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Vegan Protein Guide

By KD Angle-Traegner / Updated November 30, 2018

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 animals. 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’s protein 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. Finally, I’ll answer the frequently asked questions about vegan protein and even debunk some common vegan protein myths. 

And it’s all served alongside evidence-based nutrition data provided by a registered dietitian who specializes in vegan nutrition.

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

Frequently Asked Questions

For accurate, evidence-based nutrition information, I turned to Anya Todd MS, LD, RD to help answer the most common vegan protein questions.

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 vegan 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.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per one pound. 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 increase 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, eating plans that don’t include legumes, which are protein powerhouses, means more careful meal planning is warranted.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein does not increase for athletes, but many sports & nutrition organizations feel that athletes do have slightly higher needs. 

In general, the recommendations range from 1.3 – 1.8 gram of protein per kilogram of 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 thus making protein supplements unnecessary.

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.). 

While insanely popular, protein complementing is nothing more than a dietary myth from the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. The original theory — wrongly — said that plant foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids that humans need, and to be healthy, we must either eat animal protein or combine certain plant foods with others to get “complete” proteins. That’s rubbish.

“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 to reap the protein benefit. Consuming these nutrient-rich foods throughout the day is just as beneficial.

Protein Basics

If we’re going to talk about vegan protein, first we need to start with 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.  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 essential for restful sleep as well as elevating and stabilizing mood. Melatonin is vital in the regulation of the circadian rhythms and is a powerful antioxidant. (3)

Nutrition Note About Lysine

Lysine plays an essential role in helping the 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 kilograms by 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 Protein Myths

Anya Todd MS, LD, RD debunks the top three protein myths.

The Top Three Protein Myths

“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 #1: Plant protein is inferior to animal protein in its ability to meet our nutritional needs.

Here are the facts: 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 said, soybean’s essential amino acid profile is 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, the reason why it is crucial to consume a variety of foods, especially beans! Eat beans!

Myth #2: A Vegan Diet cannot provide all the protein (or amino acids) that we need to be healthy.

Here are the facts: Vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all sources of quality plant protein, even fruit contains a minimal amount. Any well-balanced diet should include all of these foods, and when they do, most often protein needs are met.

Myth #3: Plant foods are “incomplete” proteins and must be paired together to form “complete” protein.

Here are the facts: When we speak about amino acids, and those plant foods each have varying amounts of them, the idea of “complementary” proteins is still circulating. 

This myth is based around thinking plant foods are “incomplete” in their protein/amino acid content, and therefore to obtain a “complete” protein intake, we should always combine certain plant foods at mealtime. 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 throughout the day is just as beneficial.

Calculating Protein Needs

Learn how to figure out exactly how much protein you need.

How To Calculate Your Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)

The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight or 0.36 grams per pound. The RDAs are such that they should keep about 97% of people within their daily protein needs. 

But not so fast. Unfortunately, the research used to determine these recommendations didn’t involve studying the vegan population. The few professionals that have looked at vegan diets suggest leaning more towards 1.0 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight.

The reason for the increase is to compensate for the fact that plant protein is less digestible than animal protein. So, a 140-pound person who would aim for at least 51 grams of protein if following the standard RDA or 64 grams of protein 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, eating plans that don’t include legumes, which are protein powerhouses, means more careful meal planning is 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.” – Ginny Messina, MPH, RD (5)

Protein Requirements for Athletes

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein does not increase for athletes, but many sports & nutrition organizations feel that athletes do have slightly higher needs. 

In general, the recommendations range from 1.3 – 1.8 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, with the higher end being for strength training athletes.

Vegan Protein Supplements

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, etc. — that come in a variety of forms (powders, drinks, bars, etc.). 

Sources of Vegan Protein

These plant foods are full of protein.

Protein-Rich Vegan Staples

The following foods are great sources of vegan protein. For optimal nutrition, try to include a wide variety in your diet.

Vegan Tempeh Guide - Vegan Food Guides - Your Daily Vegan

Tempeh

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 ounces serving. This Vegan Tempeh Guide has everything you need like a shopping guide, tips, and recipes to try at home.

Vegan Tofu - Shopping Guide, Recipes & More - Your Daily Vegan

Tofu

Tofu, aka bean curd, is food made by curdling soymilk (milk made from soybeans) and then pressing the curds into blocks.  Tofu has a substantial 10 grams of protein per 4 ounces 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.

Vegan TVP Guide | Your Daily Vegan

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)

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.

It has a staggering 12 grams of protein per serving, and a good amount of iron as well. Learn more in this comprehensive Textured Vegetable Protein Guide.

Seitan - Shopping Guide, Recipes & More - Your Daily Vegan

Seitan

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 make seitan an excellent choice for many dishes including barbecue. 

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 in this Vegan Seitan Guide.

Protein-Rich Vegan Meats

Faux, fake, mock, meat analogs, or plant proteins; no matter what you call them, vegan meat products are more common than ever, and they can be a great source of protein.

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of talk about these products. Are they healthy? Are they better for the environment? How do vegan meats help animals? Why would vegans want to eat something that is like meat if they don’t eat meat? And, perhaps the most asked question of them all, do vegan meats taste good?

Get answers and more in this Vegan Meat Guide.

Vegan Sources of Protein - Vegan Protein Guide - Your Daily Vegan

Protein-Rich Whole Foods

Believe it or not, there’s quality protein in whole plant foods. Beans and legumes are little nutritional powerhouses. Filled with protein, fiber, and nutrients beans should be a staple in any well-balanced vegan diet.

Nuts and seeds are not only high in protein, but 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 butter and spreads are also a good source of protein. Be sure to look for ones that made without sugars and extra oils.

Finally, 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. The following whole foods are full of vegan protein.

Note for mobile users: The tabs open new sections. Within each, the table scrolls left to right.

Legume (cooked) Serving Size (cups) Protein (grams)
 Soybeans  1  31
 Lentils  1  18
 Kidney beans  1  15
 Chickpeas  1   15
 Pinto beans  1  15
 Lima beans  1  15
 Black beans  1  15
 Black-eyed peas  1  13
Vegetables (cooked) Amount (cups unless noted) Protein (grams)
 Edamame  1  18
 Spinach  1 bunch (340 grams)  10
 Green Peas  1   8
 Broccoli  1   6
 Brussel Sprouts  1   6
 Sun-dried tomatoes  1   4
 Potato (w/skin)  1 medium   4
 Asparagus   1    4
Nut or Seeds (raw unless noted) Amount (cups unless noted) Protein (grams)
 Peanuts, dry roasted  1/4  10
 Hemp Seeds     3 tablespoons  10
 Sesame Seeds  1/4    8
 Sunflower Seeds  1/4    8
 Almonds  1/4    8
 Poppy Seeds  1/4    6
 Brazil Nuts  1/4    5
 Pumpkin Seeds  1/4    3
 Walnuts  1/4    3
Grains (cooked) Amount (cups) Protein (grams)
Wheatberries 1 20
Spelt 1 11
Quinoa 1 8
Oats 1 7
Bulgur 1 6
Farro 1 6
Vegan Protein - Basics, Foods & Nutritional Information - Your Daily Vegan

Truth in Advertising

I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this guide contains the knowledge available at the time of publishing. Reviews and updates happen when new material becomes available.

Please contact me if you find incorrect data.

Article Sources

  1. Novick, MS, RD, Jeff. Forks Over Knives. (2013, June 3). The Myth of Complementary Protein. Retrieved from https://www.forksoverknives.com/the-myth-of-complementary-protein/#gs.e1z0C4w
  2. Wikipedia. Amino Acid. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amino_acid
  3. Frazier, Matt. No Meat Athlete. High Protein Vegetarian Foods. Retrieved from https://www.nomeatathlete.com/vegetarian-protein/
  4. Nestle, Marion. Food Politics. (2011, June 2). Deconstructing the USDA’s New Food Plate. Retrieved from https://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/06/deconstructing-the-usdas-new-food-plate/
  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.

Nutritional data for the lysine-rich and protein-rich whole foods were obtained using the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Composition Database. Recommended daily allowances and other nutrition information provided by Anya Todd MS, LD, RD, who specializes in vegan nutrition.

Photo Credits

Table of Contents: Thinkstock
Tempeh: Thinkstock
Tofu: Thinkstock
Seitan: Getty Images
Textured Vegetable Protein: Shutterstock
Whole Food Protein Sources Meme: KD Angle-Traegner

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