Plant Protein: Why Vegan Diets Need Beans

If you subscribe by email to this blog, you may have received a post about calcium and protein and bone health last week. I’m not sure why since that post was published last August. But it worked out to be okay that it popped up out of nowhere. It’s actually a reasonable segue to this post, which is a follow-up to my recent article about my diet.

In talking about my own eating habits, I noted that I tend to favor legumes over grains. A number of readers emailed, asking if I think vegans should be reducing grains in their diet.

I don’t. I have absolutely nothing against (whole) grains and I eat them every day. Including the ones that are packed with gluten.

I just happen to think that legumes are more important for vegans and that they sometimes need a little more attention in vegan diets. It’s because they are the richest plant sources of protein.

It’s tempting to brush off the whole protein issue and I think many vegans are somewhat inclined to do so. Which is why I might end up seeming a little bit obsessed about it, I think. Twice in the past month I ran across the claim that “no vegan has ever been diagnosed with kwashiorkor.” That’s true, but it’s also irrelevant. It’s a way of deflecting attention from real nutrition issues by focusing on something that is extremely unlikely to happen.

Some of the sample menus that float around the internet to show how easy and/or cheap it is to eat a vegan diet are woefully short of protein. Here’s an example: Oatmeal with almond milk for breakfast + hummus wrap for lunch + pasta with tomato sauce and a salad for dinner. That’s not a menu that provides enough protein. (Even if your salad is packed with cucumbers and green peppers which one vegan infographic erroneously cites as excellent sources of protein.)

Certainly vegans do not have to worry about kwashiorkor, an extreme deficiency disease seen only in the most impoverished populations. It doesn’t mean that all vegans have optimal intakes of protein, however. The suboptimal or marginal intake I’m talking about is miles away from acute deficiency. But it can take a toll—on bones and muscle mass with aging for example.

This was demonstrated in a report from the Adventist Health Study-2 last fall. The research looked at associations between different protein-rich foods and risk of hip fractures. Eating beans, veggie meats and meat were all associated with lower risk for hip fractures. Jack offered more information about this study on his blog.

Don’t worry, though; you don’t need to start eating meat. The key to good bone (and muscle) strength isn’t to eat animal foods. It’s to eat protein-rich foods and there are plenty of plant choices for that.

Protein is not a “vegan issue.” Omnivores can fall short on protein intake, too, and it is not uncommon for people on low-calorie diets or for older people to have marginal protein intakes. And the fact is that it is easy to get adequate protein on a vegan diet. It’s just not automatic.

Legumes are the best sources of protein for vegans. They are especially rich in the essential amino acid lysine which the Adventist Health Study researchers suggested is important for bone health.

I recommend at least three servings per day of these foods or at least four for those of us over 50. A serving is ½ cup of cooked beans, ¼ cup of peanuts, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, ½ cup of tofu, ½ cup of tempeh, ¼ cup soynuts, 1 ounce of veggie meat or 1 cup of soymilk. This group does not include other kinds of plant milks such as almond, hemp, coconut or rice milks. It’s okay to have these foods but they are very low in protein. Most vegan cheeses including those made from soy are also very low in protein.

We don’t need to worry about protein; it’s easy to get enough. But the consequences of diets that are marginal in this nutrient can take a toll on health over time. So we should avoid blithe observations about how “all plant foods have protein” or “vegans never get kwashiorkor.” While those observations sound pithy and reassuring, they don’t actually help vegans stay healthy. Instead we should make sure that vegans know the importance of legumes in diets. The graphic at the beginning of this post shows super-easy ways to include legumes in vegan diets.

Legumes are important for another reason in vegan diets, so this is Part 1 of why you should eat them. Stay tuned for more good news about legumes.

 

Reference: Lousuebsakul-Matthews V, Thorpe DL, Knutsen R, Beeson WL, Fraser GE, Knutsen SF. Legumes and meat analogues consumption are associated with hip fracture risk independently of meat intake among Caucasian men and women: the Adventist Health Study-2. Public Health Nutr. 2013 Oct 8:1-11.

27 Responses to Plant Protein: Why Vegan Diets Need Beans

  1. Sarah February 10, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    I agree that getting enough protein is important. The example servings you provided still seem really low to me. Each serving ranges from about 8-15 grams of protein. At your recommendation of 3 a day, that’s 24-45 grams a day (or 32-60 for people over 50).

    Most recent data I’ve found on protein requirements recommends aiming for .5 grams per pound of body weight. Your highest recommendation doesn’t come close to that for most people.

    What are you basing your protein recommendations on?

    • Ginny Messina February 10, 2014 at 11:25 am #

      Sarah, you don’t need to get all of your protein from legumes. The grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables in your diet will also provide some. It’s just that vegans are likely to fall short–of the amino acid lysine in particular–if their diet doesn’t include legumes.

  2. Dan February 10, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    You, Jack and Michael Greger have sold me on the importance of eating plenty of legumes, and I now incorporate these with all three meals per day. I agree it’s essential not to miss lysine. Unfortunately, things like dehulled hempseed fall very short on lysine composition, as has been documented in the literature.

    What I would like is a protein snack or additive to a meal that does not contain a lot of fat (which nuts/seeds do). Something that’s convenient and can be taken anywhere. It is hard to believe that beans fit into that category – they just don’t seem all that edible as a snack and don’t have good portability. In terms of trail mix with peanuts, the latter contains a copious amount of omega-6 fats, which I am trying to limit. In the past, nuts/seeds have been my snack of choice, but not any longer, as I’ve bought into the McDougall/Esselstyn/Ornish thinking. I keep looking for a high quality, portable, vegan, protein-based snack food that is not high in fats.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 8:57 am #

      Beans are definitely less portable than nuts and seeds. You could take instant soup cups, but then need access to hot water or a microwave. And hummus wraps are portable but you’d need to take them in some kind of thermal container. I can’t remember the brands, but there are some types of hummus that don’t need to be refrigerated.

    • Dael February 12, 2014 at 11:17 am #

      Try roasted chickpeas. Easy to make and as portable as nuts and seeds.

    • Maureen February 12, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      Have you ever had dehydrated chickpeas? You can make them in your oven or buy from this company. http://www.saffronroadfood.com/our-products/crunchy-chickpeas/. Bombay spice is ridiculously good!

    • janet @ the taste space February 20, 2014 at 5:36 am #

      Have you tried unsalted roasted soy beans? I find they are a great portable, crunchy snack filled with protein.

  3. mollyjade February 10, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    It always seems to me that *everyone* should be eating more beans. They’re just not a go-to food for most Americans, and there are so many good reasons to eat them. But definitely switching to a vegan diet is a very good reason to embrace beans.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 8:58 am #

      Absolutely! There are some pretty incredible benefits to replacing meat in the diet with beans.

  4. Ariann February 10, 2014 at 8:14 pm #

    Do you have a guideline for legume servings for kids?

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am #

      Ariann, it depends on the age, of course. I would aim for the three servings per day for kids, although those servings will be relatively small for toddlers and many preschoolers.

  5. blob February 11, 2014 at 2:33 am #

    What about supplements?
    I take two 1g pills of lysine, for when I don’t want to eat beans…I just put it in with my diabetic pills(etc), so it isn’t a big deal to remember.

    I know supplements are a little bit taboo….but we supplement our lives with modern products anyway, why pretend that we are living as cave people when it comes to diet?

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 9:02 am #

      I don’t consider supplements to be taboo. But it’s so easy to eat those three servings of legumes (which are more than just beans) and there are so many other benefits of these foods that I don’t think you can really replace them with a lysine supplement. If you feel like your diet constantly falls short of lysine, than maybe a supplement would help. If you’re just missing a few servings of legumes here and there, I don’t think I would bother.

  6. Matt February 11, 2014 at 7:47 am #

    As always, Ginny — thanks so very much for writing such important, relevant posts. Your singular focus on helping people understand and maintain a cruelty-free diet is inspiring.

  7. Rhonda February 11, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    Thank you for the informative article.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on the protein-fortified almond and flax milks now on the market. The brands I’ve seen contain pea protein; however, they’re generally not as high in protein as soy milks (5 g vs. 7-8 g).

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 9:04 am #

      Yes, they are still a little low in protein, although much better than the unfortified types. I wouldn’t want to depend on these as a serving of legumes on a regular basis but I think it would be fine to include them as one of your servings a few times a week.

  8. Tim Wilson February 12, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    Great article, thank you ! We think it’s also very important to mention Nooch (nutritional yeast) as another great veg protein source, especially since it is loaded with a ton of other vitamins & minerals as well, so it is extra beneficial in many ways. A highly recommended shelf staple of every veg cupboard :-) We just try to always remind folks that not all varieties of Nooch contain B12, so always make sure to double check that your variety does.

  9. jon February 12, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    I think the advice you and Jack Norris give in Vegan for Life about considering non-traditional breakfast meals is good. But that said, I’m habitually very stuch with my oatmeal and soymilk in the morning. I add almonds or hazelnuts and berries and also have some bread with hummus. I tried putting some protein powder in the oatmeal but that changed the taste too much.

    So, do you have any tips on boosting (not replacing) an oatmeal breakfast? Something traditional plus rather than non-traditional, so to say.

    • Dar Meadows February 15, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

      PB2 (peanut butter with the fat removed, just add water to the powder – delicious) could be added to your oatmeal , or you could eat some as a side dish as I do every morning.

      • Dan February 27, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

        defatted peanut powder? where do you buy that?

  10. Steve February 12, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    What’s your opinion on soaking or not soaking beans? Also, how nutritious is the cooking water? Should I find ways to use the cooking water or is it OK to discard?

  11. VeggieMom66 February 18, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    Aaahhhh….I hate graphics like the “protein in plant foods” you linked to!!! It does NOT matter if kale is 45% protein…what matters is the amount of protein you consume in an average serving. So… “how much protein in in 3 oz of chicken compared to 1/2 cup cooked kale?” is a more valid consideraton.

    Note, I”m a vegan-leaning vegetarian and am completely convinced of the health aspects of a plant-based diet, but I hate misleading statistics. Also, as a veg distance runner, I appreciate getting correct information on true protein needs…thanks for all your great work Ginny.

  12. M C March 9, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    “I recommend at least three servings per day of these foods or at least four for those of us over 50.”

    Why more over 50?

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