TDIV Q&A: Where do vegans get protein?

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Anyone who has checked out the physique of Robert Cheeke or other vegan fitness enthusiasts knows (or can at least see) that vegans don’t need to ingest animals to build muscle.This is the most popular question, however, that meat-and-potatoes or chicken-and-rice consumers ask us. Not only do they tend to be unaware of the array of non-animal foods containing protein, but they usually exaggerate how much protein our bodies require.

The faux meat industry has created so many products that vegans can enjoy with various flavors and forms of burgers, chik’n, ribs, lunchmeat slices, meatballs, veggie dogs, fakin’ bacon and others that look and taste like (or often better than) the real thing. 

And who could forget that Tofurky provides a delicious, salmonella-free feast for Thanksgiving? Boca and Morningstar vegan burgers have a soy protein base and 13 grams of protein, while Gardenburger patties have a brown rice/oat base with only five grams. Morningstar also uses soy protein and wheat gluten to create riblets with 16 grams and chik’n strips with 23 grams. Nate’s makes meatballs with the same base that provide eight grams per serving.

Tofurky uses wheat gluten and tofu in its deli slices, which have about 13 grams per serving and adds pea protein to the mix for 10 grams in their veggie dogs. Wheat gluten on its own is known as seitan or “wheat meat” and provides 22 grams for a three-ounce serving.

Veggie burgers have gone mainstream, and they are popping up at fast food restaurants (BK veggie or V.G. Burgers, anyone?), ball parks (which you can easily get for free if they mess up the order) and chain restaurants such as Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s. A word of caution, though: some veggie burger and faux meat products contain egg whites or traces of milk, so double-check the ingredients or allergen warnings. 

Soybeans (also known as edamame) provide 22 grams per cup (cooked) and are used to create tofu, a coagulated bean curd with 12 grams per three-ounce serving, pressed into soymilk with six grams per cup, or fermented into tempeh strips with 13 grams per three-ounce serving. Soy can also be made into yogurt, cheese and ice cream products with small to moderate amounts of protein.

People who are allergic to or are worried about consuming soy products may turn to almond or coconut milks, almond or rice cheeses or other non-dairy alternatives, but all of these choices have less protein than soy. Nuts are high in calories and fat, but they provide moderate amounts of protein and fiber. Peanuts and walnuts provide the most protein at 24 grams per 3.5 ounce serving, followed by almonds, pistachios, cashews, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, pine nuts and pecans. 

Beans also provide the one-two protein-fiber punch. Soybeans provide the most protein, followed by lentils at eight grams per cup, then a little less with black beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans and chickpeas. The most popular grain for protein, and an excellent substitute for rice, is the eight grams per cup quinoa (KEEN-wa). Lastly, Popeye turned to spinach for a reason! Spinach and other greens also contain protein.

The traditional American diet is too high in fat, especially from saturated and trans fat sources, too high in sugar, usually from refined sources and processed foods, and too low in fruits, vegetables and other natural fiber sources. The average adult only needs about 15-25 percent of daily calories from protein sources, but many easily ingest more than that because high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets have been all the rage recently. However, our bodies do not use protein as an energy source and will excrete what is not needed at the time. Only 0.8-1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day is necessary. Ingest too much, especially in the form of pricey protein powders, and you may watch your money go down the toilet.

Erin Fergus | Facebook
Pensacola, FL Erin works as an adjunct instructor in Human Performance at Pensacola State College and group fitness instructor and personal trainer at the YMCA. She holds a master’s in exercise science and is entering her final year of a master’s in journalism. She became a vegetarian in 2001 after viewing PETA demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and she has transitioned closer to veganism since 2008. Some of her previous work has been featured on livestrong.com. Her favorite activities include vegan cooking, going to the beach, playing piano and spending time with her Cocker Spaniel.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/virtualeyesee

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