The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources | The PNW Clinic

October 20, 2022

Whether you are new to plant-based eating or a long-time vegan, you’ve probably been asked, “But where do you get your protein?” at least once. 

With an abundance of plant-based protein sources available, getting enough protein is not too much of a challenge for most plant-based eaters. However, it does take a little bit more thought and planning than is necessary for omnivores, especially if plant-based eating is a new concept to you. 

Luckily, our vegan nutritionists have put together everything you need to know about plant-based protein sources – from how much you need, to how you can get it.

 

What is protein and why do I need it?

First, we need to address why we even need protein in our diet. 

Protein is one of our essential nutrients, meaning that it is necessary for us to access it through our diets each day. It is a pretty important one too as it plays so many key roles throughout every stage of life (1). 

A few of protein’s main roles in the body include (2, 3): 

  • Growth and repair of all body tissues including muscle, skin, bone, cartilage and hair
  • Wound healing and recovery from illness/injuries
  • Maintaining a strong immune system
  • Building hormones
  • Building enzymes to support digestion
  • Acting as a source of energy
  • Keeping us feeling fuller and more satisfied after meals

 

How much protein do I need on a plant-based or vegan diet?

For the average healthy person, protein requirements are based on age, gender and body weight. The Australian Nutrient Reference Values recommend the following daily protein intakes: 

 

Age and Gender Minimum Daily Protein Requirements – Vegans & Vegetarians
0-6 months 1.6g per kg body weight
7-12 months 1.45g per kg body weight
1-3 years 1.1g per kg body weight
4-8 years 0.9g per kg body weight
9-13 years – males 0.95g per kg body weight
9-13 years – females 0.9g per kg body weight
14-18 years – males 1g per kg body weight
14-18 years – females 0.8g per kg body weight
19-70 years – males 0.85g per kg body weight
19-70 years – females 0.75g per kg body weight
Over 70 years 1g per kg body weight
Pregnancy 1g per kg body weight
Lactation 1.1g per kg body weight

 

It’s important to note that these recommendations are based on the minimum requirements for sedentary individuals. Most people would benefit from eating more protein than this – especially if you are active throughout the week.

 

Do plant-based eaters need more protein? 

For those following a plant-based diet, protein requirements are a little bit higher than those following an omnivorous diet. This is because plant-based sources of protein aren’t considered as high-quality compared to animal proteins such as meat, dairy and eggs (4).  

The two main factors that are taken into consideration when deciding the protein quality of foods (5) include:

  • Protein digestibility – how much protein the body is actually able to absorb from the food
  • Amino acid profile – this measures how much of each essential amino acid is present in the food

Unfortunately, plant-based foods typically score lower in both of these factors compared to animal-based foods (6, 7).  

Therefore, it is recommended that vegans’ and vegetarians’ protein requirements are around 10% higher (4). Amended daily protein requirements are as follows: 

Age and Gender Minimum Daily Protein Requirements – Vegans & Vegetarians 
0-6 months 1.75g per kg body weight
7-12 months 1.6g per kg body weight
1-3 years 1.2g per kg body weight
4-8 years 1g per kg body weight
9-13 years – males 1g per kg body weight
9-13 years – females 1g per kg body weight
14-18 years – males 1.1g per kg body weight
14-18 years – females 0.9g per kg body weight
19-70 years – males 0.95g per kg body weight
19-70 years – females 0.8g per kg body weight
Over 70 years 1.1g per kg body weight
Pregnancy 1.1g per kg body weight
Lactation 1.2g per kg body weight

 

What if I’m a plant-based athlete or highly active person? 

It is possible to get enough protein as an athlete (or highly active person) whilst on a plant-based diet. It does, however, take a little bit more thought and consideration as protein needs can be quite a bit higher. Your needs could be as high as 3g per kg body weight depending on your diet and physical energy output (8, 9). 

 

plant-based protein sources for plant-based athletes

 

Recommended daily protein requirements for athletes are as follows: 

 

Omnivorous Diet Plant-Based Diet
Strength Athletes  1.6-2g per kg body weight 2-2.4g per kg body weight
Endurance Athletes  1.6-2g per kg body weight 2-2.4g per kg body weight
Athletes in a calorie deficit  2.5g per kg body weight 3g per kg body weight

 

Protein requirements aside, there are a few factors that apply to plant-based athletes that you need to be aware of. Luckily, we have a whole article on how to build muscle on a plant-based diet here.

You can book an appointment with an online dietitian and vegan nutritionist at The PNW Clinic for individual support with nutrition needs as a plant-based athlete. 

 

Benefits of choosing plant-based protein sources 

Not only is it possible to meet your protein requirements on a plant-based diet, but there are even a few benefits to including more plant-based protein sources in your daily intake.

 

Health benefits

Believe it or not, there are some health benefits that come with eating more plants and less meat.

One of the biggest benefits of plant-based protein sources is that – unlike meat, seafood and eggs – plants are also rich sources of fibre, which is something that many of us don’t get enough of.

Getting enough fibre has a myriad of health benefits. These range from keeping your bowels regular and promoting good gut health to reducing your risk of bowel cancer (10). Limiting red and processed meats in particular has been strongly linked to reducing your risk of colorectal cancer (11). 

Plant-based proteins are also much lower in saturated fats compared to their animal counterparts. This means that they can help with lowering cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (12). Additionally, there is growing evidence linking plant-based eating to decreasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (13, 14). 

 

Environmental benefits

One of the most significant benefits of swapping your meat for tofu and legumes is the positive impact that this can have on the environment. 

The 2019 EAT-Lancet report stated that “vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions”. As such, swapping more animal-based foods for plant-based alternatives is vital for protecting the health of our planet (15). 

In fact, the World Health Organisation states that, “reducing livestock herds would also reduce emissions of methane, which is the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide” (16).  These claims have been further backed up by the 2022 Climate Change Mitigation Report conducted by the United Nations (17). 

 

Cow

 

Ethical benefits

Finally, whether or not you are fully vegan or vegetarian or just reducing your intake of meat, eating fewer animals will be a more compassionate choice.

BOOK A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Best protein sources on a plant-based diet

There’s an abundance of plant-based foods that you can add into your diet, helping you meet your protein needs. Keep in mind that some are higher-quality sources than others. 

Some of our most protein-rich plant-based foods include tofu, tempeh, TVP, soy milk, beans and legumes, pulse pasta, and some mock meats. Whole grains (especially quinoa), nuts and seeds, and nutritional yeast also contain some protein. 

Protein powders and protein bars can also be good additions if you are struggling to meet your requirements. They’re also great options if you just enjoy their taste! 

Below, we have included a list of plant-based foods and how much protein they provide: 

Food Serve Size Protein (Grams) 
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) 50g dry  27
Edamame 1 cup cooked  25
Vetta Protein pasta 100g uncooked  25
Firm Tofu 150g  22
Soy &  linseed low carb high protein breads (e.g. Burgen/Macro brands) 2 slices 21.5
Pulse Pasta (chickpea, lentil, edamame, etc.) 100g uncooked 21
Tempeh 100g 15
Lentils 1 cup cooked (200g) 14.5
Red Kidney Beans 1 cup cooked (200g) 13
Chickpeas 1 cup cooked (200g) 12.5
Black Beans 1 cup cooked (200g) 10.5
Silken Tofu 150g 10.5
Vitasoy Protein Plus almond/soy/oat milk 1 cup (250mL) 10
Hemp Seeds 2 tbsp (30g)  10
Carmen’s Protein Porridge 1 sachet (45g) 10
Pea Protein Milks e.g. Like Milk 1 cup (250mL) 8.5
Vitasoy Soy Yoghurt 140g 8.5g
Soy Milk 1 cup (250mL) 8
Dairy-free Up and Go Carton  8
Quinoa 1 cup cooked 8
Baked Beans 150g 7.5
Powdered Peanut Butter 2 tbsp 5.5
Mixed Nuts & Seeds 30g 5
Nutritional Yeast 2 tbsp  3.5

 

Other products:

  • Protein powder (30-40g serve, contains 20-30g protein)
    • Macro Mike
    • Botanica Blends
    • Nature’s Way Vegan Protein
    • Bulk Nutrients Soy/Earth Protein
    • Coles Perform Pea Protein
  • Protein bars:
    • Clif Builders Bar (20g protein)
    • Coles Perform Plant Protein Bar (11g protein)
    • Clif Bar (standard, 9g protein)
    • FodBods Bars (8.5g protein)
    • Keep It Cleaner Protein Bars (8g protein)
    • Carmen’s Plant Protein Bar (7.5g protein)
    • Nice & Natural Protein Whole Seed Bar (7.5g protein)
  • Mock meats (check the label, per 100g)
    • Sunfed chicken (36g protein)
    • Plant Asia (20g protein)
    • V2 mince (18g protein)

Nutritional information obtained from FSANZ Food Composition Database 

 

hummus, plant-based protein sources

 

What is protein combining, and is it important?

As we mentioned earlier, one of the reasons plant-based proteins are considered lower quality is because they have lower scores based on their amino acid profile. 

For a bit of background, proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. In foods, these can be divided into two categories (18):  

  1. Essential amino acids: these can’t be made by the body but are required for the body to thrive. It is essential we get them through our food.
  2. Non-essential amino acids: these can be made by the body, so it’s not 100% necessary for us to get them through our food.

 

Complete vs. non-complete proteins 

After considering the amino acid profile of a food, we can then classify it as containing either complete or incomplete proteins. 

  • Complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids and are predominantly animal-based sources such as meat, seafood, eggs and dairy. Soy products are a great plant-based exception (e.g. tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame).
  • Incomplete proteins lack at least one essential amino acid. Unfortunately, most of our plant-based proteins fit into this category. This is where protein combining may become more relevant.

 

What is protein combining?

Plant-based protein sources will often only be limited by one or two essential amino acids. For example, whole grains lack the amino acids lysine and threonine but are great sources of the amino acid methionine. Legumes, on the other hand, are great sources of both lysine and threonine but are lacking in methionine (6). 

This means that you can combine incomplete proteins together to make complete proteins that contain all the amino acids. We call these combinations ‘complementary proteins’. If we use the example above, grains and legumes would be an example of a complementary protein pairing. 

 

Complementary protein pairs

  • Legumes + Grains
  • Nuts & Seeds + Legumes 

 

For example: 

  • Oats topped with chopped nuts and seeds 
  • Lentil dahl with wild rice 
  • Baked beans on toast 
  • Burrito bowl with brown rice and black beans 

 

Do I need to worry about protein combining? 

For the general population, it is unnecessary to worry too much about protein combining at every meal/snack. Complementary protein pairings can occur throughout the day. As long as you are getting a variety of different protein sources throughout your day, you can be confident you are getting all the amino acids you need (18, 19).

 

The Bottom Line On Plant-Based Protein Sources

With so many plant-rich proteins to choose from, getting enough protein on a plant-based diet is definitely achievable for most people. However, because plant-based protein sources are lower in protein per serve than animal proteins, and daily requirements are slightly higher, it does take a little bit more thought and planning – especially if you have high protein requirements. 

If you’re concerned that you aren’t getting enough protein in your diet, we recommend booking a consultation with one of our plant-based dietitians and vegan nutritionists at The PNW Clinic for personalised advice. 

BOOK A FREE DISCOVERY CALL WITH OUR DIETITIANS
 

Article written by: PNW Clinic dietitian Georgia D’Andrea

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