Going vegan is a lifestyle choice that more and more people are now starting to adopt. According to a national survey conducted by Harris Poll, 8 million adults are meat-free, including 3.7 million adults that report to be vegan (which means abstaining from all animal products and byproducts, including dairy).
Whether for moral, environmental, or health reasons, the growing number of practitioners have made a conscious decision that has likely come from a good amount of research.
The important thing when switching to this kind of diet is not only knowing why you want do so, though, but how. While vegan diets can be extremely healthy (plant sources are some of the most nutritional foods available), they can also deplete key areas of nutrients, in particular protein, which is a large component of meat.
But, meat is not the only source of protein—with some good knowledge and planning, vegans can eat just as much of this essential food group and maintain a dietary balance that leads to optimal health.
What protein does for the body
Protein is one of the fundamental molecules of life and is therefore incredibly important. Almost everything that makes up your body (hair, skin, nails, tissues, muscles) is in some way constructed from a building block of proteins, which themselves are made up of 20 different kinds of long-chain amino acids.
Nine of them are essential, meaning the body cannot create them on its own and they must be supplied through food. As the digestive system breaks down food, it converts protein sources into amino acids that are needed for energy and to maintain important bodily functions, from supporting the immune system to monitoring brain and organ function. Some of the key ways protein can help include:
- Regulation of hormones and enzymes
- Building stronger muscles
- Producing new cells and aiding in cell turnover
- Helping to heal wounds and keeping the body healthy
Along with providing fuel and stability, proteins also help to create antibodies and hemoglobin, which provide oxygen and healthy blood flow to all the cells. In short, without proteins, you simply could not exist.
Understanding low protein intake
Generally speaking, the average person needs to eat roughly 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds then you need to consume about 57 grams of protein on a daily basis. However, athletes may need more protein in order to maintain muscle mass and succeed in having the best performances.
Low protein intake can be a fairly common occurrence in developing countries where livestock can be scarce and for those adhering to a vegan diet, which eliminates animal products altogether. That’s because traditionally humans have obtained most of their protein from meat sources. And meat-based protein contains all nine of the amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own, whereas some (but not all) of the plant-based protein sources can be missing a few. This can lead to a deficiency or imbalance even though you may be technically eating lots of protein—that means to say the actual kind of amino acid you get from your diet matters just as much as the quantity you consume.
Signs of a protein imbalance
Health issues can actually develop due to a continued protein imbalance, and the nature of the problem can be diverse and range in severity from mild to very serious. Some of the most common effects include:
- Slower than normal healing times
- Hair loss
- Changes in blood sugar
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking
- Muscle atrophy
- Heart issues
Before these issues become prevalent, there are a few early warnings signs to be aware of. If you’re on a vegan diet and notice any of the following problems, it’s a sign that you could have a protein imbalance and should try to rectify the situation with the high-protein foods suggested herein.
Amino acids are the foundation of the neurological transmitters in the nervous system that control mood. Additionally, proteins have an impact on the creation of dopamine and serotonin in the brain that affect feelings of happiness and depression. Feeling anxious, nervous, or moody are all signs that a protein imbalance may exist.
If you begin noticing that you can’t concentrate, have less motivation, or have trouble learning and understanding new information, these can be more signs that a protein deficiency could be present within the body.
Protein provides the body with energy, so when certain amino acids are missing you can quickly become fatigued. Low energy levels are one of the early warning signs of an imbalance.
When the body has unstable blood sugar or decreased serotonin production, it can lead to insomnia and poor quality sleep as well. This can be a problem for those on vegan diets because protein-rich foods help create tryptophan and serotonin without having a major impact on blood glucose levels. These three elements together help promote healthier sleep.
Low protein concentrations can lead to reduced muscle strength and weaker bones. This in turn leads to increased injuries like pulled and sprained muscles, even broken bones. Also, if you notice that cuts or wounds aren’t healing as quickly as they should, it’s another sign that you may need to increase the amount of protein you eat
Diets high in protein increase the body’s ability to absorb and process sugars. They can also help stabilize blood sugar levels, making it easier to burn calories and reduce snack cravings.
Skin or nail changes
Protein has a pronounced impact on cell regeneration, so when you aren’t getting enough of it, you may notice that the appearance of your skin and nails changes. This could include flaky, dry skin or rashes and also an increased sensitivity to the sun. Brown spots on the fingernails and toenails are also a clear indication.
Along with these noticeable changes, other signs may include headaches, nausea, and diarrhea. If you start noticing any of these, it could be an indicator that you have a protein deficiency.
However, they could also be a reflection of another issue, so it’s best to check with your doctor who can run tests to discover the actual cause or causes. If the symptoms are related to protein deficiency there are many easy dietary changes that can be made to ensure your continued health and well-being.
High protein vegan food options
If you follow a vegan diet, adding protein wherever possible is vital. But, it’s just as important to choose foods that will deliver a rich combination of all nine essential amino acids. Focus on things like nuts, lentils, beans, ancient grains, and certain vegetables that have high protein content. Here are some ideas for products to stock up and have on hand for weekly meals.
Thrive Market Organic Whole Flaxseed
Flax is a whole grain that is filled with numerous nutrients including a good amount of protein (this brand offers six grams in every three tablespoons). Spectrum’s option is also organic, unprocessed, and unrefined to deliver the purest health benefits.
Thrive Market Organic Raw Almonds
Nuts are a huge contributor to daily protein intake, and raw almonds offer some of the highest possible levels. These raw almonds are organic and deliver a whopping six grams of protein per every quarter-cup serving size. Enjoy for an mid-morning or afternoon snack, add to oatmeal for breakfast, and top on salad for lunch and dinner.
Organic Split Lentils
Beans are an excellent source of vegan-friendly protein, and should become a staple part of any vegan diet. Dried versions like these lentils are much healthier for you, with none of the added sodium that canned versions often have. Get creative with beans so you don’t get bored of them—make hummus from chickpeas or even brownies from black beans.
Organic Whole Grain Quinoa
Quinoa is one of the healthiest ancient grains available. They’ve been unchanged for thousands of years, and still deliver complex amino acids to the body. Quinoa can fit into almost any meal plan (try these quinoa pumpkin pancakes) and is an excellent addition to a vegan diet thanks to their versatility.
Protein supplements for vegans
Along with food sources like those listed above, you can also increase protein intake through vegan-friendly shakes and supplements. These are excellent sources of the nutrient and are available in easy-to-measure powders that can be added to smoothies, soups, or anything else you please to get an extra boost each day.
Jarrow Formulas Brown Rice Protein
Totally organic and non-GMO, this protein formula is flavored with natural vanilla to make it easy to enjoy and delivers protein from brown rice. Jarrow Formula’s blend is completely dairy-free as well, making it an ideal choice for vegans.
Garden of Life Organic Plant Based Protein Powder, Smooth Energy
Here’s another vegan-friendly protein powder formulated especially for those who need an extra boost of energy. Every scoop provides 15 grams of protein, helping you steer clear of any kind of deficiency.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho