Typically found in small amounts in plants, lysine is one of the most important nutrients that those on a plant-based vegan diet need to pay close attention to. Vegan nutrition Expert Carly Slawson shares some of the best foods to ensure you’re meeting your essential protein needs for a healthy vegan lifestyle.
With 20 amino acids that our body uses regularly to build various proteins, we have evolved with the ability to make 11 of those through the food we consume. The remaining 9 are essential amino acids, which we must obtain through our diet.
Of those 9 essential amino acids, there is one that vegans should pay particular attention to: lysine.
Known as the “limiting amino acid” in vegan diets, lysine is the least abundant amino acid obtained through plant foods. That means vegans must consciously include enough lysine-rich foods in their diet to supply the body with all the protein building blocks it needs.
So why is lysine so important?
It’s the least abundant amino acid to come by when consuming plant-foods. Plant proteins high in lysine are also great sources of many of the other essential amino acids. By focusing on lysine and eating a balanced plant-based diet, you can ensure you’re getting your essential amino acid needs met, and thereby provide your body with all the unique building blocks it needs to make everything from muscle fibers to neurotransmitters in the brain.
How much lysine do vegans need?
There is a common myth that vegans and vegetarians should combine proteins at meal times in order to receive all the essential amino acids. Research has shown that you simply need to eat from a variety a protein sources over a period of about 2-3 days to ensure adequate intake of all the essential amino acids. Teenagers and adults should aim for about 40 mg of lysine per kg of body weight, which comes out to about 2000 – 3500 mg of lysine per day, depending on your body weight.
Let’s take a closer look at these 8 lysine-rich foods and how to easily incorporate them into a healthy vegan diet:
This cultured soy product contains about 15 grams of protein per ½ cup serving, and 754 mg of lysine. Tempeh has a lovely chewy texture and nutty flavor. Use it in a stew, curry, or lightly browned with some tamari and minced garlic alongside some veggies and a roasted sweet potato for a simple, satisfying meal.
Made from pure wheat gluten, seitan may not be for everyone (especially those with Celiac disease, or are sensitive to wheat protein). For those without a sensitivity, it can be a great source of lysine with a walloping 20 grams of protein and 656 mg of lysine per 3 oz. serving. Shred it and add to your favorite taco recipe in place of meat, or thinly slice it and add to sandwiches or salads.
These quick-cooking superstars are a cinch to add to fresh salads, and play a central role in delicious Indian dishes such as dal. Just ½ cup serving contains about 8 grams of protein, and 624 mg of lysine.
4. BLACK BEANS
This protein-packed little bean is also rich in antioxidants. It packs in about 7 grams of proteins per ½ cup serving, and 523 mg of lysine. Add it to your favorite chili recipe, or quick tacos with some quinoa, pico de gallo, avocado, and a cheesy nacho flavored cashew cream sauce.
Quinoa is the only grain that is also a complete plant-protein, and is actually considered a seed, botanically speaking. It has a health halo for a reason; just one cup of cooked quinoa provides 8 grams of protein and 442 mg lysine, as well as other important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Swap it with rice in everyday cooking, or use in place of couscous for a delicious twist on Mediterranean tabbouleh. Just don’t forget to rinse your quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer prior to cooking! This will wash away saponin compounds that can reduce bioavailability of some nutrients (and may upset your stomach too).
6. SOY MILK
Just 1 cup with your morning cereal or smoothie provides about 9 grams of protein and 439 mg of lysine. Not to mention, it’s often fortified with other essential nutrients like calcium!
These flavorful green beauties have about 6 grams of protein per ½ cup, containing 367 mg of lysine. Take a handful with you on your way to work, or serve them chopped over your favorite salad.
8. PUMPKIN SEEDS
Tiny but mighty, just ¼ cup provides 8 grams of protein, and 360 mg of lysine. Sprinkle over oatmeal, salads, tacos, or soups; or grab a handful as a snack after a long day.
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Carly Slawson, RD is a Registered Dietitian in San Diego, CA on a mission to share the joys of healthful plant-based living with those around her. As a lifelong vegetarian and vegan over the last decade, she helps individuals ranging from the simply veg-curious to dedicated vegans find the balanced, practical lifestyle they choose to lead. Visit Carly at The Mindful Vegan!