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The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Protein

by KD Angle-Traegner & Anya Todd LD, RD on March 1, 2017

Protein. It’s at the heart of every conversation anytime someone finds out that you’re a vegan. Thanks to the prolific corporate advertising campaigns on behalf of the meat and dairy industries, people everywhere believe the only way to get protein is from eating meat. Not so however. It’s incredibly easy to meet protein requirements eating a vegan diet. In fact, you don’t need as much protein as you probably think.

First I’ll cover the protein basics- what protein is and why your body needs it. Then I’ll tell you how to get quality protein from plants and how to calculate how much you need. I’ll answer the frequently asked questions about vegan protein and even debunk some common vegan protein myths. And it’s all served alongside solid nutrition information provided by a registered dietitian who specializes in vegan nutrition.

Are you ready to learn more? Let’s get to it.

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FAQ: I thought protein is only found in meat. Is there really protein in vegan food?

With so much misinformation on the internet today, it’s easy to see how people can become confused about the best way to meet the recommended nutritional guidelines for protein. It may surprise you to find out that vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all sources of quality plant protein. Even fruit contains a minimal amount of protein. A well-balanced diet should include all of these foods, and when they are, the daily recommended allowances for protein are easily met.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams/kg of ideal body weight. These recommendations are such that they should keep about 97% of people within their daily protein needs. Eating a well-balanced vegan diet full of vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds will provide plenty of protein for the average person (and provide ample options to increases protein if needed).
The risk of protein deficiency is one with which most people don’t need to concern themselves. If you are consuming adequate calories during the day, it is very likely that you are also meeting your protein recommendation. Diets that are too restrictive in calories can be at risk of being low in protein (along with other nutrients). Also, diets that don’t include legumes, which are protein powerhouses, means more careful meal planning is definitely warranted.
The RDA for protein does not increase for athletes, but it is regarded by many sports & nutrition organizations that athletes do have slightly higher needs. In general, the recommendations range from 1.3 – 1.8 g/kg of ideal body weight with the higher end being for strength training athletes.
If you are consuming enough calories to sustain your weight, you are likely meeting your protein needs. For some athletes however, protein supplements can come in handy because the overall calorie requirement is so high that it can sometimes be a challenge to consume enough real food. Drinking a smoothie laced with protein powder can be much more convenient than eating the equivalent in food. There are many varieties of isolated protein supplements – soy, hemp, pea, and so on that come in a variety of forms (powders, drinks, bars, etc.). I have used Vega brand supplements in the past and really like them. They combine hemp, rice, and pea protein for a complete amino acid profile, and they taste good too.
Yes! In the terms “complete” protein (animal-based) and “incomplete” protein (plant-based)- if we look at the essential amino acid profile of protein found in the human body, it is very close to animal protein, and therefore, dubbed “complete” due to this similarity. That being said, soybean’s essential amino acid profile is also very close to that of humans and also considered “complete,” but we don’t often hear about that. And what about the rest of the plant foods? They all contain some amount of all essential amino acids in varying percentages, just not in the concentration to that of soy. Hence, reason why it is important to consume a variety of foods – especially beans!

Ah, the infamous “incomplete protein” myth. It’s a classic. The strangely persistent myth states that plant foods don’t contain all of the essential amino acids that humans need, so to be healthy, we must eat animal protein or combine certain plant foods with others to form “complete proteins.” This is completely, absolutely not true.

“The “incomplete protein” myth was inadvertently promoted and popularized in the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. In it, the author stated that plant foods are deficient in some of the essential amino acids, so in order to be a healthy vegetarian, you needed to eat a combination of certain plant foods at the same time in order to get all of the essential amino acids in the right amounts. It was called the theory of “protein complementing.”

Lappé certainly meant no harm, and her mistake was somewhat understandable. She was not a nutritionist, physiologist, or medical doctor; she was a sociologist trying to end world hunger. She realized that converting vegetable protein into animal protein involved a lot of waste, and she calculated that if people ate just the plant protein, many more could be fed. In the tenth anniversary edition of her book (1981), she retracted her statement and basically said that in trying to end one myth—the inevitability of world hunger—she had created a second one, the myth of the need for “protein complementing.”

In this and later editions, she corrects her earlier mistake and clearly states that all plant foods typically consumed as sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids, and that humans are virtually certain of getting enough protein from plant sources if they consume sufficient calories.” – Jeff Novick, MS, RD (1)

We don’t need to eat these foods at the same meal in order to reap the protein benefit. Consuming these nutrient-rich foods over the course of the day is just as beneficial.

Protein Basics

What is Protein?

Proteins, from the Greek proteios, meaning primary, are a class of organic compounds which are present in and vital to every living cell.  To put it in basic terms, protein is made of amino acids. It is the sequence of amino acids that dictates how the protein will function in the body – as an enzyme, hormone, antibody, or part of the body tissue (muscles, hair and collagen). The role protein plays in our bodies is indispensable.

The Chemical Makeup and Role of Amino Acids

Amino acids are made up of a carboxyl group of atoms (one carbon, two oxygen and one hydrogen), an amine group (one nitrogen and two hydrogen atoms) along with a side chain specific to each amino acid. The side chains consist of a combination of carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, nitrogen and/or oxygen. The configuration of these side chains differentiates one amino acid from another. (2)

The branched-chain amino acids which are responsible for muscle structure are isoleucine, leucine and valine. The amino acids tyrosine, phenylalanine and tryptophan are aromatic amino acids necessary for the production of neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is important for restful sleep as well as elevating and stabilizing mood. Melatonin is important in the regulation of the circadian rhythms and is a powerful antioxidant. (3)

A Note About Lysine

Lysine plays an important role in helping gut absorption of calcium and maintaining the immune system. Too little lysine can lead to kidney stones and other health related problems including fatigue, loss of appetite, slow growth, anemia, and reproductive disorders. Legumes are the most abundant plant-based source, so if you don’t eat them regularly, you may need to make an effort to ensure adequate intake.

To determine your daily lysine needs, multiply your weight in kg x 38, and this will give you the value in milligrams.

Lysine-Rich Foods

  • Tofu, firm: 1/2 cup = 582 mg

  • Tempeh: 1/2 cup = 754 mg

  • Soymilk: 1/2 cup = 439 mg

  • Lentils: 1/2 cup = 624 mg

  • Black Beans: 1/2 cup = 523 mg

  • Garbanzo Beans: 1/2 cup = 487 mg

  • Peanuts: 1/4 cup = 310 mg

  • Sunflower Seeds: 1/4 cup = 254 mg

  • Oatmeal, cooked: 1/2 cup = 158 mg

  • Quinoa, cooked: 1/2 cup = 221 mg

  • Rice, cooked: 1/2 cup = 80 mg

  • Broccoli, cooked: 1/2 cup = 117 mg

  • Kale, shredded & cooked: 1 cup = 148 mg

  • Potato, white: 1 medium = 263 mg

  • Banana: 1 medium = 59 mg

  • Walnuts: 1/4 cup = 254 mg

Debunking Vegan Protein Myths

There is no shortage of incomplete or incorrect nutrition information on the internet. I’ve asked Anya Todd LD, RD, who specializes in vegan nutrition, to debunk the top three myth for you.

“Protein is a nutrient, not a food. . .The average American consumes twice the protein needed.” – Dr. Marion Nestle, Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University (4)

Myth: Plant protein is inferior to animal protein in it’s ability to meet our nutritional needs.

Truth: In the terms “complete” protein (animal-based) and “incomplete” protein (plant-based)- if we look at the essential amino acid profile of protein found in the human body, it is very close to animal protein, and therefore, dubbed “complete” due to this similarity. That being said, soybean’s essential amino acid profile is also very close to that of humans and also considered “complete.” Interesting, yes? And what about the rest of the plant foods? They all contain some amount of all essential amino acids in varying percentages, just not in the concentration to that of soy. Hence, reason why it is important to consume a variety of foods – especially beans! Eat beans!

Myth: A Vegan Diet cannot provide all the protein (or amino acids) that we need to be healthy.

Truth: Vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all sources of quality plant protein (fruit contains a minimal amount) – and any well-balanced diet should include all of these foods.

Myth: Plant foods are “incomplete” proteins and must be paired to form a “complete” protein.

Truth: When we speak about amino acids and that plant foods each have varying amounts of them, the idea of “complimentary” proteins is still circulating. This myth is based around thinking plant foods are “incomplete” in their protein/amino acid content, and therefore in order to obtain a “complete” protein intake, we should always combine certain plant foods together at meal time. Not true. We don’t need to eat these foods at the same meal in order to reap the protein benefit. Consuming these nutrient-rich foods over the course of the day is just as beneficial.

Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for Protein

The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams/kg of ideal body weight. The RDAs are such that they should keep about 97% of people within their daily protein needs. But not so fast – the research used to come to these recommendations certainly didn’t involve studying the vegan population, and the few that have looked at vegan diets suggest vegans may want to lean more towards 1.0 grams/kg of ideal body weight. This essentially takes into consideration that the digestibility of plant protein is less than that of animal protein. So, a 140 pound person would aim for at least 51 grams of protein if following the RDA or 64 grams if aiming for the slightly higher recommendation.

Protein Deficiency in Vegans

The risk of protein deficiency is one with which most people don’t need to concern themselves. If you are consuming adequate calories during the day, it is very likely that you are also meeting your protein recommendation. Diets that are too restrictive in calories can be at risk of being low in protein (along with other nutrients). Also, diets that don’t include legumes, which are protein powerhouses, means more careful meal planning is definitely warranted.

“Well, there are a few thoughts on this issue, but first let me mention that the research points to the fact that vegans can meet their daily protein requirements and accordingly, they should not be at any more of a risk for deficiency than non-vegans.” – Messina (4)

Do Athletes Need More Protein?

The RDA for protein does not increase for athletes, but it is regarded by many sports & nutrition organizations that athletes do have slightly higher needs. In general, the recommendations range from 1.3 – 1.8 gram/kg of ideal body weight with the higher end being for strength training athletes.

Should I Take a Protein Supplement?

If you are consuming enough calories to sustain your weight, you are likely meeting your protein needs. For some athletes however, protein supplements can come in handy because the overall calorie requirement is so high that it can sometimes be a challenge to consume enough real food. Drinking a smoothie laced with protein powder can be much more convenient than eating the equivalent in food. There are many varieties of isolated protein supplements – soy, hemp, pea, and so on- that come in a variety of forms (powders, drinks, bars, etc.). I have used Vega brand supplements in the past and like them. They combine hemp, rice, and pea protein for a complete amino acid profile, and they taste good too. Vega isn’t the only vegan brand to choose from however, simply look for protein supplements made with soy, hemp, rice, or pea protein.

Vegan Protein Sources

Tofu, aka bean curd, is food made by curdling soymilk (milk made from soybeans) and then pressing the curds into blocks.  Tofu has a solid 10 grams of protein per 4 ounce serving with no saturated fat.  Learn about tofu – what it is, how to cook it, and recipes to help you incorporate this wonder food into your diet in this The Ultimate Guide to Tofu. Guaranteed to turn you into a tofu ninja.

Tempeh, is a traditional soy product originally from Indonesia. It is made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form that has a rich and nutty flavor.  Tempeh has 15 grams per 4 ounce serving. Here’s a guide to get you started, Vegan Tempeh Guide.

Textured vegetable, or textured soy, protein (TVP or TSP) can be found in the dry goods section of the grocer.  It is sold as a dry crumble and is easily re-hydrated to produce a chewy and hearty protein addition to almost any meal. Like tofu, it has a tremendous versatility of flavor. TVP has 12 grams of protein per serving and a good amount of iron as well. This handy Textured Vegetable Protein Guide will get you started.

Seitan is wheat gluten, and has a whopping 15 grams of protein per serving. The chewy texture, savory taste, and the ability to be formed into any shape makes seitan a great choice for many dishes including BBQ. Seitan can be found pre-made in the refrigerated section of the grocer, or it can be made using wheat gluten from the dry goods section. Of course, those maintaining a gluten-free diet will want to steer clear of seitan. Find out all the delicious ways to add seitan to your life right here, Vegan Seitan Guide.

Legumes are little nutritional powerhouses. Filled with protein, fiber, and nutrients beans should be a staple in any well-balanced vegan diet.

Legume Amount Protein (grams)
 Soybeans, cooked  1 cup  31
 Lentils, cooked  1 cup  18
 Kidney beans, cooked  1 cup  15
 Chickpeas, cooked  1 cup  15
 Pinto beans, cooked  1 cup  15
 Lima beans, cooked  1 cup  15
 Black beans, cooked  1 cup  15
 Black-eyed peas, cooked  1 cup  13
Believe it or not, there’s quality protein in plants!

Vegetable Amount Protein (grams)
 Edamame, boiled  1 cup  18
 Spinach, cooked  1 bunch (340 g)  10
 Green Peas  1 cup   8
 Broccoli, cooked  1 cup   6
 Brussel Sprouts, cooked  1 cup   6
 Sun-dried tomatoes  1 cup   4
 Potato, cooked (w/skin)  1 medium   4
 Asparagus   1 cup   4
Nuts and seeds are not only high in protein, they are also full of healthy oils like omega 3s, vitamin Bs and other essential minerals like magnesium, potassium, copper and iron. Don’t forget, nut butters and spreads are also a good source of protein- look for ones that are made without sugars and extra oils.

Nut or Seed Amount Protein (grams)
 Peanuts, dry roasted  1/4 cup  10
 Hemp Seeds     3 tablespoons  10
 Sesame Seeds, raw  1/4 cup    8
 Sunflower Seeds, raw  1/4 cup    8
 Almonds, raw  1/4 cup    8
 Poppy Seeds, raw  1/4 cup    6
 Brazil Nuts, raw  1/4 cup    5
 Pumpkin Seeds, raw  1/4 cup    3
 Walnuts, raw  1/4 cup    3

Whole grains may not be the first thing you think of when you think of high-protein foods, but some grains have a high amino acid content making them a protein-packed addition to your diet.

Grain Amount Protein (grams)
Wheatberries, cooked 1 cup 20
Spelt, cooked 1 cup 11
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 8
Oats, cooked 1 cup 7
Bulgur, cooked 1 cup 6
Farro, cooked 1 cup 6

Vegan Meat. Faux or Fake Meat. Mock Meats. Meat Analogues. Plant Proteins. Whatever you call them, vegan meat products are more common today than ever before and they can be a great source of vegan protein. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of talk about these alternatives to traditional animal products. Are fake meats healthy? Are they better for the environment? How do fake meats help the animals? And, perhaps the most asked question of them all- do fake meats taste good?

Visit Vegan Meat to learn more.

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I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented on Your Daily Vegan has been meticulously researched, and is based on information available at the time of publication. Guides are periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. Update dates can be found at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

References

1. ^  Forks Over Knives. “The Myth of Complementary Protein.” Retrieved March 1, 2017

2. ^  Wikipedia. “Amino Acids.”  Retrieved May 18, 2014

3. ^  Frazier, Matt. No Meat Athlete. “Vegetarian Protein Foods.” Retrieved May 20, 2014

4. ^  Nestle, Marion. Food Politics. “Deconstructing the USDA’s New Food Plate.” Retrieved May 24, 2014

5. ^  Mangels R, Messina V, Messina M (2011). The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications 3rd ed. Sudbury, Maine: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

6.     USDA. “USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.” Retrieved June 17, 2014

7.      Anya Todd RD, LD. Nutritional Information. June, 2014

Photo Credit

Beans | CIAT – Center International Center for Tropical Agriculture

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner with nutritional information provided by Anya Todd LD, RD. Last update March 2017.

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