyle stages such as infancy and childhood, teenagers, pregnancy, breastfeeding, athletes, mature aged adults or specific conditions please book a personalised nutrition consult.

By Amber Sewell-Green
Vegan/Plant-Based Dietitian (APD) and Nutritionist (AN)

 

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References:

1. Marsh K, Munn E, Baines S. Protein and vegetarian diets. The Medical Journal of Australia. 2012;1(2):7-10.

2. NHMRC. Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand: Protein [Internet]. NHMRC publications; 2006 [cited 1 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.nrv.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/n35-protein_0.pdf

3. Joint WHO/FAO/UNU Expert Consultation. Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. World Health Organ Tech Rep Ser 2007; 935: 1-265.

4. FSANZ. NUTTAB 2010 Online Searchable Database: Tofu (soy bean curd), firm, as purchased. Foodstandards.gov.au. 2017 [cited 3 March 2017]. Available from: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/science/monitoringnutrients/nutrientables/nuttab/Pages/default.aspx

5. Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Nutrition Survey. Selected Highlights, Australia, 1995. Canberra: ABS, 1995: 20. (ABS Cat. No. 4802.0.) http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4802.01995?OpenDocument(accessed Apr 2012).

6. Mahan L, Escott-Stump S, Raymond J, Krause M. Krause’s food & the nutrition care process. St. Louis, Mo: Elsevier/Saunders; 2012.

7. Wilson AK, Ball MJ. Nutrient intake and iron status of Australian male vegetarians. Eur J Clin Nutr 1999; 53: 189-194.

8. Ball MJ, Bartlett MA. Dietary intake and iron status of Australian vegetarian women. Am J Clin Nutr 1999; 70: 353-358.

9. Butler LM, Sinha R, Millikan RC, et al. Heterocyclic amines, meat intake, and association with colon cancer in a population-based study. Am J Epidemiol. 2003;157:434-445.

10. Knight EL, Stampfer MJ, Hankinson SE, Spiegelman D, Curhan GC. The impact of protein intake on renal function decline in women with normal renal function or mild renal insufficiency. Ann Int Med. 2003;138:460-467.

11.  Barzel US.  Excess dietary protein can adversely affect bone.  J Nutr. 1998 Jun;128(6):1051-3.

12. Abelow B.  Cross-cultural association between dietary animal protein and hip fracture: a hypothesis.  Calcific Tissue Int 50:14-8, 1992.

13. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, Washington, D.C., 1997, pp. 216–251.

14. Bingham SA, Luben R, Welch A, Wareham N, Khaw KT, Day N. Are imprecise methods obscuring a relation between fat and breast cancer? Lancet. 2003;362:212–214.

15. Cho E, Speigelman D, Hunter DJ, Chen WY, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA, Willett WC. Premenopausal fat intake and risk of breast cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2003;95:1079–85.

16. Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. WHO Technical Report Series 916, 2003.

17. Appleby P, Thorogood M, Mann J, Key T. The Oxford Vegetarian Study: an overview. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(3):525s-531s.

18. Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of animal and plant protein intake with all-cause and cause-specific mortality. JAMA Intern Med. Published online August 1, 2016.

Amber Sewell-Green

Author Amber Sewell-Green

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