What Is Protein??
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients alongside carbohydrates and fats, and it is known by many as the go-to nutritional element for building a muscular physique.
What many fail to realize is protein plays a much deeper role in the body than just dealing with muscle growth and repair.
The main functions of protein in the body are repair and maintenance, creation of hormones, regulating metabolism, creating antibodies which protect against disease, plus aids in the transportation and storage of molecules.
- What Is Protein??
- Benefits of protein
- Where do vegans get their protein from?
- Protein Alternatives:
- Complete or incomplete protein?
- Lets take a closer look at the essential amino acid Lysine
- How much protein does a vegan need?
- Protein and athletic performance
- Plant Protein and bodybuilding
- Protein and weight loss
- Protein and age
- Do vegans struggle to get enough protein?
- Signs of protein deficiency
- Does protein timing matter
- Can you consume too much protein?
- Animal protein vs. Plant protein
- Plant protein and the planet
- Feeling inspired?
Benefits of protein
- Protein from plants, predominantly beans, and legumes, can be great for overall heart health
- Helps to balance blood pressure
- Plays a significant role in muscle growth and recovery
- Can help to suppress hunger cravings, leaving you feeling fuller for longer
- Can help to develop healthy hair and skin
- Helps with healthier weight management while also increasing the rate that you burn fat
Proteins are necessary for the structure, function, and regulation of all the body’s tissues and play a pivotal role in all of our cellular processes.
Proteins are long-chain molecules built from a chain of smaller molecules known as amino acids. Amino acids are the foundation of all proteins and the various combinations that occur when different amino acids come together to create the various proteins that we use throughout our bodies today. Protein is composed of 20 different amino acids (proteinogenic), which are separated into three categories, essential, non-essential, and conditional. Non-essential amino acids are made by the body, whereas conditional amino acids are only necessary when we become ill. The human body can not naturally build-essential amino acids, so it is vital to get these from food.
Where do vegans get their protein from?
Proteins are found in all foods, but it’s the protein amounts relative to other macronutrients that will determine whether a food choice is right for your protein needs or not.
The primary sources of protein for vegans come from:
Seeds: Seeds are abundant in proteins minerals, vitamins, and healthy fats, so its no wonder they are presented everywhere as an essential part of the diet. Seeds are excellent for vegetarians since they are a great plant-based source of protein, allowing you to get all your essential amino acids and minerals, including calcium, zinc, copper, and magnesium.
Other benefits include dietary fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals. Seeds are linked to improved cardiovascular, digestive, immune, and bone health; research suggests regular consumption of seeds may contribute to the management of blood sugar and appetite as well as bone mineral density and may help lower risk for obesity and certain cancers. (reword)
Here are some seeds with the highest protein amounts per 100g
- Pumpkin seeds 18.6g per 100g
- Sesame 18g per 100g
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds 14g per 100g
- Quinoa 13.1g per 100g
Nuts: Nuts like seeds are high in healthy fats and essential amino acids. They are high in monounsaturated fats, which help to lower bad cholesterol. They also have a high amount of polyphenolic flavonoids, which help with many diseases such as heart disease, nerve diseases, and cancer.
They are a great source of minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and potassium, so a regular helping of a variety of nuts will provide your body with a lot of the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and thrive. Below are a few of the nuts with the highest protein content. (Link to the article that breaks down nuts on a deeper level)
- Almond 21g per 100g
- Brazil nut 14g per 100g
- Cashew nut 18g per 100g
- Walnuts 14.4g per 100g
- Pistachios 19.7g per 100g
Beans: Beans are seeds from the Fabaceae family known as legumes or peas. They are high in protein fiber and vitamins with many of the essential amino acids a vegan/vegetarian needs to hit their protein requirements.
Beans contain many of the necessary nutrients the body needs, including zinc, iron, magnesium, fiber, and folate. They are also high in polyphenols, which is an antioxidant known to help with issues such as cancer and inflammation.
There are many greats benefits to having beans and legumes in your diet, and below are a few of the beans with the highest protein content.
- Lentils 9g per 100g
- Black beans 8.9g per 100g
- Roman beans 9.3g per 100g
- Kidney beans 8.7g per 100g
- Pinto beans 9g per 100g
- Check out our top 5 high protein vegan bean recipes for some cooking inspiration.
Grains: Providing you with the essential fuel (energy) your body needs to run effectively, whole grains can allow your body to run like a machine if the right ones are chosen. Whole grains should be selected over refined grains the majority of the time and a great source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, essential amino acids, and vitamins & minerals such as vitamin b, zinc, iron, and magnesium.
Studies show that consuming a healthy amount of whole grains can considerably reduce your risk of heart disease.
Studies have also shown that whole grains may lower your risk of stroke https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4659141/, obesity, and diabetes https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5310957/, plus they provide your body with a nice helping of antioxidants, which help to prevent a variety of illnesses.
Below is a list of grains high in protein that you can spread throughout your diet to give your body a balanced amount of essential amino acids and reap all the benefits that grains can provide.
- Kamut 5.7g per 100g
- Spelt 5.5g per 100g
- Wheat 6g per 100g (whole wheat pasta ? or all wheat?)
- Wild rice 4g per 100g
- Millet 11g per 100g
Soybeans: Soybeans fall into the legumes and beans category, but since so many things are made from this wonderful bean, it becomes necessary to put a category of their own.
Soybeans are high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals such as vitamin k, riboflavin, folate, vitamin b6, and vitamin c, manganese. Outside of the long list of minerals and vitamins, soybeans are high in phytosterols, which help to inhibit the absorption of cholesterol, leading to the prevention of many diseases https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5409663/.
Soybeans are also high in antioxidants and healthy fats, which will help prevent cancers and increase heart health.
Below are some nutritional foods made from soybeans and their protein content. For a more in-depth look at soybeans and their benefits, click here.
- FirmTofu per 100g
- Edamame 18.2g per 100g
- Tempeh 20g per 100g
Seitan 25g per 100g
Bare in mind seitan is an incomplete protein and lacks the essential amino acid lysine, so balancing out your protein consumption throughout the day with natural foods high in lysine such as beans is a great combination.
Its texture highly resembles meat and is excellent at retaining flavor, so it plays well as a meat replacement in meals.
Seitan is excellent for vegans with soy allergies, but anyone with gluten intolerances should avoid since its solely made of gluten and can cause gut issues to occur. Here are some tasty dishes that can be made from seitan and are rich in protein.
Protein powders ~25-40g per 100g.
Protein shakes/powders are everywhere you look, touted as the best way to build muscle when training. If you choose to use vegan protein powders to increase your protein intake, please remember protein powders are just for supplementation and not a replacement of healthy natural protein sources.
Protein shakes can be a great way to control your macro intake or enhance recovery, but not all protein shakes are created equal.
The ingredients are vital, and you want to avoid any unnatural ingredients. As a vegan, its crucial to take note of what the protein shake is made out of since a lot of the biggest brands make protein powders from whey, which is a dairy-based byproduct processed from milk. Protein shake based solely on naturally grown sources can be a great addition to a healthy diet. Sunwarrior creates a range that has all your essential amino acids covered plus a whole host of minerals and vitamins. There are many healthy protein shake brands with all-natural ingredients and flavors.
Find out more about the best protein shakes out there for vegans in our detailed breakdown.
Complete or incomplete protein?
Protein tends to be labeled as “complete” or “incomplete,” depending on the number of amino acids in the food source.
The term incomplete is a bit misleading since it leads people to believe that its a pointless protein source when in fact, it merely means there may be a lower percentage of some amino acids than another food source.
To determine how “complete” a protein source is, many analysts will refer to the PDCAAS (Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score) shown below.
When analyzing the PDCAAS table, you notice that there are only a few truly “complete” protein sources (based on their PDCAAS). Animal protein sources that people generally class as complete are under the PDCAA score of 1.0, with the highest being beef at 0.92 which is joint with soy isolate, whereas high protein vegetables and beans tend to fall in the range of 0.5-0.75 give or take. To balance this lower PDCAA score of many plant foods, we can combine different vegan protein sources to up our PDCAA rating, help with protein digestibility, and balancing amino acid consumption.
Note: To do this correctly you have to first know what amino acids are lacking in a protein source and combine it with a food source that has the missing amino acid. You can not simply add the PDCAAS values of 2 separate foods and assume it will equal a value of 1.
Legumes and beans tend to be slightly lacking in the essential amino acids cystein and methionin but are very high in all other essential amino acids especially lysine. Grains and cereals have a sufficient amount of all but one essential amino acid which is lysine. Combining grains with beans and legumes is a brilliant way to end up with meals that are “complete” in protein and also taste delicious.
As the chart above shows in yellow, rice and cereals like oats are very high in methionine and cysteine which beans and legumes tend to lack. Whereas peas and beans are high in lysine which cereals and grains tend to lack. Combining can therefore help to create nutritional balance.
Below are 2 vegan meals that combine legumes/beans and grains that we think are fantastic for a highly nutritious high protein meal with all essential amino acids taken care of.
Lets take a closer look at the essential amino acid Lysine
The primary amino acid that tends to be low in plant-based sources of protein is lysine. Lysine is an essential amino acid that plays a vital role in producing carnitine, which helps in the formation of bones and muscles as well as helps in the production of necessary hormones and enzymes.
Vegan foods that are high in lysine
- Tempeh 754mg per ½ cup
- Lentils 624mg per ½ cup
- Black beans 523mg per ½ cup
- Quinoa 442mg per ½ cup
- Other notable sources
- Kidney beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dried apricots
This “incomplete protein” situation is where a lot of the myths of vegans/vegetarians and protein deficiencies tend to stem from. BUT never fear…. We are putting all this to bed right now. In the world of vegan nutrition, there are already sources of complete proteins such as quinoa buckwheat, and soybeans, which many may not realize are complete proteins.
The SIMPLE solution to single sources of “incomplete” proteins is simply to combine food.
Mixing grains and beans, legumes and seeds, or grains and nuts are all easy ways of obtaining complete proteins, and no doubt, many of you are doing this already.
Research also shows that it’s not essential to combine food in every meal, either. So instead of focussing on amino acid combining in each meal, the focus should be on getting a balanced amount of essential amino acids throughout your day.
How much protein does a vegan need?
Our bodies do not store proteins like we do when breaking down fat and carbohydrates, so we must intake the recommended daily amount to avoid deficiencies.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to go and scoff down a whole chicken at every meal like many meat-eaters may believe, but what is important is to consume a healthy balance of foods that have a variety of essential amino acids.
Daily recommended amounts.
The recommended daily amount for protein tends to vary based on how intensively you use your body.
The average requirement for a sedentary person is 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight per day. Bear in mind this is the amount needed to meet your minimum nutritional requirements. If you are an active individual, you will need more protein to deal with the extra load that your body is taking on. This allows for more efficient muscle repair to take place during these strenuous processes.
Protein and athletic performance
When it comes down to calculating protein amounts in relation to fitness and athletic performance, many factors can affect the percentage of protein required by the individual such as
- length of time training
- frequency of training
- muscle mass percentage
- and even altitude.
The amount of protein you need to perform your choice of exercises optimally does not change simply because you are vegan. What matters most is obtaining the knowledge of how to get the necessary amount of protein for your body to run at its full potential with strictly plant-based sources.
Studies show that endurance athletes and resistance athletes may need considerably more protein than the recommended daily amounts for sedentary individuals with protein making up as much as 30%-35%, which is within an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) dependant on activity and situation. Studies have shown endurance athletes may need an increase of protein from 50-100% more than the sedentary amount, and resistance athletes have been shown to enhance muscle development to a certain degree when consuming a percentage more than the basic RDA.
The biggest issue with current diets and protein amounts for athletes is that the majority of individuals are consuming abundantly more protein than is necessary. When they begin their fitness activities, they then increase their protein intake even more since this is what is promoted by the media.
Add that to the constant barrage of “vegans don’t get enough protein,” we end up with vegans and non-vegan individuals who are consuming a load more protein then the body needs for their chosen activity.
The misinformation usually results in an excess protein consumption that either gets utilized for energy or excreted out since protein doesn’t get stored in the body like fat or carbohydrates.
Studies show that for the majority of individuals, consuming between 15-20% of daily calories as protein is adequate for the majority of activities despite what is promoted in many Fitness magazines.
Below is a chart explaining the recommended amounts for different individuals based on activity level and training frequency.
It would be best for all fitness individuals to calculate their recommended protein amounts and then do a week of monitoring your food intake and see whether your protein intake is higher or lower than the recommended amounts. Comment your findings below and tell us whether your results surprise you.
Calculate your protein intake using this calculator.
Chart with data (use to make own chart) https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-7/
Plant Protein and bodybuilding
“But I’m a bodybuilder. These puny protein amounts don’t apply to me!”
The media and advertising industry put such a strong emphasis on high protein consumption and perfect physiques that we felt it necessary to provide a separate section just for the bodybuilders out there vegan and non-vegan.
As we have seen, protein is key to muscle growth and repair, among many other things, but for fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders with goals to consistently increase muscle mass, how much protein is really needed?
A multitude of studies on protein consumption and its effect on muscle growth have shown that an average of 1.3-1.8 g per kg maximum dependant on activity level works best where anything above 1.4g per kg gives diminishing returns
The amount of protein needed as a person progresses in “training age” decreases as they retain more muscle, and the body gets better at utilizing the protein that’s consumed.
The more muscle you obtain over your training lifetime, the closer you end up getting to your natural genetic limit, and the slower your body will build muscle as time progresses. Consuming even more protein when your body is now effective at utilizing and metabolizing protein ends up being ineffective in terms of making muscles grow quicker.
The excess protein can still be used for energy and to control the appetite to a certain degree, but based on the research, it won’t get you to your muscle growth goals any faster
Don’t let this data get you down since you can now rejoice in knowing you can maintain your current muscle growth rates but save some money in the long run by cutting out the excess protein purchases. Win-win in our opinion
Protein and weight loss
Most people tend to see protein as the key to looking like Mr. Olympia or the top fitness models.
Yes, protein plays a huge roll in muscle growth, but no growth can occur without putting in the work (exercise). Go hard or go home as they say and if all you did was eat protein at home while sitting in your pj’s all day, your muscles would not be growing any bigger, but your stomach might.
So to the active females who fear protein due to worries of looking too masculine, you can throw those worries away. What studies have shown is that protein, in general, helps not just with building muscle but also with losing fat!
Protein does more than just repair. It also helps with weight control through hormone regulation. When consuming a high amount of protein, hormones that suppress hunger are released (GLP-1, peptide YY, and cholecystokinin) while the hormones that make you crave food (ghrelin) are reduced. By consuming more protein in your diet over carbs and fats, you potentially allow your body to control your hunger cravings and the amount of food you eat, preventing you from consuming excessive calories.
Studies have shown that a high protein diet can cut calorie cravings by over 50%.
Protein overall has a higher TEF (thermic effect of food) rating than any other macronutrient meaning more calories are burned through the digesting and metabolizing process. This has the incredible effect of burning more calories throughout the day, even while sleeping!
Remember, when we say high protein, we still stick to the recommended ranges for athletes with 1.5-2g per kg being classed as a “high” amount of protein.
Protein and age
Age is also something that we should be factoring in when thinking about protein consumption as an active vegan. Sarcopenia (the loss of muscle mass, muscle function, and strength that occurs due to age is something we should all be aware of.
Studies show as we age, we become less responsive to the essential amino acids we gain from food, especially leucine. Hence, finding ways to keep the body healthy and balanced as we progress in life is something we should all be thinking about
As an older vegan, it’s important to increase your protein intake slightly to accommodate for the lower absorption rate of these EEA’s. Consuming higher protein vegan foods such as soy, beans, legumes, or supplementing with all-natural protein powders are great ways for vegans to consume all the essential amino acids needed as we mature in age.
Do vegans struggle to get enough protein?
There tends to be a massive misconception that going vegan means you will be protein deficient, but let us look at the stats to see how true this is.
If you take into consideration the recommended daily amount of protein at 0.7g per kg of body weight and the fact that protein is in everything you eat, you realize it becomes tough to be protein deficient if you are eating a well-balanced diet.
True protein deficiency is extremely rare in well-developed countries. It tends to be linked with extremely low caloric intake or to individuals with digestive issues.
It is important to remember a plant-based diet consists of whole foods that have a natural balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats that, if regularly consumed in variety, will easily allow most people to hit their minimum protein needs. As the research shows, protein deficiency is rarely seen as an isolated condition and is usually linked to a caloric deficit.
Signs of protein deficiency
- Brain fog and decreased cognitive function
- Brittle hair and irregular hair loss
- High levels of fatigue and tiredness
- Slow muscle repair and overall muscle weakness
- Increased joint pain
- Weak bones and nails
The most extreme form of protein deficiency typically occurs in developing countries where food is scarce and is called kwashiorkor. Kwashiorkor most commonly occurs in children and is seen through the symptoms of stunted growth, edema, loss of muscular structure, and skin lesions. In adults with protein deficiency, the main symptoms tend to be hair, skin and nail issues, and a loss of muscle mass.
A lack of dietary energy as a whole will make you deficient in all macronutrients, not just protein. For the everyday vegan, the main things you need to do to avoid deficiency are calculating your daily macronutrient requirements and ensure you consume a wide variety of whole plant-based foods with a strong focus on high lysine protein sources. If you fulfill your caloric needs through a balanced plant-based diet, it becomes very hard to be protein deficient.
Wheeeeww … hopefully, that’s a weight lifted off your chest, and you can rest easier knowing that you can easily reach your protein needs.
Does protein timing matter
Protein timing matters in regards to exercise and recovery.
Your energy and nitrogen storages deplete after a strenuous workout, so it’s crucial they get refilled to recover and grow at an optimum rate. Studies show that consuming 30-40grams of protein after a hard workout alongside a large helping of carbohydrates is optimal for recovery.
The main thing your body is concerned with when it comes to protein is hitting the necessary amount for your current situation. Still, depending on your exercise activity, protein timing can be tweaked to be more productive. As we discussed earlier, high protein diets can raise your metabolism and also release appetite suppression hormones, which help significantly with fat loss.
Breakfast may be the most crucial time to load up on protein. Studies have shown that a high protein meal in the morning reduced cravings throughout the day and spreading out high protein snacks throughout the first half of the day may also lower caloric needs later in the evening.
When building muscle studies show that consuming protein pre and post-workout has a beneficial effect on physical performance, training session recovery, lean body mass muscle hypertrophy, and strength.
Consuming a meal high in leucine after training is of great benefit since its one of the amino acids that play a vital role in muscle protein synthesis.
For the vegan athlete aiming for the most optimal use of protein, you may also find a slight benefit in consuming a small amount of protein during exercise to prevent protein deficits during training.
Overall the key factor is protein amounts for the entire day that matter the most with the amino acids leucine and lysine playing the most significant roles.
Can you consume too much protein?
With all this discussion on optimal protein amounts, the question your probably asking is, “why not just consume more protein so that there’s no chance of me having a less than optimal amount?”. Well, studies show that dietary protein above 1.7 grams per kilogram bodyweight is not necessary. It increases the risk of elevating nitrogen, ammonia, urea, dehydration, and increased feelings of malaise from nitrogen toxicity, causing unnecessary stress on the liver and kidneys.
Research has also shown that extremely high protein diets over the RDA for endurance/strength athletes have been linked to bone and calcium disorders, liver issues, coronary artery disease, disorders of the renal function, and increased cancer risk. With all the research and studies out there on athletic performance showing minimal benefits when consuming protein above the RDA’s and the research showing the potential risks and diseases that can come from an extremely high protein diet is it worth consuming more than necessary for the low chance of a physical benefit, we don’t believe so.
Animal protein vs. Plant protein
People tend to associate all the negative issues that come with meat synonymously with the macronutrient protein since the mental link most people have is meat=protein. A lot of the adverse effects that come from meat are not simply because of the protein since, as we know, meat is high in protein and iron but due to high cholesterol amounts, lack of fiber, and the inflammation that occurs when consuming it due to endotoxins. These endotoxins are also absorbed at a higher rate when eating meat due to animal fat.
Current evidence supports the idea that CVD risk can be reduced by a dietary pattern that provides more plant sources of protein compared with the typical American diet.
If you compare a single source of animal protein with a single source of plant protein the amino acid profile and digestibility rating tends to skew in favor of animal protein but this all changes when you compare a balanced plant-based diet with multiple plant proteins to a typical western diet with protein predominantly from animals.
Studies show that combining plant sources of protein brings amino acid profiles to equivalent levels with meat. Animal protein tends to come with adverse health risks when consumed in abundance such as cardiovascular disease (due to the high saturated fat and cholesterol consumption), bone health (from bone resorption due to sulfur-containing amino acids associated with animal protein).
With a proper combination of vegan food sources, protein for vegans can provide very similar benefits to animal protein without the potential negative side effects that come along with consuming meat.
Main benefits of consuming plant protein over meat protein are as follows
- Less chance of heart disease
- Less chance of plaque build-up in the heart
- Lower rates of cancer
- Weight loss and prevention of fat build-up
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol
Plant protein and the planet
Choosing plant protein over meat protein not only has benefits on the human body but also has many benefits on the planet.
Our food choices have quite a substantial ecological effect, and depending on how we choose to eat can change the environmental footprint we leave behind.
It is stated that in an average human carnivores lifetime they will consume around 7000 animals with new research suggesting the number to be approximately 11,000 (find study)
40% of the world’s land surface is used to feed the human population, but a whopping 30% of that land is used to feed the cattle in the meat and dairy industry.
80% of the corn we grow and more than 95 percent of the oats are fed to livestock. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people.
Eating meat requires three times more land than is needed for a vegan diet. If the grain fed to animals in western countries were consumed directly by people instead of animals, we could feed at least twice as many people yet, 1 in 8 people still suffer from food scarcity.
The average American who consumes around 270 pounds of meat a year would need about 20 times as much land to live off in comparison to a family living off rice, fruit, beans, and vegetables in.
The burning of fossil fuels for energy and animal agriculture are two of the biggest contributors to global warming, along with deforestation.
Choosing plant-based protein over animal protein helps with the conservation of water, helps to minimize deforestation and water pollution around the planet, which in turn contributes to preserving many animal lives and environmental ecosystems that are gradually being destroyed.
If you care about preserving our planet and its ecosystem as well as maintaining a healthy body for the longterm, then it ends up being hard to ignore the many benefits that come from consuming plant protein over animal protein.
Studies are showing that there has been a small but gradual increase of people choosing to cut or minimize their meat consumption due to the public becoming more aware of the side effects of abundant meat consumption which is nice to see, we even have countries that are heavy meat-eaters being advised to have one meat-free day a week.
The gradual awareness and small changes being made by all are great to see since we here at Vegan Agility feel it shouldn’t be a vegan vs meat eater situation but an overall collective effort by all to make smarter long term choices for the preservation of our planet and our general health.
Consuming a high animal protein diet will fill your essential amino acid needs, but the lack of fiber, minerals, and vitamins that you would have gained from consuming plant-based sources of protein can potentially hinder nutrient balance. High meat protein diets may also be playing into the fiber issues prevalent in a western society where the average male far exceeds his RDA of protein but misses the RDA of fiber. Plus, the added cholesterol that comes with high consumption of meat may cause health issues if not monitored closely.
Plant-based sources of protein tend to be naturally balanced with carbs/fats/proteins alongside high amounts of fiber, minerals, and vitamins. So vegan meals based on real foods tend to have a nice equilibrium of all the necessary nutrients the body needs to thrive.
Protein without meat is hopefully not such of a mystical topic anymore.
Now you know :
- what a protein is and why its so important for both vegans and meat eaters
- the best vegan sources for a high protein plant-based meal
- and the multiple ways to hit your RDA, helping you avoid deficiency.
You now have the knowledge needed to master protein on a plant-based diet and can quickly silence anyone who doesn’t quite understand the power of plants 🙂
Why not try out some of our delicious vegan recipes, high in plant protein, to boost your essential amino acid intake and bring balance back to your diet!
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