In my 15+ years of experience in nutrition, there has always been a little bit off with many of those handy nutrition charts that made their way through the world wide web and through social media circles. Among the more incorrect charts that I would routinely find were protein charts – specifically vegan protein charts. Why vegan charts in particular? Surely I have no idea, but I have my suspicions.
One of the few advantages of animal products is that protein seems to be widely distributed among them quite equally (with few exceptions such as honey). For most omnivores, the prospect of eating an animal based food will undoubtedly yield a reasonable portion of protein. While animal products contain virtually (or completely) zero fibre, antioxidants, or cancer fighting phytonutrients, finding high quality protein is normally a sure bet.
Vegan protein sources on the other hand are quite the opposite. While eating a plant based diet is a guarantee that you’ll always have an ample supply of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients across the board, protein is not homogenously distributed among plant based foods and so requires a more deliberate food selection process.
An easy rule of thumb is that beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are almost always a good source of vegan protein when consumed in normal serving sizes. Beans and legumes in particular have a better protein to calorie ratio than nuts or seeds because they are lower in fat (even though it’s healthy fat). Some grain products can make for good protein sources, but it isn’t universal. Rice for instance is relatively low in protein when compared with others.
You’ll notice the complete lack of fruits on the chart. While fruit does contain protein, frankly the amounts are quite low, and one often has to resort to dried fruits to put any sizeable dent in their protein intake. Let’s face it; it’s easier to get the protein from 6 dried apricots than it is to actually eat 6 raw ones. As a result of this fact, I have left fruit off the protein menu entirely. Fruit it great for many other reasons; protein is not one of them.
Many vegetables have one of the best protein to calorie ratios which makes them very common candidates for many vegan protein charts. There is just one major problem with this reasoning - protein AND calories of many vegetables are exceptionally low in general; especially your green leafy types. This means that while eating raw spinach is a good protein to calorie ratio food, the sheer lack of either protein or calories means you’ll be eating raw spinach for a good while before you achieve either. It’s only when cooking spinach that you can convert a large volume into a small volume (through water loss) that eating spinach for its protein content becomes viable; and only then if you eat a whole cup of it! This unique dynamic is one of the main points of confusion among people when searching for protein-rich vegan foods.
Many other vegan food sources have been deliberately left off of this chart – primarily the ones that come in packages with their own nutritional labels. I didn’t include soy milk, or vegan cheese for instance because you can see for yourself, and because different brands can vary quite dramatically.
It should also be noted that not everyone is either willing or capable of eating some of these foods for a variety of reasons. Someone with celiac disease will want to stay away from wheat gluten as though their life depends on it (which it might), and someone with a soy intolerance will want to stay away from tofu. These are separate issues of discussion and still don’t invalidate these foods as good protein sources – this IS a protein chart.
How much protein do you need? Well that’s a topic for a different day. Thanks for reading!