See the full vegan protein infographic here.
Whether you’re new to the world of plant-based eating or you’ve called yourself a vegan for a while, you’ve probably been asked the dreaded “how do you get enough protein?” question more than once. Consider this article your definitive primer on plant-based (a.k.a.: vegan) protein, so you know exactly how to stop that question in its tracks.
Vegan protein: good for you, good for the planet
Protein without problems? It’s not too good to be true. With plant proteins you get antioxidants, fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals on top of just protein. What you don’t get is cholesterol (found exclusively in food from animals, such as meat or cheese). Let’s look at hempseeds as an example. Not only are hempseeds a complete protein, but they’re rich in chlorophyll, Omega-3s, fiber and antioxidants. Many plant-based proteins are rich in fiber, which can help to manage – rather than add to – your cholesterol levels.1
Plus, plant-based proteins require fewer resources to produce. Compared to animal agriculture, plants require less water, land and energy to produce. Growing plants also doesn’t produce as many CO2 emissions as animal production. If everyone in the United States ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road. 2
The best part is that you can reap the benefits of plant-based proteins without feeling like you need to be labeled as a vegan. While those who identify as vegan eat an exclusively plant-based diet by definition, eating a plant-based diet can fall along a spectrum with as many variations as there are people to make choices about food.
All about amino acids
Protein is used to build, maintain, and repair all cell structures in your body. It is a key component of metabolism.3 Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. We all need them. We probably worry a bit too much about them, but let’s start from a clean slate to clear up confusion. A complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Not all plant-based proteins contain all essential amino acids, but quinoa, hemp and soy are complete proteins. That doesn’t mean you should throw beans and rice out the window, though. By eating a variety of plant-based foods, you’ll have enough of all amino acids to build strong muscles and stay healthy. Don’t stress about making sure you’re “combining” proteins at each meal. Make sure your meals have at least one source of plant-based protein, and then check that worry off your list. The only time you should be worried about getting enough protein is if you’re on a calorie-restricted diet for weight loss or experiencing a loss of appetite (often seen in the elderly).
Give me the numbers
For all the number crunchers out there, let’s talk digits.3 Nutritionists calculate daily protein needs in grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
- Adult Men and Women: 0.8 g/kg/day
- Endurance-trained athletes: 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg/day
- Strength-trained athletes: 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg/day
- Pregnant women: 1.1 g/kg/day
Want to try this conversion out yourself? Let’s say you’re a 130 pound woman who is training for a marathon.
1. Convert pounds into kilograms by dividing by 2.2. 130 divided by 2.2 is 59 kilograms.
2. For your level of training, 1.2 grams per kilogram per day is required. 59 x 1.2 grams = 70 grams of protein per day.
That’s three meals of 20 grams of protein each, and two snacks with 5 grams of protein each. Check the labels of your favorite foods to see how many grams of protein each serving contains.
70 grams of vegan protein per day in meals:
70 grams is pretty hard to conceptualize—even for nutritionists. So let’s break down that number into real food:
Smoothie: 1 scoop Vega One + 1 cup spinach + 1 tablespoon almond butter + 1 cup hemp milk
Snack: A handful of trail mix with nuts and seeds
Lunch: 4 ounces of tempeh + 1 cup barley + 3/4 cup collard greens
Snack: 2 tablespoons hummus + a handful of carrots
Dinner: Corn tacos + 1 cup black beans + 1 cup brown rice + 1/2 cup cooked spinach
Easy! (Looking for more meal plans? Find one to fit your life here).
Can I build muscle with vegan protein?
You can absolutely build muscle with vegan protein. As long as you are eating a variety of plant-based foods, and consuming enough sources of protein (and of course training hard) you will be able to gain muscle.
It’s especially important that athletes make sure they are getting enough foods that contain branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). These three essential amino acids (isoleucine, leucine, and valine) tell your muscles to repair and rebuild after exercise.4 Without adequate replacement of BCAAs before and after exercise, exercise induced muscle damage may occur and muscle protein growth may be reduced.5 Plant-based sources of BCAAs include pumpkin seeds, buckwheat, brown rice and cashews. You can also choose a plant-based protein supplement that contains BCAAs, such as Vega Sport Premium Protein, which has 5 grams of BCAAs per scoop.
What are good sources of vegan protein?
From beans to nuts to seeds to whole grains, there’s plenty of ways to get vegan protein in your life. Here are staples to stock your pantry with (as well as some culinary inspiration):
Though it contains the word “wheat,” buckwheat is actually gluten-free and more closely related to rhubarb pie than a loaf of whole wheat bread. Buckwheat groats make a fantastic alternative to rice pilaf and will give you 11 grams of protein per 1/2 cup cooked.6
One cup of cooked or roasted Brussels sprouts has 4 grams of protein.6 Try roasting Brussels sprouts straight from the farmers’ market with a bit of kimchi under your broiler for a flavorful side dish.
Though small, these seeds pack a protein punch—3 grams per tablespoon6. Because they soak up 10 times their weight in water, and contain protein and fiber, they are especially good at keeping you fuller for longer. If you’ve already fallen in love with chia pudding, try adding chia to your protein bites.
Whether sautéed or used as a wrap, collard greens are a surprising source of protein. Per cup of cooked collard greens, you’re getting 5 grams of protein.6
Antioxidant-rich superfood goji berries have 4 grams of complete protein in a 1/4 cup.6 Add them to trail mix, sprinkle them on a salad or blend them into your smoothie.
Raw hempseeds have 3 grams of complete per tablespoon6—including BCAAs. With a pleasant nutty taste, hempseeds make a great addition to salads and stir-fries. Add some nutritional yeast as well as you won’t believe it’s not parmesan.
Kidney, navy, and black beans
While lentils and split peas are technically legumes, these true beans are great in stir-fries or on salads. No matter the type, you’ll average about 15 grams of protein per cup of beans once cooked.6 If you’re inviting guests over for dinner, try making a homemade bean burger. Since bean burgers contain both beans and grains, they are a source of complete protein.
Lentils pack a big 18 grams of protein per cup once cooked.6 And they’re a busy cook’s weeknight savior, since most only take 20 to 30 minutes to cook. Paired with brown rice (8 grams of protein per cooked cup), you’re set!
A cup of cooked millet provides 10 grams of protein.6 This gluten-free grain sits in the shadow of quinoa, but millet is a great alternative when you’re looking for nuttier flavor in a grain. Add a little bit of non-dairy milk, fruits and seeds to warm cooked millet for a filling breakfast bowl.
Roasted pumpkin seeds make a great snack and contain 10 grams of protein per 1/4 cup6. To unlock the enzymes in pumpkin seeds, sprout them from raw seeds at home.
Quinoa is a vegan protein hero. Gluten-free, delicious and packed with 9 grams of complete protein per cup of quinoa once cooked.6 From breakfast to dinner, quinoa can steal the show with only 15 minutes of cooking time. Be sure to rinse dry quinoa thoroughly before cooking to remove any bitter taste.
Yes, spinach. A cup of cooked spinach has 5 gram of protein!6 To eyeball that on your plate, picture the size of a baseball or roughly the size of your fist.
A perfect comfort food, split beans have 16 grams per cup once cooked6 and taste delicious in soup. For a not-so-conventional take, try this yellow split pea soup in the crockpot while you’re at work.
Tempeh is a traditionally fermented type of soy. It has 24 grams of complete protein per 4 ounces.6 Tempeh soaks up all marinade flavors, so try it in a stir-fry. Look for organic tempeh to avoid GMO soy.
Check out this Vegan Protein Inforgraphic for cup-by-cup comparisons of each protein source.
If you’re new to a plant-based diet, you may want to try one of the many faux meat products on the shelves of your natural health food store. Look for ones with the fewest number of ingredients, and watch out for gluten and soy ingredients if you have (or suspect) a food sensitivity to either.
Looking for more? Try a plant-based protein supplement
Vega One, Vega Essentials, Vega Protein & Greens, Vega Protein Smoothie, Vega Clean Protein and Vega Sport Performance Protein are complete, multisource protein blends. Vega One combines pea, hemp, Canadian flaxseeds and sustainably grown SaviSeeds for a balanced and complete amino acid profile for complete foundational nutrition to start your day with. Take the guesswork out of your daily nutrition needs with pea, hemp and whole flaxseed proteins in Vega Essentials. For a family-friendly protein boost, reach for Vega Protein & Greens and Vega Protein Smoothie contain minimally-processed hemp, sprouted whole grain brown rice, SaviSeed and yellow pea proteins.
After your workout, try Vega Sport Premium Protein. Vega Sport is verified for sport through Informed Choice, and contains minimally-processed alfalfa, pea, pumpkin and organic sunflower seed proteins. All Vega products are made without dairy or soy ingredients, or artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners. All Vega protein powders are sweetened only with stevia.
Still have questions about vegan protein? Ask below and we’ll answer.
- Brown, L et al. (1999). Cholesterol-lowering effects of dietary fiber: a meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 69 (1): 30-42. Accessed on 4/1/14 from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/69/1/30.full.pdf+html
- Environmental Working Group. (2011). Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change. http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/methodology_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf
- Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S. (2008)Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy. Saunders Elsevier. 12th ed.
- Blomstrand E, Eliasson J, Karlsson HK, Köhnke R. (2006). Branched-chain amino acids activate key enzymes in protein synthesis after physical exercise. Journal of Nutrition. 136(1 Suppl):269S-73S. Accessed on 5/23/13 from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/136/1/269S.long
- Bernardot, Dan. (2012). Advanced Sports Nutrition. Human Kinetics. 2nd ed.
- USDA. (2011). National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Accessed on 3/31/14 from: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/