One of the most common questions around plant-based diets is: where do you get you protein from? And rightly so, it’s essential to make sure your diet is balanced. Since meat and other animal products are major sources of protein, fats and minerals, it’s important to know what the best alternatives are.
A plant based diet can easily provide enough protein, if you know where to look.
What Is Protein?
Protein is essential for the body’s health. It’s responsible for multiple functions such as helping our bodies grow and repair, making hormones and antibodies, as well as building cells and muscles.
There are 20 amino acids which make up protein and our body is able to make most of these itself. However there are 9 aminos which we can’t make, and these are known as essential amino acids. We can only get essential amino acids from certain types of food, which is why it’s so important to eat a balanced diet.
Complete and Incomplete Proteins
Food sources that contain a good amount of all 9 essential amino acids are called complete proteins. The most common foods that have complete proteins are from animal products – meat, eggs and milk.
Quinoa and soybeans are both good examples of plant sources which are complete proteins. However it’s worth noting that they are lower in total protein content compared to meat or fish. 100g of fish and 100g of quinoa are vastly different quantities!
Most plant based foods on their own are considered incomplete protein sources. Incomplete proteins either don’t contain all of the 9 essential amino acids, or some of the amino acids are present in a very low quantity. The essential amino acids that are missing or are present in a very low quantities are called the limiting amino acids.
For this reason, it’s important to ensure you are eating a varied diet with a diverse range of ingredients. If a certain food lacks an essential amino acid, you can compensate for this by eating it with a food that contains the limiting amino acid, a process known as the complementary action of proteins, or protein combining
Combining Protein Sources
Two essential amino acids that plant-based foods have lower levels of are lysine and methionine. While cereals such as rice and wheat contain less lysine, legumes like beans, pulses & peas are lower in methionine. By combining these two food groups together you would achieve a complete protein source.
Real life examples of this type of protein combining include a peanut butter sandwich, beans on toast, rice and peas, or a bean burrito. These combinations not only make tasty meals, but are they also protein balanced.
It’s important to pay attention to how much of each protein you’re eating and make sure you eat a variety of plant-based foods. This way your diet will not only be balanced, but something you’ll really enjoy eating too.
How Much Protein?
The UK Government has set guidelines which detail how much of a given nutrient is needed for optimal health. These are known as a Reference Nutrient Intake, or RNI, and it’s often used when talking about protein, vitamins, and minerals.
The RNI for adult protein consumption is 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight.
This is about 45g per day for women and 55g per day for men. It’s a lot less than most people think! Keep in mind that this amount won’t be the same for everyone. Factors such as the amount and type of exercise you do, as well as body weight, age and general health should also be taken into consideration.
To give you an idea of how much protein is in common foods see below:
Plant Based Source
Typical portion size
Protein per portion (g)
|Seitan (wheat gluten)||112g||34.5g|
|Tofu (firm, raw)||¼ block||112g||18g|
|Quinoa (cooked)||1 cup||185g||8g|
|Pumpkin Seeds (raw)||handful||28g||7g|
|Peanut Butter||1 Tablespoon||25g||6g|
|Black Beans (cooked)||½ cup||86g||8g|
|Frozen Peas (cooked)||½ cup||80g||4g|
|Lentils (boiled)||½ cup||24g||2g|
|Potato (boiled, unpeeled)||½ cup||85g||2g|
|Spinach (raw)||½ cup||30g||1g|
|Oats (cooked)||½ cup||28g||1g|
Animal Based Source
Typical portion size
Protein per portion (g)
|Beef (steak – cooked)||112g||35g|
|Egg (boiled)||1 egg||58g||7.5g|
|Semi Skimmed Milk||glass||200ml||7g|
It’s key to remember that your body can’t store excess protein. Keep your meals balanced with good amounts of carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals as part of a healthy diet.
For more information on eating a healthy plant-based diet, see the following pages:
- Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best? Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 3(3), 118–130.
- Mota, C., Santos, M., Mauro, R., Samman, N., Matos, A., Torres, D. and Castanheira, I. (2014) Protein content and amino acids profile of pseudocereals, Journal of food chemistry, 193, 55-61.
- Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council: http://www.glnc.org.au/legumes/legumes-nutrition/
- Public Health England: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/618167/government_dietary_recommendations.pdf
- SELF Nutrition Data: Nutritiondata.self.com
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