Vegan Protein: A Simple Guide to Getting What You Need
“Where do you get your protein?”
It’s question vegans and vegetarians get asked more than any other. We hear it so often, in fact, that we tend to forget that some people really do want to know the answer, and aren’t just asking it with the aim of poking holes in our silly, granola-crunchy plant-based diet plan.
First, my standard answer to the question, Where do you get your protein?
You don’t need as much protein as most people think, and it’s easy to get what you do need from beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and even greens.
How much protein do vegans need?
Not as much as people would have you believe. Somehow, everyone got the idea that we need exorbitant amounts of protein, way more than is even recommended. I know, it’s fun to blame government agencies and cry conspiracy, but if you actually look at the recommendations, they’re not that high at all.
For example, the U.S. recommended daily allowance of protein is .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (.36 grams per pound) for the general population.
Protein for vegan athletes is somewhat more complicated, as greater tissue-repair need require more protein and general, and athletes tend to pay more attention to amino acid balance.
Some successful endurance athletes (see the fruitarian diet) get as little as 5% of their calories from protein — and since a gram of protein contains about four calories, that’s less than 35 grams of protein a day for a 2500-calorie-per-day diet!
At the other extreme are vegan bodybuilders and those new to the diet who are accustomed to higher amounts of protein and worried about what will happen when they stop eating meat. They aim for higher amounts of protein, often 25 to 30 percent of calories. It’s hard to get this amount from whole plant-foods, so they often turn to vegan protein supplements to get the extra boost they’re looking for.
Several sources I looked at cited a study which concluded that endurance athletes benefit most from 1.2 to 1.4 daily grams per kilogram of bodyweight, while strength athletes do best with 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram. In pounds, that’s .54 to .63 grams per pound for endurance athletes, .63 to .81 grams per pound for strength athletes.
Example: How to calculate vegan protein needs
Let’s take a typical No Meat Athlete reader and see what this means for her, let’s a say a 140-pound runner. We’ll split the daily protein range for endurance athletes in the middle and aim for .59 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight:
140 pounds * .59 grams/pound = 83 grams of protein per day
Keep in mind that’s for a 140-pound endurance athlete, so you’ll need to plug in your own weight and, if you do a strength sport, use a different protein figure.
But really, only 83 grams?
All of this protein fuss — the incessant inquisition about where we get protein — is about 83 grams per day, even after adjusting for being an athlete? (And if our 140-pound woman weren’t an athlete, she’d need only 50 grams to hit the RDA number!)
What the experts say about plant-based protein needs
Before we move onto good vegan and vegetarian protein sources for getting this amount, let’s take a look at what some well-known and credentialed vegans say about protein.
- In the documentary Forks Over Knives, China Study author Dr. T. Colin Campbell says that you need 8 to 10 percent of your calories to come from protein. (Keep in mind he’s not necessarily talking about athletes.)
- Vegan Ironman Brendan Brazier, in his appearance on No Meat Athlete radio, says he eats about 15 percent protein when training for short events, and close to 20 percent protein during periods of heavy training (several hours per day) for long endurance events.
- Tim Ferriss writes in The 4-Hour Body that ultrarunner Scott Jurek gets 15 to 20 percent of his calories from protein.
- Matt Ruscigno, in the post he wrote for No Meat Athlete about protein for vegetarians, says he recommends that his athlete clients get 10 to 15 percent of their calories from protein.
Notice that everybody expresses things in percentage protein instead of grams, in order to more easily account for different body masses.
How does our 83 grams of protein, for a 140-pound female endurance athlete stack up in terms of percentage of total calories?
Well, the first thing to note is that a gram of protein contains four calories. (Yay for paying attention in health class!) So:
83 grams * 4 calories/gram = 332 calories of protein
We’ll need to divide this figure by total daily calories to get the percentage we’re after. I plugged my imaginary friend’s stats (5’3″, 140 lbs, female, very active) into this basal metabolic rate calculator to approximate her total daily calories at 2375. Drumroll, please …
322 calories of protein / 2375 total calories = 13.6% of calories from protein
Not far off from the 15 percent that most of our experts mentioned! Based on all of this, aiming to get 15 percent of your calories from protein seems like a pretty good rule of thumb.
(And by the way, I find using percentages to be a much easier way to evaluate a food’s protein content than grams. See a post I wrote about using protein percentages.)
Where do vegans get their protein?
There’s no shortage of lists of high-quality vegan protein sources. But as you might expect, they’re often topped by soy products (tempeh is much higher in protein than tofu), seitan, and legumes.
My personal favorite vegan foods for protein — in rough, descending order of how often I eat them — are:
- Lentils (red are my favorites), 18 grams of protein per cup
- Chickpeas, 12 grams/cup
- Tempeh (locally made in Asheville!), 41 grams per cup
- Black beans, 15 grams per cup
- Nuts and nut butters (I eat a good mix, usually without peanuts), varied
- Tofu, 11 grams per 4 ounces
- Quinoa, 9 grams per cup
- Other legumes, varied
- Grains, varied
(These protein content numbers come from the Vegetarian Resource Group’s excellent article on vegetarian protein.)
I often, but not always, add vegan protein powder to my smoothie each morning — depending on my fitness goals at the time. My son, for example, is an athlete trying to gain weight on a vegan diet, so he always includes protein in his smoothie.
Smoothies, in general, are a great way to boost protein intake on a plant-based diet, since you can easily add lots of other high-protein ingredients like walnuts, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and almond butter, and even beans (yep, people do it!).
See my basic smoothie recipe for details on how much of each to add.
Warning: Don’t ignore amino acids
All protein is not created equally. Protein is made up of amino acids, and there are certain ones, called “essential,” which your body cannot produce on its own and must get through food.
As long as you’re eating a wide variety of whole foods — a good practice to follow for many reasons — you’re probably getting a nice mix of amino acids. One, though, that’s particularly tough for vegetarians to get, is lysine, as explained in this article on protein from Vegan Health.
Only a few vegan foods contain lysine in large amounts, but fortunately, they’re staples in many of our diets: tempeh, tofu, and legumes. If you don’t eat beans or soy, because of allergies or some other reason, you’ll need to pay special attention to lysine, and it might be worth considering an amino acid supplement.
See another No Meat Athlete article for a breakdown of various plant-based protein sources and their amino acid content.
The easy way for vegans to get enough protein every day
As it turns out, I weigh around 140 pounds, so the 83 grams of protein mentioned above is right about what I aim for. (I’m fairly certain I’m not female, but sex only entered the conversation when we were estimating total calories.)
So how do I get my 83 grams of protein per day?
My approach to getting enough protein is very simple:
Make sure you include a decent protein source, even if just a little bit, in every meal or snack.
Mainly, this just keeps you mindful and prevents you from slipping into junk-food-vegan, carbohydrate-only mode.
So what does this mean in terms of actual foods? Try these:
- Adding protein powder to your smoothie. (10-15 g protein)
- Eating a whole-wheat bagel with peanut or almond butter for a snack. (17 g protein)
- Including beans in your pasta dishes (you’ll find plenty at our vegan recipes page). (~15 g protein per cup of beans)
- Lots of lentils. (18 g protein per cup)
- Hummus on a whole wheat pita for a snack. (10 g protein)
- Putting nuts on your salad or eating them alone as a snack. (5-6 g protein per handful)
- Eating quinoa as part of the main dish or a side. (11 g protein per cup)
- Occasionally eating soy products, like tempeh, (30 g protein per cup) — but don’t forget all the high-protein vegan alternatives to soy!
See? No huge numbers here, but mix in a few of them every day, and it’s no problem at all to get anywhere from 60-100 grams of protein, especially when you count all the other foods you eat that contain smaller amounts of protein. My point here isn’t to get you to start counting protein grams throughout the day — I certainly don’t do that — but you can see just how easy it is to get the protein you need.
A few other favorite, high-protein vegan recipes:
- 5 Easy Rice and Beans Recipe
- The Only Plant-Based Protein Bowl You’ll Ever Need
- Split Pea Soup
- Chocolate Quinoa Protein Energy Bars
- High-Protein Chocolate Pudding
So the next time someone asks …
You won’t have to tell them it’s complicated or argue to no avail that broccoli would be a good protein source if only you could eat five pounds of it in a sitting. Instead, you can just explain that we don’t need all that much protein, and it’s easy to get what we do need from a half dozen, common foods, eaten just a little bit at a time throughout the day.
No big deal.