A vegan diet takes being vegetarian to a whole new level. It excludes all animal products, including fish, eggs, and milk, even dairy foods like yogurt and cheese. It’s basically eating only things that come from plants – fruit, vegetables, seeds, pulses, nuts, beans, and grains. But if you think a vegan diet leads to an imbalance in macro-nutrients, especially protein, think again. Some athletes who have adopted a vegan diet actually perform better than ever because they know how to eat a “balanced” diet.
A “balanced plate” concept applies to all diets and requires people to consume food from each of the four food groups – proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and fiber – during any typical meal. The balanced plate concept also applies for vegans.
Foods from the protein food group are vital for the growth and repair of muscles and for brain development. The US CDC says the minimum requirement of protein for sedentary teenage boys and adult men is 52-56 grams per day while the minimum requirement for sedentary teenage girls and women is 46 grams per day and at least 25 grams more if pregnant or breastfeeding. However, physically active people need an additional 20-50 grams of protein per day, based on their level of activity.
Since vegans do not eat animal products, they must find other sources of protein-rich foods to meet these daily requirements, such as beans, nuts, seeds, and lentils.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, but some of the essential amino acids that people need cannot be produced by the body so they must be obtained from food. The protein in meat and fish are classed as complete proteins because they contain sufficient amounts of all the essential amino acids. However, the proteins found in beans, nuts, and seeds lack the full range of necessary amino acids.
This isn't an issue for vegans as long as they consume several different protein foods that contain different profiles of amino acids to provide the body with what it needs. Aside from being great sources of protein, seeds, pulses, nuts, beans, and grains offer plenty of other nutritional benefits from the many vitamins and minerals they contain.
Check out the nutritional benefits in some of these vegetable proteins:
Beans & Lentils
Beans are a great source of protein and fiber and are naturally low in fat. For example, butter beans (or lima beans) and red kidney beans contain 7.5 to 8 grams of protein in just half a cup. By varying the types of beans and lentils you eat, you can easily get at least half of your recommended daily protein requirement. Lima beans are also a good source of manganese, which makes and activates some enzymes that are critical for the normal functioning of several organs, while kidney beans are a significant source of phosphorus, which combines with calcium to form strong bones.
Nuts are a staple in the diet of many vegans. Just a handful of nuts packs a powerful punch of proteins, minerals, and vitamins, which all work together to affect your heart, your brain, and your waistline. Just 1 ounce a day can diminish inflammation and provide fiber, immune-boosting minerals, and 5-10 grams of protein. Most nuts are also a great source of potassium, which is necessary for lowering the risk of high blood pressure. Nuts get a bad reputation because of their high fat content, but if eaten in moderation, they are good fats (unsaturated fat) and can help lower blood cholesterol. The daily recommended serving is 1-1.5 oz or 2 tbsp of nuts, which equals about 22-50 nuts, depending on the type and size.
Seeds such as sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, flax, and chia are great sources of protein, fats, fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients. For example, just 2 tablespoons of chia and sesame seeds provide fiber, calcium, manganese, and magnesium as well as 5 grams and 6 grams of protein, respectively. Seeds are versatile ingredients that can be used in stir-fries, smoothies, soups, and salads.
One of my favorite vegan dishes that can be made in several different ways is this chickpea-lentil stew. I often make a large batch that can be eaten over a few days with quinoa, farro, spelt, millet, brown rice, or barley. I sometimes even add tofu to increase the protein content exponentially. You can get the recipe from my website. Click here.
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