While a vegan diet has numerous benefits, a problem frequently encountered when working with clients following a vegan diet is insufficient protein and especially too little protein at breakfast.
True, a bowl of porridge oats made with almond milk and an antioxidant packed fruit and veggie smoothie are healthy breakfast options, but the protein content of both is negligible. The focus of this article is on protein in the context of a vegan diet, but the principles are also relevant if your diet contains animal protein.
When working with a client wanting to lose weight, one of the first things we look at is the quantity and quality of protein in their diet. It is very common for people trying to lose weight to try intermittent fasting or a juice diet, before focussing on their protein intake.
What makes protein so special? In the research literature protein is consistently the one macronutrient (fat and carbohydrate are the other two) where if you eat a higher protein diet it leads to increases in energy (caloric) expenditure, increased satiety and fat loss (while sparing or reducing the loss of muscle).
I’m all for making losing weight as easy as possible – the good news is that adequate protein can do this. Here are three reasons how paying attention to your protein intake can make your weight loss and weight maintenance journey easier.
No. 1: The satiating power of protein. Cravings and hunger are common and annoying side-effects of any diet. In weight loss studies well documented satiating affects have been found from higher protein diets where 25-30 percent of total calories comes from protein. In a study where protein intake increased from 15 to 30 percent of total calories, the study participants spontaneously reduced their calorie intake by 400 calories a day. That’s the equivalent of four slices of bread!
No 2: A higher protein weight loss diet protects against the loss of lean muscle mass. This is highly beneficial, because muscle is important for our metabolism which will naturally slow down as one loses weight. It is also important for healthy blood glucose and insulin levels which are especially important if you have PCOS (see our article on balancing your blood sugars).
No 3: Out of the three macronutrients, protein is the most thermogenic. This means that we use more energy or calories to digest protein compared to digesting fat and carbohydrate.
And if you’re still not convinced on the importance of protein, adequate protein may just give you that extra motivation to exercise. A study published in the journal of Neuron found that protein stimulates cell which keep us awake, whereas sugar does not.
In practical terms what does 25% percent of your total energy intake mean? If you are consuming 2000 calories a day, this equates to 125 g of protein. In real food terms, a 400 g can of beans contains approximately 30 grams protein and glass of soya milk contains 7-8 grams protein. Exactly how much protein you should consume varies from individual to individual and depends on your health and body composition goals. But, as a general guide if wanting to lose weight, we suggest:
- You get at least 20 percent of your total calories from protein
- Or aim for at least 1 gram of protein per kilogram body weight (so if you weigh 75 kg, that’s 75 g protein)
- And if you have breakfast, try to get a minimum of 15 g protein at breakfast
Here are some ideas to get you started with optimising your protein intake for weight loss:
- Firstly, check your daily protein intake by tracking your calories for two to three days using an app such as Nutracheck or Cronometer. While I am not a fan of chronic calorie tracking, it can be very helpful when intentionally used for a short period. If you have a history of an eating disorder, please refrain from tracking your calories.
- Most people following a vegan diet will struggle to achieve these protein goals without the use of plant-based protein powders. These can be useful, but adapt your diet rather than relying solely on protein powders.
- Ensure that you have a source of protein at every meal and aim for a variety of protein sources, as well as a variety of protein powders. Higher protein breakfast ideas include, tofu scramble, beans on toast (sprinkled with nutritional yeast), chia seed pudding topped with soya yoghurt, smoothie with added protein powder.
- Go easy with commercial vegan protein snacks especially fruit and nut bars and ‘energy balls’. While many contain natural ingredients and a reasonable amount of protein most are very moreish and may not be ideal if your goal is to lose weight. Examples of higher protein snacks include: Oven roasted chickpeas, nuts, hummus or bean dip with vegetables, homemade muffins where the recipe includes a protein powder, seeds, and /or nut flour.
- Lastly, while nut butters are healthy and a plant protein source, they are high in calories and for many (myself included) just a little too moreish. So, no need to avoid, but best not to make them a primary protein source.