Before we jump into the best sources of protein on a plant-based diet, it’s useful to briefly touch on how much protein we actually need for performance results and optimal health.
The Australian Government’s Nutrient Reference Values indicate that the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for an average person is 0.84 grams of protein per kg for men and 0.75 grams per kg for women. For example, a woman who weighs 65kg should aim for 49g of protein each day. For those who are particularly active and regularly engage in resistance training, this figure goes up to 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kg (if the individual is in calorie maintenance or surplus) and between 1.8-2.2 grams of protein per kg if in a calorie deficit as the extra protein may help maintain muscle mass during a weight loss phase.
So, what are the best foods to source protein from on a plant-based diet?
My favourite plant-based protein-rich foods are:
- Legume pasta
- Nutritional yeast
- Quinoa (but in general all legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains provide plenty of protein per serving.)
Not only are these foods able to supply us with adequate protein, their benefits extend far past their protein content. Plant foods are generally packed with dietary fibre, non-heme iron and unsaturated fats whilst being free from cholesterol and low in saturated fat, which are both typically abundant in animal protein and have been shown to increase cardiovascular disease risk. It’s also worth noting that the majority of plant foods such as vegetables or fruits also contain some protein, which may not seem like much in itself, but over the course of a whole day they can definitely add up.
Still struggling to find ways to sneak protein into your diet?
Whole foods aside, these days there are certainly plenty of convenient ways for people to increase their protein intake.
One of the easiest ways is with a good quality protein powder. My recommendation is to use a plant-based protein powder that has a combination of different plant proteins such as pea, rice and hemp. These have been shown to be as effective as whey powder when it comes to muscle synthesis.
I generally have one protein shake a day but rather than having it by itself I blend it with:
- 2 frozen bananas,
- Hemp seeds
- Cinnamon, and
- Plant-based milk
In addition to protein powders, there are a bunch of complete nutrition plant-based meal replacements on the market that provide good amounts of protein per serve. While these by definition are not ‘whole food’ some of them actually do offer very good nutrition using only real food ingredients, particularly when you compare them to what someone may otherwise eat (a very important part of weighing up the nutritional benefit of any food is what it replaces in one's diet).
I, along with a team of doctors and nutritionists, was fortunate enough to actually have an active role in formulating a new brand launching in Australia in April called ‘Eimele’ (pronounced “A-Meal”.) Eimele provides a range of products including snack bars, porridges and soups, with a gut health range coming out in the not too distant future. What’s unique about this brand is that ingredients are 100 per cent plant-based with zero synthetic fillers or artificial nasties – whole foods packaged in a convenient form to provide complete nutrition. Sweetened by nature, the Eimele meals include plant protein, essential fats, unrefined carbohydrates, dietary fibre along with the essential vitamins and minerals that one needs to thrive.
In summary, finding protein on a plant-based diet is actually not difficult. If you consume a predominately whole food plant-based diet that provides you with the total calories that you need then you’ll reach the RDI for protein without trying. In fact, with less than 20 per cent of Australian adults reaching the suggested daily intake of fibre and protein deficiency being incredibly rare, it seems we are obsessed with the wrong nutrient!