It’s January. Everyone’s still in full swing of trying to stick to their New Year’s resolutions. ….And get over their festive indulgences!…by trying the likes of detoxing. And some people have also turned to veganism.
It’s January so it’s Veganuary. Vegan January.
Do you follow a vegan diet? Maybe you’re thinking about it? Maybe with all the stuff in the media about climate change and the absolutely awful, horrendous, bush fires that are currently burning across Australia, is making you think you need to do something to help. Awesome – we all need to do our bit. And maybe you’re concerned about animal welfare as well. Me too.
Also, plant-based diets have been shown to have less environmental impact than meat-based diets(1,2,21).
In this post I’m not going to go into the general details about vegan diets, but instead focus on vegan sources of protein. Because, initially it can seem more difficult to meet your protein and amino acid requirements(7), especially if you’re an athlete or amateur sportsman …or if you’re in the military.
Vegan diets, if not well planned can lead to nutritional deficiencies(8), such as vitamin B12(7), and have consequences to health and exercise performance(8).
You can read the Vegan Society’s stance on the benefits of a vegan diet here, where they talk about the ethical side of things and animal welfare, food sustainability and the environmental impact of our food production, as well as the health benefits.
PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals) highlight the benefits of a vegan diet, such as the fact that it’s a nutritious diet, reduces risk of certain chronic diseases and helping you achieve a healthy body weight.
20 Vegan Protein Sources
Here’s 20 key sources of protein:
- Seitan mince (meat substitute, made from wheat gluten)
- Peanut butter
- Pumpkin seeds
- Tempeh (made from fermented soya beans)
- Butter beans
- Brazil nuts
- Soya beans
- Quorn mince
- Quorn chicken
- Kidney beans
- Black beans
- Tofu (made from soya beans)
- Baked beans
- Green beans
The other day on social media I came across a chart showing “Best”, “Good”, “Bad” and “Horrible” protein sources in terms of calories per 100g of protein.
It showed almonds, peanuts, quinoa, chia seeds and those Kind snack bars (that are loaded with nuts) all under the heading, “Horrible”. Yeah, these foods may contain loads of calories, but…
- They’re plant-based, so better for the environment than meat/poultry/fish sources of protein(3,4)
- Having a diet high in plant-based foods is healthful(5)
- And it’s like the authors are basically saying nuts and seeds are horrible, which clearly isn’t true (and I’m not talking about the taste here)…
…Because they may have a lot of calories, but some people may actually have high calorie requirements, plus, people following a vegan diet can typically struggle to eat as many calories compared to a meat-eater(6,7).
Also, it’s not like the calories in the “Horrible” foods list (excluding the Kind bars) are “empty” calories (i.e. foods or drinks that have no other real nutritional value, such as alcohol, chocolate or syrup) – these foods are full of vitamins, minerals, fibre, essential fats…So not so horrible after all!!
There’s research that shows regularly eating nuts doesn’t make you gain weight(9,10,14), and we don’t obtain all the calories stored in them because we can’t access them(11).
Although, if you tanned (- sorry, Army slang for “consumed” or “ate”!) loads of peanut butter (or any other type of nut butter), then you would get the calories. Because the nuts have been blended within an inch of their life (!) to make them into a smooth paste, which releases those fats and subsequently the calories.
Have you ever noticed the pool of runny fat that sits on top of nut butters (like that in the above picture), made by the likes of Meridian or Whole Earth (not Sunpat!) or even on the top of tahini paste when you open the jar? These are the natural fats that have separated out while it’s been sat in your cupboard, and it sits like a puddle until you stir it in (or pour it off). These fats are mostly unsaturated fats and good for us.
Eating nuts has numerous health benefits, such as beneficial for heart health(12,13), they can make you feel full, they’re loaded with essential nutrients, including fibre as well as “good fats” …and I think they’re tasty too! Plus, they may actually help you manage your weight (rather than putting it on)(14).
Vegan Proteins And IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
If you suffer with IBS your life can feel like a nightmare; being totally dictated to by your symptoms and wondering what you can actually eat.
And if you follow a vegan diet, or want to switch to a vegan diet for all or any of the reasons I mentioned above, then you may be in for a stormy ride.
Because people with IBS can suffer symptoms from eating fermentable carbs, or *FODMAPs (and hence they go on a low FODMAP diet. By the way, if you want help with your IBS and more info about the low FODMAP diet, then you can contact me).
FODMAPs are found in a variety of foods, including some fruits, veg and wholegrains… and are rich in a vegan diet!
(*Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols – a bit of a mouthful, hence “FODMAP”!!).
I’m not suggesting you don’t bother with a vegan diet if you suffer with IBS; I’m just highlighting that you may find it a bit more difficult. And I’m definitely not recommending the Carnivore diet or any other unhealthy, faddy diet which massively restricts what you eat, leaving you undernourished and miserable, as an alternative to a vegan diet if you suffer with IBS. It’s totally doable; following a vegan diet and manage your IBS, but it needs to be well planned and organised.
Just as a side note, don’t start trying to do a low FODMAP diet yourself without the support of a qualified Dietitian, because it could be overly restrictive, may risk nutritional deficiencies and generally be confusing if you don’t know what you’re doing. It can also affect your gut bacteria too. So not good trying to tackle this alone.
Looking at the above list of vegan protein sources, many of them could bring on symptoms if you suffer with IBS. So you need to look for suitable alternatives – another reason why seeing a Dietitian is a good thing – because they can help you with this and make sure your diet is nutritionally adequate.
Protein Quality And Quantity
Athletes, amateurs and military personnel who follow, or thinking about following, a vegan diet need to consider the quality and quantity of plant-based proteins.
Plant-based protein are classed as being of lower quality than animal-based proteins(18,21). Plant proteins are less digestible compared to animal protein(19) and are typically missing essential amino acids(7,8). And contain less BCAAs than animal sources(7).
So following this diet you could feel like you’re at a bit of a disadvantage. But just Google “vegan athletes” and you’ll recognise many successful athletes have managed it, although they’ll have a Dietitian or Nutritionist helping them.
BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) (valine, leucine and isoleucine), especially leucine, are particularly useful for promoting muscle protein synthesis – muscle growth(8).
These BCAAs are 3 of the 8 essential amino acids for adults – essential because our body can’t make them; we need to get them from our diet(15).
An athlete can meet their nutritional requirements for health and performance by following a vegan diet(17). But you can’t just “wing it”! You need to look at your goals, your training regimen, work out your requirements, and plan what you’re actually going to eat…since we don’t eat nutrients in isolation; we eat foods!!
So to get the right balance of amino acids when following a vegan diet, you need to eat a range of nuts, seeds, cereal grains (such as oats, rice, quinoa), vegetables and legumes (like beans, peas, lentils)(7,17,20). This will also help with obtaining a variety of nutrients in general as well as avoiding “food fatigue” or boredom from eating the same old same old!!
There are vegan sources of protein supplements, but here’s a few things to consider:
- Plant-based protein supplements (such as pea or hemp protein) doesn’t have loads of scientific evidence behind their use, because in the grand scheme of things, this is new, so although there’s literally shed loads of research done on protein and exercise performance, there’s minimal on plant-proteins
- Plant-based protein supplement manufacturers may make claims about how awesome their product is, but there needs to be quality, robust scientific evidence behind these (as mentioned in point 1, above
- If you think you want, or need to take supplements, always check they’ve been batch tested first before using a product
Key Take-Away Points:
- Vegan diets have less environmental impact, with less associated greenhouse gases from food production (compared to red meat food production)
- There’s no reason why a vegan diet isn’t suitable for an athlete, unless it’s not planned
- To obtain all the essential amino acids your body needs, you need to eat a variety of foods
- Your protein requirements can be higher if you’re reliant on plant-based sources(7,8)
- Nuts are a source of protein and high in calories, they’re healthy, and won’t make you gain weight
- It is possible to follow a vegan diet if you suffer with IBS – make sure you’re still eating a varied and healthy diet – get the help of a Dietitian if you’re concerned or struggling
- Just because you follow a vegan diet doesn’t automatically make it healthy – it is also possible to make a vegan unhealthy, just like a meat-eater’s diet can be healthy or unhealthy, by being too high or too low in certain nutrients
** Looking at a vegan diet as a whole, not just protein, you can speak to your doctor about this and they can test your nutritional status. It may be that you need you to be regularly monitored and need nutritional supplementation, for example, vitamin B12 or iron.
Hope you found this helpful!
What’s your thoughts about a vegan diet? Do you follow a vegan diet and what drove you to it? I’d love to hear your experiences.
It is crucial to get your food and fluid intake right if you want to control your IBS symptoms and if you want train harder, go faster and recover quicker from training sessions and competitions. Dietary requirements are highly individualised and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Working with a Registered Clinical & Sports Dietitian to develop a bespoke plan based on your unique requirements will help to ensure the most appropriate strategy and best results are achieved.
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- O’Malley, K., Willits-Smith, A., Aranda, R., Heller, M., & Rose, D. (2019). Vegan vs Paleo: Carbon Footprints and Diet Quality of 5 Popular Eating Patterns as Reported by US Consumers (P03-007-19).
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