Protein

Proteins play an important role in the body, forming the basis of muscle, hair, nails and collagen (the connective tissue that holds the body together). Protein is required for the synthesis of various metabolic products, including neurotransmitters, hormones, haem (found in red blood cells) and DNA.

But where do vegans get their protein?

It’s a tired old question vegans get asked by people who think that meat and dairy foods are the only reliable source of protein. They forget that entire populations avoid meat and/or dairy and that humans have been thriving on plant-based sources of protein for thousands of years. If you eat enough calories from a well-balanced vegan diet, it is very difficult to go short of protein. Protein deficiency is rare in industrialised countries and is far more associated with disease or ageing than dietary choices.  

WHO suggests that protein should contribute 10-15 per cent of your total energy intake (10-15 per cent of the calories you eat). The latest UK NDNS found that average protein intakes met or exceeded that in all groups of people assessed providing 14-15 per of food energy for children and 17-18 per cent for adults (Bates et al., 2014).

On average, men should eat around 55g and women 45g of protein daily. That’s about two palm-sized portions of tofu, nuts or pulses. Most people find it very easy to eat that much or more. On average, men and women in the UK eat about 45-55 per cent more protein than they need each day (Bates et al., 2014). There is no advantage to eating more protein than you need and too much animal protein is harmful (more on this to follow).

Figure 5.0 Protein content of 100g of selected meat-based foods (red) and meat-free alternatives (green). 

*Vegan Chicken Jalfrezi: Seeds of Change Indian Jalfrezi sauce with Vbites Chicken Pieces (33%).

*Big Mac: two burgers, bun, sauce, cheese, lettuce and pickles.

*Amy’s breakfast sandwich: meatless sausage patty, bun, sauce and scrambled tofu with a Tofutti American Vegan Cheese Slice.

Source: FSA, 2002. The protein contents of vegan products were obtained directly from respective food packaging labels and company websites. 

Figure 5.0 shows a comparison of how much protein is in 100g of various meat-based foods and meat-free alternatives. Some meat dishes contain more protein, some vegan ones contain more. Overall, the protein content of the various meat dishes listed is fairly comparable to the vegan alternatives. For example, beef mince contains 21.8g per 100g while soya mince contains 19g. A Big Mac contains 12.4g of protein per 100g and Amy’s breakfast sandwich (a meatless sausage patty in a bun with sauce and scrambled tofu plus a slice of Tofutti American Vegan Cheese) contains 11.5g. Sausage rolls, bacon rashers and frankfurters all contain within one or two grams of their vegan alternatives. That said, just as it is not healthy to eat lots of meat, it is not a good idea to eat lots of processed foods as they tend to contain relatively high levels of fat and salt which can increase the risk of obesity and CVD. Perhaps the main difference from a health perspective is the vegan alternatives are not linked to cancer!   

The protein content of selected plant-based foods Protein (g)
Men should eat around 55g and women 45g of protein daily
Sunflower seeds (1 tbsp) 3.2
Tahini (1 tsp) 3.5
Hummus (50g) 3.8
Peanut butter (20g) 4.5
Soya yogurt (125g pot) 4.5
Soya milk (200ml) 6.2
Wholemeal bread (2 medium slices) 6.2
Heinz baked beans (135g) 6.3
Brown rice, boiled (100g) 6.7
Almonds (15 almonds) 6.9
Quinoa, cooked (180g) 7.9
Wholemeal spaghetti (180g) 8.5
Baked potato with skin (large 220g)  8.6
Mixed nuts (40g) 9.2
Red lentils, cooked (135g) 10.3
Chickpeas, cooked (135g) 11.3
Cauldron Organic Original tofu (100g) 12.6
Taifun Smoked Tofu with Almonds & Sesame Seeds (100g) 18.8

Table 3.0 The protein content of selected plant-based foods.  

All plant foods contain some protein but some foods provide a better source than others. Table 3.0 shows how much protein may be obtained from an average portion of different plant-based foods. This illustrates how easy it is to get the 45-55g per day recommended without eating meat. For example, if you were to start the day with toast, hummus and cherry tomatoes, then lunch on lentil dahl, spinach and a small portion of brown rice and for dinner have a medium baked potato with a vegan frankfurter and baked beans your protein intake for the day would be 57.6g. On another day, toast and peanut butter for breakfast, two sausage rolls with a green salad for lunch and vegan spaghetti bolognaise (with vegan mince) for dinner adds up to 45.9g of protein for the day. A medium-sized bowl of muesli served with soya milk and a banana, a falafel and hummus wrap and a tofu-stir-fry with mixed seeds adds up to 45.8g of protein.

These suggestions do not include drinks, soya milk or fruit so the final figure will be even higher. If you consume enough calories in a varied vegan diet, it is very easy to achieve the desired level of protein.

A high-protein intake is not necessarily a good thing; high intakes of animal protein have been linked to diabetes, cancer and early death. High protein diets also increase the circulating levels of the growth hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which increases the risk of cancer.