In the words of the immortal Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green.” While I’m not sure all vegans and vegetarians would agree with this sentiment, when it comes to consuming adequate amounts of protein with all nine essential amino acids, their meat-eating counterparts certainly do have it easier. However, with a basic understanding of nutrition science and proper planning, protein intake for vegans and vegetarians is quite simple.
Protein is the building block of human physiology. Without adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function properly. Fatigue, weakness, mood changes, and loss of muscle mass are all symptoms of protein deficiency.
Plant-Based Protein and Amino Acids
Protein is made up of amino acids. Of the hundreds of amino acids found in nature, there are 20 to 22 that make all the proteins needed for human function. Nine of these amino acids are called essential amino acids, meaning our body cannot naturally create them and we need to get them from food or supplementals. Here’s where it gets tricky, but not impossible, for vegetarians and especially vegans.
The best sources of protein that contain all nine essential amino acids come from animals – meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. “There is no such thing as a plant-based protein that has the complete amount of essential amino acids that we need,” says Caitlin Holmes, MS, a Certified Nutrition Specialist, and elite rock climber.
While some plant-based foods such as quinoa and soy do have all nine amino acids, they are not considered a complete source of protein because they are too low in one or more essential amino acids. One of the easiest ways vegetarians and vegans can assure they are getting adequate quantities of all nine essential amino acids is to supplement with a protein powder.
Protein Quantity and Timing for Vegans
The recommended daily allowance of protein in most humans is .8 grams per kilogram per day. “That's insufficient for the general athlete, but also especially vegans,” says Holmes.“I usually recommend, if you're in a maintenance phase, no less than 1.2 grams per kilogram. But in a building phase when you're actively trying to build muscle and especially as a vegan, I would say going up to 1.4 grams per kilogram, to as much as 2 grams per kilogram of body mass.”
Timing of protein throughout the day and in relation to workouts is important. Holmes suggests, “the usual rule of thumb is anywhere within that two-hour post-workout window. That's especially true if you're not planning on having a meal within the three to four hours after your session, and if you're planning on training later or early the next day if it's a later session.”
What to Look for in a Vegan Protein Powder
Shannon O’Grady, Ph.D. who has a doctorate in biology with a focus in nutritional physiology stresses the importance of seeking protein powders that combine multiple sources of protein such as pea, soy, or rice to name a few.
She explains vegan protein powders that only contain one source of plant-based protein don’t have a complete amino acid profile. “By combining a plant-based protein that might be low in amino acid “a” with another plant-based protein that's high in amino acid “a” you're balancing that deficiency and receiving a full serving of essential amino acids.” This is why it’s important to seek out powders that have more than one source of plant-based protein.
Dr. O’Grady also warns, “it's always important to look for third-party certification, like an auditing group.” In 2018 the Clean Label Project conducted a study of 134 animal and plant-based protein powders and found that plant-based proteins had more contaminants than their animal-based counterparts and 75 percent of the plant-based powders tested positive for lead.
Third-party auditors such as NSF, United States Pharmacopeia (USP), Informed Choice, and Clean Label Project test protein powders to make sure they meet nutritional label claims and are free of contaminants such as pesticides, microbes, and heavy metals. Some will also test against World Anti-Doping Agency banned substances.