Plant-based protein uncovered with Coach Calum

Did you know that one in eight people in the UK are now either vegan or vegetarian*? While one in five say they follow a flexitarian diet or are reducing the amount of meat they eat*. With the number of people adopting a plant-based lifestyle each year for both ethical and environmental reasons, there are still a number of questions around how to eat sustainability while still getting in the right macro and micro nutrients – especially alongside a fitness routine.

To learn more about plant-based proteins, we spoke with MNU Certified Nutritionist, Calum Stronach.

Milo: Thanks for speaking with us Calum. Before we dive in, can you share a bit about yourself and your background?
Calum: I have a degree in Sports Nutrition and I’m MNU Certified. Over the past three years, I’ve been working within elite sport, namely for Team Wales athletes. I also have a private practice, working with a wide variety of different clients. I’m currently working with everyone from Olympic athletes through to mums and dads who want to feel better about themselves or improve their relationship with food. Lastly, I’m also now working with people who have special conditions, including PCOS, diabetes, endometriosis and ME.

Milo: Quite the CV! Moving onto the questions - what is protein and how does it support your body? 
Calum: Protein is an essential macronutrient (meaning we would die without it). It’s made up of amino acids, and of the 20 amino acids, nine are essential to our bodies and are our bodies building blocks. Ultimately, the structure and function of our bodies depends on proteins and the regulation of the body’s cells, tissues and organs cannot happen without them. Our skin, hair, nails are all made of protein as well as being the foundations of our muscles. 

Protein is also the most satiating macro-nutrient. There’s something called the Thermic Effect of Protein (TEF), which is basically our body using calories to consume calories. The process of digesting the food we eat requires energy. As an example, if we consumed 100 calories of fat, we would utilise up to 3 calories in the process of breaking it down. In 100 calories of carbohydrates, we use up to 10 calories to break it down, and with protein, we use up to 30 calories. Since you use more energy to breakdown protein, it can be an effective tool when dieting to help create an even greater calorie deficit.

Milo: It’s clear that protein plays a really important role. How much protein should people be aiming for daily?

Calum: By minimum, we should have 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight. This is basically to avoid kwashiorkor (a form of malnutrition caused by a lack of protein). Aiming to be in and around 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight is a great place to be for health, and in certain athletic populations or dieting circumstances, people can have up to 2-2.5g of protein.

Milo: So, we now understand what protein is and how much we should be having. What are your top recommendations for plant-based protein sources?

Calum: The main consideration to make is looking at the amino acid profile. You have complete versus incomplete sources of protein, and a lot of the problems around plant-based protein stems from deficiency in certain amino acids, which can cause some potential issues. But it’s absolutely possible to consume adequate protein purely from plant-based sources. You just have to be a lot more mindful.

My top recommendations would be eating soy and pea protein, which are both complete sources. Soy has had a bad rep, but there is no need to fear it. 

Next, you need to make sure you hit correct combinations to expose yourself to a wide variety of amino acids. This isn’t a necessity to have them in the same meal for general health. However, there would be greater considerations for performance and muscle gain as we would look to trigger muscle protein synthesis frequently throughout the day to optimise recovery.

Complementary sources of protein are usually certain grains and legumes, such as quinoa and black beans. Although they’re incomplete sources, they complement each other quite well.

Milo: If you’re eating plant-based, should you be taking any supplements?
Calum: The only consideration may be to supplement with essential amino acids (EAA) if deficient or when making that transition across to being completely plant-based. It is possible to ensure full profile of nutrients, you just need to know how to achieve it and balance it out.

Milo: Are there any issues with people having too much protein?

Calum: There’s no problem with too much protein, unless in fairly rare specialist cases. My only consideration would be if we are portioning too many calories towards protein, then we may potentially miss out on other micronutrients, but due to the nature of a plant-based diet this is rarely a consideration but more towards those who eat animal protein sources.

Interested in taking a deeper look into your nutrition? Get in touch with us in the studio for a 1-2-1 consultation. And to keep up-to-speed on all things nutrition, you can follow Calum on Instagram @coachcalum, Calum Stronach Coaching on Facebook, @calumnutrition on Twitter, or visit his website


* according to the Waitrose food and drink report 2018-19

Milo and the Bull