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Protein in the vegan diet - this is how you, as a vegan, cover your protein needs

Nobody cares if you are getting enough protein - until you say you are vegetarian or even vegan. Then your environment is suddenly teeming with nutrition experts. You will be asked whether you can really meet your protein needs without meat and dairy products, and how you can ensure that you do not ruin your health in the long term due to a protein deficiency.

Does that sound familiar to you? U.S. as well!

A possible explanation for this phenomenon could be that animal foods are said to have a high protein content - above all meat, fish and dairy products. The food industry has done its job well. And the advertising from the 80s and 90s stays in your ears. "The milk does it". "Meat is a piece of life force". “Milk is my strength” - to name just three examples.

In addition, animal protein is viewed as high quality protein - and protein from plant sources as inferior.

The truth is, you can also meet your protein needs with a plant-based diet - all without protein shakes! To do that, you don't have to be a super genius or complete a degree in nutritional science.

A little background knowledge is still not wrong, and that's what we want to provide you with in this post. In a nutshell, we answer the most important questions about protein in a plant-based diet and also deal with nutrition for vegan endurance athletes.

In this post we address the following questions:

  • What is protein anyway?
  • Why does our body need protein?
  • How Much Protein Do We Need?
  • Which plant-based foods are particularly good sources of protein?
  • How Much Protein Does a Typical Plant-Based Meal Contain?
  • What is the biological value all about? And do different protein sources have to be combined?
  • Is the protein requirement increased in endurance athletes?

But one after anonther …

What is protein anyway and what role does it play in our body?

First, a little basic knowledge: The terms egg white and protein are synonyms - they mean the same thing.

Proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids - these 20 amino acids are, so to speak, the building blocks of proteins and are therefore called proteinogenic Designated amino acids (proteinogenic = "producing protein").

Of these 20 amino acids, 8 are essential for the human body (even 9 for babies), which means we have to ingest them with food. The body can produce the remaining 12 (non-essential) amino acids itself.

In our body, protein is an essential component of muscles, connective tissue, hair, organs, cartilage and nails as well as numerous enzymes. A persistent, severe undersupply of protein can lead to protein deficiency diseases such as marasmus and kwashiorkor.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

The Protein requirement is generally given in the scientific literature as 0.34 grams per kilogram of body weight.

However, the official intake recommendations of the German Nutrition Society (DGE) are significantly higher at 0.8 g protein per kilogram of body weight (for adults from 19 to 65 years of age). Other scientific societies recommend similar values, the WHO for example 0.83 g / kg body weight.

The reason for the difference is that the Recommended intake contains two safety surcharges:

  • a surcharge for a lower biological value of the protein (more on this below in the section on biological value),
  • and another bonus for the fact that the body can only utilize part of the protein consumed.

For example, a person weighing 70 kg has a calculated protein requirement of 23.8 g per day, but the recommendations for daily intake are 56 g (see table below).

This is important because we keep finding that the terms “needs” and “recommended intake” are not used correctly and are often confused with one another.

With a balanced, wholesome and varied plant-based diet with sufficient calories, we usually consume more than 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight. Higher intake recommendations such as 1.0 g per kg of body weight can also be easily achieved.

In the following table you can read off the actual protein requirement (i.e. the required intake) per body weight. In addition to the DGE's official intake recommendation of 0.8 g per kg of body weight, we have also added two columns for a higher intake of 1.0 and 1.2 g per kg of body weight:

Which plant-based foods are particularly good sources of protein?

There are numerous plant-based foods that can be valuable sources of protein. In terms of total protein content, the following plant-based foods take the top positions:

  • Whole grain cereals, for example rice, corn, oats, wheat, rye, spelled, barley and millet
  • (Whole grain) cereal products made from the cereals mentioned above such as oat flakes, bread, pasta or seitan (a food made from wheat protein with a meat-like consistency)
  • legumes, for example chickpeas, peas, lentils, beans, lupins, soybeans, (edamame), peanuts and products made from soybeans such as tofu or tempeh
  • Almonds
  • nuts, especially walnuts, cashew nuts and hazelnuts
  • Pseudo-grain such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat or hemp

The comparisons of the protein content of certain plant-based and animal-based foods, which can often be found in blog articles and infographics, should be viewed with caution, because it does not always indicate whether it is the protein content of the unprocessed or the ready-made food.

For example, red lentils with 24 g protein per 100 g dry weight seem at first glance to contain more protein than 100 g minced meat, which makes up approx Protein content per 100 g is significantly lower after preparation (which of course does not mean that the lentils are not an excellent source of protein anyway!).

A list of the best 41 vegetable protein suppliers including recipe ideas can be found in this detailed article.

How Much Protein Does a Typical Plant-Based Meal Contain?

We have already dealt with the daily protein requirement and intake recommendations above. If we assume 0.8 g per kg of body weight, a person weighing 60 kg has to consume approx. 48 g of protein per day through food.

If we follow higher recommendations such as 1.0 g or 1.2 g per kg of body weight, we end up with 60 g protein or 72 g protein.

In order to put these numbers in relation to a classic vegan diet day, I have calculated the protein content for two plant-based dishes that are typical for us:

So with these two meals a person would already be consuming 58 grams of protein. Dinner (e.g. whole grain bread with hummus or another grain green bean dish) and snacks (e.g. nuts, smoothies, etc.) are still missing from the bill.

With a varied diet with legumes and whole grain cereal products, it is not difficult to achieve the intake recommendation of the DGE or even significantly higher 1.0 or 1.2 g protein / kg per day.

The rule of thumb for protein supply is:

As long as you eat a varied diet (i.e. regularly use different foods from the above-mentioned food groups) and consume enough calories in total, you do not have to worry about a protein deficiency even with a vegan diet!

In order to optimize your protein supply and ensure that you consume good protein sources several times a day, we recommend that you stick to the formula "A Grain, a Green and a Bean" when cooking.

You process whole grain cereals and legumes in your main dishes completely automatically, two food groups that are among the best vegetable protein suppliers.

Start the revolution in your kitchen!

In our popular recipe e-books (more than 5,000 copies sold) we present you our favorite dishes according to the ingenious one Grain Green Bean Formula for the perfect vegan dish.

Protein: questions and answers

What is the biological value all about? And do we have to combine different sources of protein?

You may have heard the recommendation to combine different protein-rich foods with each other. But why actually?

This is the point in time when we have to deal more closely with the concept of biological value. The biological value is a measure of the efficiency with which the body can convert food proteins into the body's own proteins. It is higher, the more similar the “food protein” is to the “body protein” in terms of the composition of the various amino acids.

Meat and other animal foods usually have a slightly more favorable amino acid profile than plant foods, and thus have a higher biological value (which is in some ways logical because we are more closely related to animals than to plants).

The amino acid lysine, for example, is only found in small amounts in cereals. If a food contains only a small amount of an amino acid, one speaks of the "limiting" amino acid.

For this reason, vegetarians and vegans have long been recommended to combine various vegetable protein sources with each other at each meal, the amino acid profiles of which complement each other in order to improve the biological value of the meal.

But now we know that this is not necessary at all. The body can also build up tissue if it does not receive the essential amino acids all at the same time, but gradually (e.g. over the course of a day).

In plain language this means: As long as you eat a varied diet throughout the day, week and seasons and consume enough calories in total, you don't have to worry about a protein deficiency.

Nevertheless, of course, nothing speaks against combining different vegetable protein sources (e.g. whole grains and legumes) in one meal. You often do it automatically, for example when you conjure up a chilli sin carne made from corn and beans, spread hummus on wholemeal bread or garnish the pasta with a lentil bolognese.

Do endurance athletes have an increased protein requirement?

Time and again we come across far higher recommendations for endurance athletes than the 0.8-1.0 g per kg of body weight recommended by many nutritional societies. Individual literature sources even recommend values ​​of 2.5-3 g per kg of body weight for triathletes and ultramarathon runners.

Unfortunately, there are very few studies on this topic overall - and when they do, the study population is usually very small and the informative value is accordingly dubious.

In July 2020, the DGE Sports Nutrition Working Group published a position paper on protein intake in sport. The most important results can be summarized in brief:

  • With a balanced and varied diet, there is no need for protein supplements.
  • Adults who exercise a maximum of 5 hours a week do not have an increased protein requirement. 0.8 g per kg of body weight is sufficient.
  • Athletes who do more than 5 hours of sport per week should consume 1.2-2 g of protein per kg of body weight, depending on their level of training and training goal.
  • But: Too little scientific knowledge is available for endurance athletes, so that there is currently no general recommendation for an increased protein intake for endurance athletes.

What we shouldn't forget during the whole discussion: If you do 10 hours of intensive endurance sports per week and thus have an increased protein requirement, your energy requirements will of course also increase. You will then automatically eat more than a comparable person (age, weight) with a less active lifestyle.

And if you replenish this "extra" in calories not exclusively with chocolate, ice cream and cake, but with a varied and balanced diet with whole grain products and pulses (see above), the chances are good that you will automatically end up in the optimal range.

So it is more important to get enough energy from wholesome foods than to argue about whether 0.8 or 1.5 g per kg of body weight is the optimal value for protein supply.

If you are not sure whether you are consuming enough protein even during intense physical exertion, you can temporarily write a food diary and record your protein intake.

If your nutrition log shows that you are constantly consuming too little protein, I recommend that you first try to incorporate more protein-rich foods into your daily diet. If you cannot do this on your own, you can seek help from a qualified specialist. (When searching, please keep in mind that "nutritionist" is not a protected job title and basically anyone can call themselves that).

Book tips on the subject of protein in a vegan diet

We can recommend the following cookbooks if you want to dig deeper into the topic and prepare protein-rich dishes:

Recommendations for further reading

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Info: This post originally appeared in November 2012. We last revised it in August 2020 and brought it up to date. Older comments therefore refer to a previous version.