Do Vegans Really Need to Worry About Protein?

Do vegans need to worry about getting enough protein? We did the research. Here’s what we learned

By Jonathan Weissenberg

If you’re a vegan, you’ve probably been asked: “But where do you get your protein from”. Like, a million times. In fact, there’s even a lot of talk among the plant based community about complete and incomplete proteins. Or how you may need to combine different protein sources to get all of the nine amino acids that your body needs to function properly.

But this is a debate that has more questions than answers.

To answer the question: do vegans need to worry about protein?, we went through over 70 PubMed journals that analyse the amino acid makeup of popular high protein vegan friendly foods to give you the facts behind complete vs incomplete proteins.

What are Complete and Incomplete Proteins?

do vegans need to worry about protein

Proteins are made up of amino acids. We require nine amino acids in our diet in order for our body to function properly. When grouped together these nine amino acids are called the “essential amino acids”. 

Each amino acid benefits us in different ways (just like how each vitamin has different benefits to us).

The whole idea behind complete and incomplete proteins is that some protein sources have all of these nine amino, whereas some only contain some of these. 

The general wisdom is that while animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, most plant based proteins do not. This makes talk of complete vs incomplete proteins particularly prevalent among people on a vegan diet, as they need to be aware of what protein sources contain what amino acids to make sure that they get all nine amino acids in their diet.

What We Learned About Complete and Incomplete Proteins

The main takeaway from our research is that the idea that most plant based protein sources are “incomplete” is simply not true.

Of the seventeen most popular plant based protein sources we analyzed, fourteen of them contained all nine essential amino acids.

The only plant based proteins that did NOT contain all nine essential amino acids were:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Mung beans
  • Wheat protein (most commonly found in seitan)

This is excellent news for vegans! Basically, vegans do not need to worry about protein or getting all our essential amino acids. Indeed, as long as vegans eat enough protein, we should get all the essential amino acids. And by ‘enough protein’, I mean around 50 – 100 grams a day, depending on your weight. 

Which Amino Acids Are Hard To Get On A Vegan Diet?

Well, the fact is, our analysis did find that there was one amino acid that was difficult to get if you’re plant based. Methionine.

Methionine is essential to optimal muscle growth and development. Of the seventeen protein sources tested, only three of them contained more than 30% of our daily recommended intake of methionine per two hundred calorie portion.

These three protein sources high in methionine are:

  • Lentils
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Kidney beans

So, vegans should try to eat at least two servings of one of these three foodstuffs every day. You can get the rest of your daily methionine requirement from other protein sources which contain smaller amounts of this amino acid.

Since methionine is the most important amino acid in building muscle, we’d recommend having three to four servings of the three high methionine protein sources if you are looking to build muscle on a vegan diet.

What Are the Best Plant Based Protein Sources?

If you’re still wondering if vegans need to worry about protein, the answer is no. If they’re eating tons of lentils!

Yep, that’s right. The plant based protein source with by far the best balance of amino acids is lentils.

Lentils contain more than 50% of all your essential amino acids. This means that if you eat 400 calories worth of lentils a day, you’ve  covered all your amino acid requirements. We wouldn’t recommend just eating lentils as your only protein source, though. A more balanced diet is always more beneficial.

Pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, kidney beans and soy based products (tofu and tempeh) also have a really strong balance of essential amino acids. One portion of any of those contains more than 30% of all your daily required amino acids.

The only plant based protein source that we would not recommend you have as your staple protein is seitan. Although it contains the most protein per calories of any plant based protein source, it lacks three of your nine essential amino acids: lysine, methionine and tryptophan.

If you eat seitan as your staple protein, then the question of whether vegans need to worry about protein is more relevant. We’d recommend combining this with regularly eating quinoa and lentils. These are particularly rich in the three amino acids that seitan lacks.

Should Vegans Take Protein Supplements?

Since the vast majority of plant based protein sources contain all your essential amino acids, there’s really no need for protein supplements if you’re on a vegan diet.

That being said, if you’re working out a lot and want to build loads of muscle, you might want to try some of the best vegan protein powders.

We learned that:

  • Brown rice protein powder is the best protein supplement for building muscle. That’s because it contains the most leucine, lysine and valine. These are the three amino acids most involved in building muscle.
  • Lentil protein is the best protein supplement for older people. This contains by far the most threonine, which is essential for maintaining connective tissue. It can be particularly useful if you have joint inflammation.
  • Sacha inchi is the best plant based protein supplement for improving mood and cognition. This Peruvian plant contains the highest amounts of phenylalanine and tryptophan. Both contribute to the creation and maintenance of neurotransmitters.

Wrapping Up

So, do vegans need to worry about protein? No. The idea that most plant based protein sources are “incomplete” is just wrong. Vegans do not need to combine protein sources.

Not only are most plant based protein sources complete, but if you eat a diet rich in beans and pulses (especially lentils), then you should have absolutely no problem in getting your daily requirements for all nine essential amino acids.

Great news for vegans everywhere!

PS: Click here for some great vegan protein ball recipes

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