If I had a dollar for every time someone asks me “where do vegetarians get their protein from?”…well, I would probably spend it in avocado toast to be honest. The point is, this is still a real concern to people considering veganism.
Truth is, it is very easy for vegetarians and vegans to get all the protein they need from plants. Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some, and often much, protein. Vegans eating a varied diet of enough calories rarely have any difficulty getting enough protein.
From a young age, we are led to believe we need more protein than we can actually utilize in a healthy manner, so lets take a look at the role of protein and how much we actually need.
What Is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient made up of amino acids. It is essential for the growth and repair of the body, allowing for the maintenance of good health.
Proteins perform a wide range of functions in the body such as:
- Cell renewal and growth; muscle accounts for around half of the protein in the body.
- Protein collagen makes up a major part of the skeleton, connective tissues, nails and hair.
- Manages metabolism and body processes like hormones, growth and appetite control.
- Enzymes that break down food, and hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood, are also forms of protein.
How much protein do you really need?
Well…not nearly as much as people seem to believe. Economic interests of the meat and dairy industry got everyone thinking we need exorbitant amounts of protein, way more than what is even recommended.
The recommended dietary intake (RDI) for the general population.is 0.84 grams per KG (0.38g/lb) of body mass for men and 0.75 grams per KG (0.34g/lb) of body mass for women. As we get older than 70 years of age, our protein requirement does go up.
What about amino acids?
Amino acids are what protein is made of. When we consume protein our bodies actually break it down and re-assembled in the cells into other amino acids. As long as you’re eating a wide variety of whole foods you’re probably getting a nice mix of amino acids.
Out of the 20 types of amino acids, there are some your body cannot produce on its own so must be gotten through food. These are known as the 8 essential amino acids: Isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine (histidine is also regarded as essential for infants).
Lysine, though, can be particularly tough for vegetarians to get since only a few vegan foods contain it in large amounts. Fortunately, these foods are staples in many of our diets such as tempeh, tofu, and legumes. If, because of allergies or some other reason, you don’t eat beans or soy, you’ll want to pay special attention to lysine and consider an amino acid supplement.
What’s really key to understand is that all of these essential amino acids originate in plants. That’s right, they are produced by plants, not mammals. So we can either consume them by going direct to the source or by eating an animal.
People might argue that plant proteins are incomplete, but that’s clearly not true now that you know all essential amino acids originate from plants. So long as you eat a well-diversified plant-based diet, you will get all of these essential amino acids that your body requires.
More protein is not always the best
Contrary to popular belief, more protein is more harmful than beneficial. The average American consumes close to 100 grams of protein a day, almost double the amount recommended.
This should concern us since excess protein cannot be stored, so it is either converted to sugar and burned as energy or converted into fat with its waste products eliminated through the kidneys.
When protein is metabolized, some toxic substances such as urea are created during the breakdown process. Sulfur, another by-product of the breakdown of amino acids, also must be eliminated and is turned into sulfuric acid. These then must be eliminated through the kidneys putting them through unnecessary strain.
Although animal protein is considerably worse in excess than plant protein (due to its amino acid makeup) there’s no reason or benefit to consuming any protein in excess.
What about the keto diet? Although this diet has become increasingly popular in the last years, there are no studies concluding that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet is healthy in the long term. What we do know about proteins is that they are strongly linked to causing cancer and aging at high levels.
High protein intake and osteoporosis.
When high amounts of protein (especially sulfur-containing amino acids) are consumed, buffers (such as calcium) from the bones are released in order to neutralize the acids. This process can eventually result in the dissolving and weakening of the bones, known as osteoporosis.
The concentration of protein is less in plants than in animal products, making them a better source of calcium in reducing the risk for osteoporosis. Some plant sources high in calcium are dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, seaweed and tofu. In addition, fruits and vegetables have an alkalizing effect on the body when they act as a buffer to help prevent osteoporosis and other acid-based disorders.
The benefits of plant protein
While the amount and quality of protein in a vegetarian diet continues to be a concern, evidence shows that the consumption of more plant-based proteins is one of the reasons why vegetarians have a lower risk of overweight, obesity and chronic disease.
In comparison to animal protein, most plant-based proteins are lower in saturated fat, free of cholesterol and haem iron. They are also higher in fiber, and a good source of antioxidants and phytochemicals; all of which may contribute to reduced disease risk.
A study by the European Prospective Investigation in Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Oxford, compared weight gain over 5 years among almost 22 000 meat-eating, fish-eating, vegetarian, and vegan men and women. It found that weight gain was lowest in the vegan group and in those who, during follow-up, had changed to a diet containing fewer animal foods.1
The study also found that meat-eaters had the highest body mass index (BMI) and vegans the lowest BMI, while fish-eaters and vegetarians had similar, intermediate mean BMIs.2
While the safety of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets is debated, the type of protein in such diets may be important. A report of two cohort studies found that a low-carbohydrate diet based on animal sources was associated with higher all-cause mortality, while a vegetable-based low-carbohydrate diet was associated with lower all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality rates.3
Can Athletes Get Enough Protein On A Vegan Diet?
Protein is essential for building muscle mass, so naturally, athletes will need more protein than the average person.
This study concluded that endurance athletes benefit most from 1.2 to 1.4 daily grams per kilogram of body weight, while strength athletes do best with 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram. (that’s .54 to .63 grams per pound for endurance athletes, and .63 to .81 grams per pound for strength athletes).
Many athletes are choosing to go vegan and not only staying on top of their but even improving
. Powerlifter Hulda B Waage for example, nicknamed the “Vegan Viking”, beat three of her own national records at her second European competition back in May – as you can tell by her nickname, she eats nothing but a plant-based diet.
Best high protein plant sources
It contains about 25 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
2. Tofu, Tempeh and Edamame
Edamame are immature soybeans with a sweet and slightly grassy taste. They need to be steamed or boiled prior to consumption and can be eaten on their own or added to soups and salads.
Tofu is made from bean curds pressed together in a process similar to cheesemaking. It doesn’t have much taste, but easily absorbs the flavor of the ingredients
Tempeh is made by cooking and slightly fermenting mature soybeans prior to pressing them into a patty. It has a characteristic nutty flavor.
Both tofu and tempeh can be used in a variety of recipes, ranging from burgers to soups and chilis.
At 18 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml), lentils are a great source of protein.
Lentils may also help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, excess body weight and some types of cancer (10). In addition, they are rich in folate, manganese, iron and contain a good amount of antioxidants and other health-promoting plant compounds (11).
4. Chickpeas and Most Varieties of Beans
Both beans and chickpeas contain about 15 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml). They are also excellent sources of complex carbs, fiber, iron, folate, phosphorus, potassium, manganese and several beneficial plant compounds (12, 13, 14).
5. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, sold commercially as a yellow powder or flakes.
It is a popular plant-based ingredient often used to give dishes a dairy-free cheese flavor. It is high in protein, fiber and is often fortified with various nutrients, including vitamin B12.
This complete source of plant protein provides the body with 14 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per ounce (28 grams) (19).
6. Spelt and Teff
Spelt and teff belong to a category known as ancient grains among others like einkorn, barley, sorghum, and farro.
Spelt is a type of wheat and contains gluten, whereas teff originates from an annual grass, which means it’s gluten-free.
7. Hemp seeds
Hemp seeds come from the Cannabis sativa plant, which is notorious for belonging to the same family as the marijuana plant.
It contains 10 grams of complete, easily digestible protein per ounce (28 grams). as well as health-promoting essential fatty acids in a ratio optimal for human health.
8. Green Peas
The little green peas often served as a side dish contain 9 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml).
What’s more, a serving of green peas covers more than 25% of your daily fiber, vitamin A, C, K, thiamine, folate and manganese requirements. Thet are also a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper and several other B vitamins (22).
It also contains decent amounts of magnesium, riboflavin, manganese, potassium and small amounts of most of the other nutrients your body needs, including essential fatty acids.
10. Amaranth and Quinoa
Amaranth and quinoa provide 8–9 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml) and are complete sources of protein, which is rare among grains.
They are also good sources of complex carbs, fiber, iron, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium.
11. Ezekiel and other sprouted breads
Ezekiel bread is made from organic, sprouted whole grains and legumes. These include wheat, millet, barley and spelt, as well as soybeans and lentils.
Two slices of Ezekiel bread contain approximately 8 grams of protein, which is slightly more than the average bread (24).
12. Soy Milk
Milk that’s made from soybeans and fortified with vitamins and minerals is a great alternative to cow’s milk. Not only does it contain 7 grams of protein per cup (240 ml), but it’s also an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 (25).
Keep in mind that soy milk and soybeans do not naturally contain vitamin B12, so picking a fortified variety is recommended.
13. Oats and Oatmeal
Half a cup (120 ml) of dry oats provides you with approximately 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. This portion also contains good amounts of magnesium, zinc, phosphorus and folate (25).
Although oats are not considered a complete protein, they do contain higher-quality protein than other commonly consumed grains like rice and wheat.
14. Wild Rice
Wild rice contains approximately 1.5 times as much protein as other long-grain rice varieties, including brown rice and basmati.
One cooked cup (240 ml) provides 7 grams of protein, in addition to a good amount of fiber, manganese, magnesium, copper, phosphorus and B vitamins (26).
15. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are derived from the Salvia hispanica plant, native to Mexico and Guatemala.
At 6 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber per 1.25 ounces (35 grams), chia seeds definitely earned their spot on the list (27).
16. Nuts, Nut Butters and Other Seeds
When choosing which nuts and seeds to buy, reach for raw, unblanched versions whenever possible since blanching and roasting may damage the nutrients in nuts. (36).
A large baked potato offers 8 g of protein per serving. Potatoes are also high in other nutrients, such as potassium and vitamin C.
18. Protein-Rich Fruits and Vegetables
All fruits and vegetables contain protein in different amounts.
At 4–5 grams of protein per cooked cup, vegetables with the most protein include broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
Fresh fruits generally have a lower protein content than vegetables. Those containing the most include guava, cherimoyas, mulberries, blackberries, nectarines, and bananas, which have about 2–4 grams of protein per cup.
Sounds good but…how does this work on a daily basis?
Let’s look at a scenario for a 187 lbs. man doing regular, moderate exercise per week including some running and strength training.
His goal is around 2,500 calories and 125g of protein. This can easily be achieved with 20% of calories coming from protein which falls below the max 25% recommended as safe.
Here is an example of how this is easily achieved on an average day of eating.
- Plant Protein Shake (20 grams) or homemade Chia Pudding (3 tbsp) with 20g hemp protein added (20 grams protein).
- Scrambled Tofu (200g) (30 grams protein) with vegetables (dark leafy greens), Sauerkraut/Kimchi and 1/2 can of black beans (5 grams protein).
- 50g almonds (11 grams protein) with 2tbsp hemp seeds (10.6 grams protein) and 1/2 cup blueberries (1 gram protein)
- 150g of Tempeh (25 grams protein), 1/2 avocado (1 gram protein), 1 cup broccoli (2.6 grams protein), 1 cup brown rice (8 grams protein), 1 cup raw spinach and Chilli sauce.
- 200g Chickpea salad (12grams protein) with lots of dark leafy green veggies (5g protein) and 2 tbsp hemp seeds (10.6 grams protein).
Total: Approx 125-140g of protein (a bit more since all the veggies included also contain protein)
This is just one quick example of how easy it is to get the protein required within daily meals.
- We do not need as much protein as we thought.
- Protein deficiencies among vegetarians and vegans are far from being the norm.
- It’s very easily obtained through a plant-based diet and is higher quality since the protein doesn’t come with cholesterol, saturated animal fats, carnitine, antibiotics, and hormones.
- The consumption of plant protein rather than animal protein may play a role in weight management and reducing chronic disease risk.
- Aim to get the majority of your foods from whole food but it is ok to add an organic plant protein shake if you find that it required to help you reach your desired macronutrients.
- If you are not into training and just want to live a healthy plant-based diet, don’t stress all these calculations. Stick to carbohydrates, some good sources of plant protein and the remainder as fats – you do not need to stress about protein!