A variety of plant-based milks, nuts, grains, and coconut spread across a bench

Sports & Spinal Dietitian, Georgia Volz explains what plant-based proteins are and how they work when substituting them for meat-based proteins.

Each protein source consists of a specific sequence of amino acids. These amino acids are the small “building blocks” of larger protein structures. There are 20 different amino acids that can be combined to make a protein. Protein is required for a number of processes in the body including cell structure, transport of other essential nutrients, enzymes, hormones and the immune system.

There are 9 amino acids that are labelled “essential“. This means that our bodies cannot produce them, so we need to consume them from foods. Examples of complete proteins include quinoa, buckwheat and soy.  Aim for a variety of sources throughout the week to ensure you meet your protein requirements.

How much do we need?

Requirements vary for each person depending on age, muscle mass, activity and certain medical conditions or illnesses. The average recommended intake is 0.8-1g per kg of body weight per days.


Calcium is essential for strong bones and heart function. When using plant-based dairy alternatives, look for products fortified with calcium – about 300mg per serve.


B12 is required to convert carbohydrates to energy and is important for red blood cell production and maintains the protective coating of our nerves. It is commonly found in animal proteins and in small amounts in fortified cereals, plant kinds of milk and nutritional yeast. B12 is very difficult to absorb so often a supplement is beneficial in vegan diets together with food sources.


“Heme” iron from animal proteins is better absorbed by the body. “Non-heme” iron from plant-based foods contain phytates found in grains, nuts, seeds and legumes which can interfere with iron absorption. Soaking these foods can help reduce phytate content.

Tannins can also block iron absorption so it’s best to avoid having tea, coffee and red wine within 30 minutes of meals to allow the best iron absorption.

Daily requirements vary between 8mg for men and 18mg for women. Pregnant women require 27mg per day. Vegan diets, due to the nature of poor iron absorption require 1.8x as much.

5-6 mg iron per serving

  • Tofu (100g)
  • Chickpeas (100g)

2-3mg iron per serve

  • Beans (most varieties), cooked (1/2 cup)
  • Spinach, cooked (½ cup)
  • Edamame, cooked (½ cup)
  • Cashews, pine nuts, pistachios (50g)
  • Iron-fortified cereals (40g)

Boost iron absorption by having vitamin C with meals – citrus fruits, strawberries, tomato and red capsicum.


Written By Georgia Volz- Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD)

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