I consulted an accredited practicing dietitian, Jessica Butcher (BSC. (Nutrition), Postgrad. DIP. Dietetics), to discover the answer.
If veg/etarians had a dollar for every time someone asked us “Where do you get your protein?” we’d be running the world. Sure enough, as soon as we were settled in her office, Ms Butcher began:
“Protein is definitely the one that’s really limited in a vegan diet.”
She outlined what foods are protein-rich and how much of them we should be eating per day.
“So including things like those nuts, legumes [eg beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans], seeds… The serving size of the beans would be a cup. So two and a half roughly is what you’d be needing a day.
“The wholegrains are really important, too. The more brown, the less processed, the better… Do you eat quinoa? It’s quite high in protein, as well. And the tempeh [a fermented soybean product popular in Asia and available in health-food stores] is a really good one to use.
“So you could have tofu—I’d call a serving of tofu at least 50-100 grams—which is a fair amount. Start with at least fifty grams and see how much you need… if you do have say a 50 gram portion of tofu add more legumes and lentils in to make up for some more protein.”
In the seventies “protein complementarity”—the notion that one needed to consume different kinds of plant proteins at the same time to achieve protein entirely equivalent to that of animal protein—became widely accepted. Its necessity has since been disproven.
The Medical Journal of Australia states, “There is no need to consciously combine different plant proteins at each meal as long as a variety of foods are eaten from day to day, because the human body maintains a pool of amino acids which can be used to complement dietary protein.”
“Nuts, in general, are so rich in iron, so I would really encourage you to eat at least a handful a day if not, probably two. Again, a good variety.
“There’s almond butter or other nut butters, too. They’re always good to include regularly.”
As a bonus, protein-rich legumes and wholegrains also contain iron, as well as dried fruit (such as apricots and prunes).
“Spinach leaves will add to your vegetables and are also really good for iron, too. Chickpeas, falafel and hummus… tahini—that’s a really good one, too.
"Including nuts in your cooking too, like your tofu and tempeh, would be really good. It doesn’t just have to be a snack.”
Consuming foods high in vitamin C (citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi fruit, tomatoes and broccoli) with the above will enhance iron absorption, while tea and coffee inhibit it when consumed along with the food.
“If you’re going to switch to the non-dairy products which are already naturally high in calcium then it’s going to be restricted so at least try products that are greater 120 milligrams of calcium per 100ml/g,” Ms Butcher said.
“Include soy yoghurts, cheese and milk daily. I would definitely recommend daily. Chia seeds are another really good seed to add to the diet because they’re so great with protein, calcium and fibre.
“If you include some soy milk with breakfast you could enjoy a smoothie, for example, that would do.”
If you’re a big milky-tea drinker like me and you switch to soy milk (or another calcium-fortified milk alternative) you’ll likely reach the recommended daily amount just from that. You can also obtain calcium from almonds, brazil nuts, sesame seeds, dried apricots, figs, kale and broccoli.
The one necessary nutrient not normally available in a vegan diet is vitamin B12. While it does occur naturally from seaweeds such as kelp and from tempeh, most vegans obtain the nutrient from B12 fortified foods like milk alternatives, veggie burgers and supplements.
Although vitamin D is scarce in a vegan diet, most people absorb enough from the sun. However, if you’re dark-skinned, cover your body for religious reasons or are just a bit of a hermit like me, it’s a good idea to take a vitamin D supplement every now and then, particularly in winter.
Ms Butcher recommends new vegans test their blood to check their iron and B12 levels, followed by recurring check-ups every six months. If levels are low, take the recommended amount of supplements to return to them to normal, and then, ensuring your diet is balanced and varied, place the supplements aside.
“If your blood results come back with iron and B12 within range, there is no need for supplements. It would indicate your vegan diet is very nutritious and varied in foods, which is great,” Ms Butcher said.