For individuals following a vegan lifestyle, optimizing adequate protein is not difficult, but it does take mindful consideration.
Protein is an essential macronutrient necessary for a healthy diet. Protein facilitates important functions including muscle, bone, and skin development; hormone production; and immunity. For individuals following a vegan lifestyle, optimizing adequate protein is not difficult, but it does take mindful consideration.
Vegan sources of protein are derived from plant-based foods. Most plant proteins lack one or more essential amino acids, and therefore are incomplete proteins. This does not mean a vegan lifestyle can’t be healthy and balanced; it just requires some thought and planning. A variety of plant-rich foods are key to optimize protein in a vegan diet. By consuming two different types of plant-rich proteins, you can obtain different amino acids from each source. The two distinctly different plant proteins combine to create what is called a complementary protein. The different plant proteins do not need to be consumed together as long as a whole day of meals contains a variety of essential amino acids.
A classic example of a complementary protein is rice and beans. Legumes lack some of the amino acids that rice has, and vice versa. However, when consumed together, or on the same day, rice and beans provide all the essential amino acids necessary to create a complete protein.
A vegan is classified as someone who does not eat foods of animal origin. When adhering to a vegan diet, the emphasis should be placed on fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholes grains, nuts, and seeds. Ideally, unadulterated real foods from real sources constitute the primary dietary sources, but there are some vegans and vegetarians that also rely on processed foods and starches full of empty calories. Aside from optimal protein, it’s especially important for vegans to obtain enough B12, Vitamin D, iron, calcium, zinc, and essential fatty acids—all nutrients that may be easier to get from a non-vegan diet.
People choose a vegan, plant-based lifestyle for a number of reasons including concern over animal welfare, to offset environmental implications caused by factory farming, to eat more economically, to improve health, or for religious or cultural beliefs. Whatever the rationale, research demonstrates there are plenty of benefits to a plant-based diet. A balanced vegan diet is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and is naturally low in unhealthy fats. This lifestyle can help combat heart disease, diabetes, and cancer; help maintain a healthy body weight; and improve gut health.
Optimize Your Protein: The Best Vegan Protein Sources
Legumes, nuts, seeds, tempeh, grains, and vegetables are examples of the diversity a vegan diet can offer. The most protein-rich examples are:
Curious about a plant-based lifestyle but don’t want to become a full-time vegan? Try integrating more plant-based foods into your meals or instituting Meatless Monday as a way to reap the health benefits without having to say goodbye to meat.