BHSc, ND, GDCouns, Naturopath, Counsellor and EFT Therapist

Seven tips of the week: Know how much protein you need – it’s less than you think!, Know the truth about protein ‘quality’ and protein combining, Know how to get the iron you need, Know how to get the calcium you need, Know your nuts (and seeds too), Eat whole grains, and Find out about the humble soybean

Know how much protein you need – it’s less than you think!
Most people grossly overestimate how much protein they need, and therefore worry that they couldn’t possibly get enough protein on a vegan diet. In fact, most people require only 0.8-1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Even men who regularly run or work out with weights, need at most only 1.2 g of protein per kg of body weight; female athletes require about 15% less than male athletes.
Let’s do the maths: a man who weighs 70 kg and runs for 30 minutes, 4 times per week would need 56-70 g of protein per day. A typical day of vegan meals might consist of:

  • Breakfast: ½ cup rolled oats cooked with ½ cup water and ½ cup soy milk, topped with 15 g almonds and ½ cup blueberries  = 14g protein
  • Morning snack: 1 banana, 10 almonds = 4g protein
  • Lunch: 4 cups salad of spinach, rocket, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, cucumber, capsicum and avocado, with ½ cup hommous and ½ can 4 bean mix = 24g protein
  • Dinner: 2 store-bought lentil burgers, with 4 cups of mixed vegetables = 30g protein
  • After-dinner snack: 1 cup stewed rhubarb and apple topped with 30 g walnuts = 6g protein

Total = 78g protein!  As you can see, it’s ridiculously easy to meet – and in fact exceed – your protein needs on a vegan diet. People with a heavier build or higher activity naturally tend to eat more than those who are slighter or less active, so there’s absolutely no need for anyone to worry about protein, or take protein supplements, as long as they are eating enough food to satisfy their appetite, and eating a good variety of plant foods.

Know the truth about protein ‘quality’ and protein combining
You’ll often find plant proteins described as ‘incomplete’ or ‘lacking’ in one or more essential amino acids. This is completely untrue. All plant proteins contain all 10 essential amino acids, but some have lower proportions of certain amino acids than are found in the flesh of animals, including humans. This might be a problem if you only ate 1 type of food, day in, day out, but in Australia we have access to a huge variety of foods, all with a different mixture of amino acids.
Our bodies maintain an ‘amino acid pool’ consisting of amino acids that we’ve absorbed from food, and reclaimed from the ‘recycling’ of our own body proteins. The composition of this pool remains remarkably constant no matter what you eat, because your body simply retains more of the amino acids that came in in lower amounts from the last meal you ate, and dumps the ones that are in oversupply.
As a result, there’s no need to carefully select ‘complementary proteins’ in each meal, such as beans and rice or peanut butter and wheat bread. The idea of protein complementarity was popularised in the 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé, but Ms Lappé acknowledged in the 1991 revised edition of her book that she misunderstood the biochemistry of protein at the time she wrote the first edition, and she no longer recommends paying attention to complementary proteins.
The bottom line: eat a variety of plant foods each day, according to your appetite, and you need never worry about getting enough total protein, or any individual amino acid.

Know how to get the iron you need
The widely-held stereotype of vegans as pale and anaemic doesn’t fit with the research, which clearly shows that Australian vegan women and men are no more likely to be anaemic (which means having low haemoglobin levels in their blood) or to have depleted iron stores than omnivorous men and women. Vegans tend to have lower iron stores (ferritin levels) than omnivores, but this may be a health advantage: high iron stores are associated with cirrhosis, liver cancer, cardiac arrhythmias and diabetes, and possibly cancers of the colon and prostate.
Nonetheless, it can take some time for your body to adapt to only having non-haem iron (the kind we get from plants) and no haem iron (the kind that’s in meat), so it’s important to eat plenty of plant foods that are high in iron.
Men and postmenopausal women only need 8 mg of iron per day, according to the National Health and Medical Research Council, while women in their fertile years need 18 mg per day, and pregnant women 27 mg per day.
Here’s a selection of high-iron plant foods:

Food Mg iron
½ cup sesame seeds 11
½ cup pumpkin seeds 6
1 cup edamame (green soybeans) 9
1 cup cooked white beans 8
½ cup firm tofu 7
1 cup cooked lentils 7
1 cup cooked spinach 6
1 cup cooked kidney beans 5
½ cup pine nuts 4
½ cup dried apricots 4

Know how to get the calcium you need
Most people – especially women – worry about how they’ll get enough calcium if they’re not eating dairy products. In fact, countries which have the highest intake of dairy products also have the highest rates of osteoporotic bone fractures, so clearly dairy product consumption doesn’t protect your bones.
But calcium is still a vital nutrient, and it’s important that vegans eat calcium-rich foods every day.
The best dietary sources of well-absorbed calcium are green vegetables such as kale, bok choy and broccoli, which are low in oxalate (also known as oxalic acid). Oxalate binds to calcium (and other minerals) in the small intestine, reducing the amount that we can absorb. While many people who regularly eat high-oxalate foods eventually start to grow bacteria in their guts that break down oxalates, allowing the minerals to be absorbed, it’s wise to eat a variety of low-oxalate plant foods to ensure you get your calcium needs met.
Here are some high-calcium vegan foods:

Food Mg calcium
½ cup firm tofu (calcium-set) 861
½ cup sesame seeds 702
1 cup edamame (green soy beas) 504
1 cup raw mustard greens 315
½ cup raw almonds 193
1 cup cooked white beans 191
1 cup shredded cooked pak choy 158
1 cup chopped, cooked kale 94
1 cup raw watercress 41
2 cups shredded cos lettuce 32
1 cup cooked broccoli 31
1 large fig (fresh or dried) 22

Know your nuts (and seeds too)
Nuts and seeds are nutritious foods for everyone. They’re important sources of minerals, healthy fats and protein in the vegan diet. Many large, long-term studies have shown that regular consumption of nuts and seeds protects against heart disease, sudden cardiac death, diabetes, some types of cancer, erectile dysfunction, osteoporosis and inflammatory diseases.

Nuts and seeds, rather than extracted oils, should be the major source of fat in your daily diet. Although most studies show that nuts and seeds do not promote weight gain, if you’re overweight you should limit your intake of nuts and seeds to 30-40 g per day for women, and 45-55 g per day for men.

Nuts and seeds are best eaten raw, as roasting generates cancer-causing chemicals, oxidises the oils in nuts, and decreases protein availability.

Have a wide selection of nuts and seeds every day, or vary the types you eat from day to day. Choose from almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed (linseed), hazelnuts, hemp seeds, macadamias, pecans, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), pine nuts, pistachios, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts. Peanuts are not true nuts, being members of the legumes family, but appear to have many of the same health benefits as tree nuts.

Eat whole grains
A big mistake that I see both ‘newbies’ and long-term vegans make, is excessive reliance on processed grain products such as pasta, noodles, bread, breakfast cereals, rice cakes and crackers as staples in the daily diet. These products are far less nutritious, satisfying and protective against disease than the whole grains they’re made from.

Every step in grain processing reduces the levels of nutrients such as vitamin E, folate, iron and fibre, raises the glycaemic index, and frequently introduces toxins such as chlorine (used to bleach flour) ‘and folic acid (added to bread-making flour, breakfast cereals and other ‘fortified’ foods; it’s associated with a higher risk of breast, prostate and bowel cancer).
There’s a huge variety of whole and minimally processed grains for you to try: rolled and steel-cut oats; brown, red, black and wild rice; whole wheat (delicious in casseroles) and bourghal (cracked wheat, used in tabbouli); quinoa; amaranth; millet; pearled or unpearled barley (delicious in soups); buckwheat; teff; triticale; kamut; and rye.
Vegan wholefoods cookbooks and blogs contain cooking instructions and recipes for all these wonderful foods. Aim to try 1 new whole grain per week. Your taste buds will thank you for it, and you’ll enjoy much better health!

The humble soybean
It supplies quality nutrition and is a useful part of the vegan diet, but myths about it abound. Many people void soy-based foods because they’ve read that it causes cancer, thyroid problems, infertility, sexual abnormalities e.g. ‘man boobs’ and early puberty in girls, and a host of other problems.The reality is that none of these health problems have been found to occur in humans who eat traditional soy foods such as edamame (green soy beans), tofu, tempeh, and soy milk made from whole soy beans.Get clear about soy.

Most of the claimed health problems occur only in species of animals which are unable to digest soy, or in animals which are fed a ‘chow’ based on isolated soy protein as their sole item of diet. This in no way equates to a human being eating a serve each of tofu and tempeh per week, whole soy bean milk on their porridge, and edamame a couple of times per week.
Large, independently-funded and well-conducted studies show that regular consumption of traditional soy foods reduces the risk of breast, endometrial and prostate cancer, and may also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and heart disease.
I recommend consuming traditional soy foods several times per week. Avoid foods made from isolate soy protein as some studies have shown that this raises your level of the cancer-promoting hormone IGF-1, whereas traditional soy foods lower it.