BlogVeganuary: How to have complete protein in a vegan diet

Veganuary: How to have complete protein in a vegan diet

11 min read

Greg de Hoedt

In this week’s Wellness Wednesday, Releaf takes a look into the annual vegan awareness month Veganuary to learn why people do it, the benefits and risks, how to replace your protein sources to ensure you get the complete selection and consider other important health aspects of the diet like adding in supplements.

Contents

What is Veganuary?

Veganuary is an awareness month arranged by vegans to encourage people to try the vegan diet for a month. Veganuary is a UK-based initiative founded in 2014 by Jane Land and Matthew Glover. Since 2015, the registered number of participants has skyrocketed, increasing yearly from 12,800 to 706,965 in 2023. 

The initiative attracted many critics, with many saying “it will never catch on”, but how wrong they were. Big chains and independent restaurants alike have all jumped on board the plant-based food selections for January’s Veganuary. If they serve food, you will likely see a Veganuary sign at the supermarket or the pub. But there’s more to a vegan diet than just cutting out meat and eating plants.

Why do people go vegan?

There are lots of good reasons for choosing a vegan diet. 

Animal welfare

This might be related to the ethical practices of industrial farming and/or the slaughter and eating of animals. Many people have adopted a vegan lifestyle in the interests of animal welfare. It is possible to live a healthy life eating a plant-based diet.

Climate change & environment

Another reason people are moving towards eating more plant-based food is the data showing how much meat farming negatively impacts the environment. Cattle farming takes up 77% of the world's agricultural land but only produces 18% of the world's calories. Feeding cattle takes up more land to grow their food than the protein produced. 

Health-related 

Some people may be going through a bad period of health and want to look at what they are putting into their bodies to get back into shape or try to eliminate a food or ingredient that could be the root cause of the problem. 

Patients with autoimmune or pro-inflammatory diseases, asthma, gastrointestinal issues, and other conditions often try or adopt a vegan diet because eating red meat, in particular, can lead to increased C C-reactive protein levels. In one study, after eight weeks of eating a vegan diet, CRP levels were 32% lower than those on a non-vegan diet, which could lead to better heart health in the long term. 

What are the health benefits of going vegan for a month?

Several published studies show that a healthy vegan or plant-based diet can reduce the risk of cardiometabolic diseases, obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Some of the changes you may feel or gain from during your month without meat and other animal products like egg and dairy include:

  • Blood sugar levels are lower and more naturally balanced
  • Weight loss (could be due to reduction of calories with a vegan diet consisting of less fat)
  • Heart health can be improved by lowering triglycerides and cholesterol levels in the blood.
  • Lower cancer risk in diseases such as colon cancer
  • Improved digestion from increased healthy gut bacteria
  • Reduced joint pain from decreased inflammation levels
  • Better mental health through practising compassion and potentially lower cortisol
  • Balanced energy levels feeling less likely to crash after a meal
  • Environmental impact and carbon footprint reduces by stopping meat
  • Improved cholesterol thanks to less fatty foods and increased fibre from nuts, fruit and vegetables, which helps clear cholesterol
  • Increased macro and micronutrients unavailable in meat and processed foods
  • Anti-inflammatory properties of vegetables are felt with less inflammation caused by meat, dairy and processed foods

Is it safe for medical cannabis patients to try a vegan diet?

For most medical cannabis patients, trying a vegan diet for a month won’t cause any issues, but if you are concerned, you may wish to speak to your doctor to ensure you aren’t doing something that may have a negative result. If you are taking blood thinners or are anaemic and on iron medication, you should consider chatting with your GP first. People with a zinc deficiency should be aware that cutting out meat will drastically reduce the amount of zinc in their diet, and they may need to take supplements or adjust the amount they take. 

What are the potential downsides to a vegan diet?

There have been some negative health outcomes from people who have gone onto a vegan diet when the diet isn’t balanced well enough to ensure the inclusion of all forms of necessary protein and micronutrients. These health issues are related to the nervous system, skeletal and immune system impairments, haematological disorders and mental health problems. Gluten is another big protein-containing food that vegan food utilises so if you are Ceoliac or intolerant, check that label carefully.  

Some meat substitutes are nuts, grain, seeds and legumes, which some people may have allergies to or lack the enzymes to digest them, causing pain and IBS symptoms. Checking the ingredients of premade and processed vegan and plant-based foods is important.

The protein problem: Is it safe to go vegan? 

Why is protein important? Your body needs protein to build and repair damaged cells and grow muscles and bones. Proteins create hormones (like dopamine, melatonin and serotonin) and enzymes. Along with these vital functions, protein can function as an energy source. 

A lack of protein can manifest as swelling, stunted growth, a weakened immune system, skin and hair changes, and bone and muscle loss.

What are amino acids?

Amino acids are building blocks that combine to form proteins. By eating proteins, our digestive systems break them down into amino acids ready to be used by the body for their individual functions. For example, N acyl amino acids are important neurotransmitters that interact with the endocannabinoid system and not having enough can lead to health issues. 

Essential Amino Acids

The nine essential amino acids vital for human health are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Non Essential Amino Acids

The 11 non-essential amino acids are alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. Whilst non-essential sounds like we don’t need them, our bodies can produce them. However, in poor health, they may need to be introduced via food or supplements. 

What foods have complete protein for a vegan diet?

Healthy adults need around 45-55g of protein a day. Studies have shown that eating plant-based protein-rich foods is sufficient for a complete essential protein diet. Nuts, grains, seeds and legumes contain the essential amino acids humans require.  Thankfully, these food categories have abundant choices, giving you much more variety than most meat options.

When selecting your protein sources, you might find it easier to get your daily requirements from combining multiple foods than just sticking to one per meal. Not only does this help you get the complete amino acids you need, but it also helps keep things exciting in the kitchen and flavour combinations for your taste buds. 

Hacking the vegan protein code

You can add seeds, edamame, and nuts to salads, and tofu and tempeh can replace meat in most cooked dishes. Take a look below at eight complete vegan protein sources:

  1. Quinoa - 100g of cooked quinoa gives you 4g of protein
  2. Hemp seeds - 100g of hemp seeds contain up to 25g of protein.
  3. Chia seeds - 100g containing about 18g of protein.
  4. Pistachios - 100g of raw pistachios contain 20g of protein.
  5. Buckwheat - 100g of dry buckwheat contains 13g of protein.
  6. Edamame - 100 grams of edamame can contain about 11g of complete protein.
  7. Tofu - 100g of extra firm tofu contains 13g of protein
  8. Tempeh - 100g of tempeh contains 19g of protein.

Other nutrients, minerals and vitamins you need to consider when trying the vegan diet

Switching to a vegan diet means you must consider other parts of the diet that need replacing when you stop meat, dairy and eggs. These dietary requirements play important roles in maintaining a healthy immune system, skin and nails, metabolism and synthesising other amino acids. 

Omega fatty acids, particularly omega 3, which you can get from walnuts and hemp seed, zinc from fermented soy products, vitamin D from mushrooms and fortified cereals, vitamin B12 from fortified food and supplements, iodine from seaweed, selenium from Brazil nuts, calcium from peanuts and iron.

Should I stay vegan if I found Veganuary beneficial? 

Continuing a vegan diet after January has ended is entirely up to you. If you have found it beneficial to your health, consider incorporating more plant-based features into your diet going forward and have fewer days where meat is the protein source. 

You may have realised this is how you want to continue going forward, but just remember to keep checking your health to ensure you aren’t developing any deficiencies in the nutrients and vitamins mentioned in the last section. If you do notice symptoms, address them immediately. Remember, your health comes first, so don’t risk trying to fit in if it isn’t physically working for you. 

Tips to remove hurdles in Veganuary

Let the people you live with know you are trying it for the month and what it will involve. They may want to join in, which will make it easier if you cook or eat together. If they don’t want to join in, just ask for support or menu ideas. 

Record what you like and don’t like about the experience. How long after you started did you start to feel better or worse? Did you come across or invent a recipe you want to try again or suggest a friend attempt to cook?

Do your research! 

So many plant-based food brands offer ready-made substitute products available in all supermarkets. However, for the most healthy vegan diet options, whole foods provide the most natural benefits without processed grains and oils. Processed foods release sugars into the bloodstream much faster than when the body has to break down the sugars and starches naturally. This factor can impact hormone levels like dopamine which also spikes in the blood when sugars are eaten. 

Planning your meals for the week will take a lot of confusion from selecting the right proteins for the day and give you more time to enjoy eating. 

Veganuary round up

Veganuary is when people try a vegan diet for the month of January. It can be for many reasons but health is a major one. Going vegan for January can have beneficial health results but it involves some planning to have the best experience. Knowing what you are heading into will help you be more prepared and allow a more enjoyable venture into veganism. Make sure you don’t just think about replacing protein, you also need to manage your micronutrients to maintain overall good health when dropping meat, eggs and dairy from your diet. If you are trying Veganuary out for health reasons and are worried it may have a detrimental effect, speak to your GP who will be able to take you through any concerns you have for your health. 

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Authors

Greg, a prominent UK cannabis advocate and Crohn's survivor, has transformed his life through medical cannabis. Actively influencing national policy and media, he is a key figure in advocating for cannabis access and legislative reform.

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