Why do we need protein?
Protein is an essential part of our nutrition, making up about 17% of the body’s weight and it is the main component of our muscles, skin, internal organs, especially the heart and brain, as well as our eyes, hair and nails. Our immune system also requires protein to help make antibodies that are required to help fight infections, and protein also plays a role in blood sugar regulation, fat metabolism and energy function.
Protein foods actually break down into 22 naturally occurring amino acids, which are known as the building blocks of protein. Of these, nine are known as essential amino acids, which means we must get them from food, as the body cannot make them itself. Protein is also a good source of a range of vitamins and minerals such as zinc and B vitamins. As a vegan, it’s important that all these amino acids are included in the diet to provide optimum nutrition.
The key to getting the right amount of protein, and all the necessary amino acids, is to combine different grains with different vegetables and pulses such as beans and rice, or tofu with broccoli. Variety is key when it comes to being vegan, and not using substitute products such as vegan cheese to make up any deficiency as they are technically a processed food and offer little health benefit.
How much protein should I eat?
The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for an average adult is set at 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day. So an adult weighing 60kg needs 60 x 0.75g per day, which is 45g. A person weighing 74kg would need 74 x 0.75g per day, which is 55g.Can you eat too much protein?
There is some evidence to suggest that eating too much protein may be bad for you, but this typically relates to diets high in animal proteins such as dairy and red or processed meats. A prolonged intake of high amounts of protein was once thought to contribute to bone loss and kidney damage. However, studies now suggest that in otherwise healthy individuals there is little evidence of this effect. A high protein diet does appear to be a problem for those with an existing condition or kidney dysfunction, but in otherwise healthy people, including the elderly, higher protein intakes may actually be beneficial by helping to prevent muscle loss.
Little research has been conducted into any risks associated with high protein vegan diets, although it is always important to ensure that there is variety and that attention is paid to vitamin and mineral requirements, especially in pregnancy.Can you get enough protein as a vegan athlete?
Being vegan can have its challenges for athletes and those who exercise, as it is important to ensure there is adequate energy and protein, omega-3 fatty acids as well as some key nutrients such as vitamin B12, zinc and iron, as well as calorie intake.
A recent study by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that vegan diets can be more difficult to maintain and that there may be some issues around digestion and absorption of key nutrients, but with careful management and some supplementation, a vegan diet 'can achieve the needs of most athletes satisfactorily'.High-protein vegan foods
Plant foods can be a great source of protein and of real benefit in helping to reduce animal proteins in the diet whether you are an omnivore, vegetarian or a vegan.