Protein for Vegans: A Fresh Approach to Getting Enough

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A few weeks ago, I was in a major food rut.  The problem was one of boredom.

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Barley makes risotto more than just a pile of carbs.

You see, for the past two years, I’d had the same mindset when it came to getting protein as a vegetarian, and it had served me well: add something relatively high in protein to every meal or snack, and you’ll be fine.

I’m not talking huge amounts here.  Small additions like lentils to pasta sauce, tofu to stir fry, or almond butter and ground hemp seeds to smoothies make it pretty easy to get 12 to 15% of your calories from protein.  And that’s about what I aim for, based on how I feel, how I recover from workouts, and what I’ve gathered from talking to vegan endurance superstars like Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier.

But there was a problem here.  It was subtle, but over time, it started to eat away at the love for cooking I once enjoyed.  The problem was the word “add” — the idea that to get what the protein you need as a vegetarian athlete, you need to supplement your meals with foods that don’t quite belong.

Thanks, Dr. T. Colin Campbell

My epiphany came while I was watching Forks Over Knives for the third time (nerd alert!).  Somehow I had missed it in the first two viewings, but this time it jumped out at me .

While arguing for a vegan diet, China Study author Colin Campbell points out that you could take the lowest-protein whole foods in nature — something like potatoes or rice, he says — and see that they’re about 8.5 percent protein, which he says is the proportion of protein you need.  (Side note: upon looking into this, I found most fruits to have significantly less protein than 8.5 percent.)

Now, I’m not here to argue whether or not 8.5 percent really is “enough” protein.  At the very least, we should consider that as athletes, we have a greater need than others to repair muscle tissue, and so we might need more than that.  But like I said, that’s not the point.

What hit me was the idea to start looking at the protein content in all the foods I ate — not in terms of absolute numbers, like 20 or 40 grams, but in terms of percentages.

Risotto, how I have missed you

Good old cheesy, creamy, nutritionally-worthless-but-wonderfully-comforting risotto is one of those foods I’ve missed cooking since becoming vegan.  You can make it without butter or cheese and it’s pretty good, though it won’t win any awards this way.  But even so, a dish based on refined arborio rice and vegetable broth won’t do much for your health (with the possible exception of its use as quick-carb, post-workout food if you’ve got it already made up).

So I started fooling around with barley risotto, and it’s not too far from the real thing.  (You can “barley” tell the difference?  Ouch, couldn’t resist.)  You can still cook the barley to that nice al dente texture, and it releases its starch to add creaminess to the dish in much the same way the arborio rice does.

And yet still, risotto was not a food that really fit into my diet.  Mostly, it was just barley and the vegetable du jour, with no real room to add beans, tofu, nuts or any other go-to protein source.

Until I looked more closely

To figure out just how much of a carbohydrate bomb my plate of asparagus risotto dropped on my “a little bit of protein in every meal” diet, I checked out the nutrition facts on a half cup of uncooked barley:

325 calories. 68 grams of carbohydrates.  12 grams of protein.

But those are absolute numbers.  To calculate percentage protein, multiply the number of grams by 4 (the number of calories in a gram of protein) to get 48 calories.  48 out of 325 total calories equals…

14.7 percent!  Just what I aim for.

Then consider the fact that asparagus, by the same calculation, is 42 percent protein (lots of vegetables do surprising well by this measure), and this meal is an even better protein source.

So all of a sudden, barley risotto is no longer a carbohydrate-laden splurge, but a meal that’s right in line with what I try to do protein-wise.

What about pasta?

Another favorite carb source that’s gotten a bad rap is pasta.  Granted, most of it is made from wheat, which is something I try not to eat every single day, but let’s just talk about protein.

Mostly, I go for spelt pasta — it’s lower in gluten and slightly higher in protein than standard whole wheat pasta.  But I had no idea that when I ate a plate of it, I was getting more protein per calorie than the total I aimed for — spelt pasta comes out to almost 17 percent protein.  Even plain old white pasta is 14.5 percent protein!

As for other foods…

Just to give a point of reference, I looked up the vegan foods that I considered my main protein sources.

Lentils are about 25 percent protein.  Almonds, 18 percent.  Hemp protein powder can be anywhere from 35-50 percent, depending on the brand.  Tofu, 20 to 25 percent.

So these are higher than what we usually consider the carbohydrate foods, but not exceedingly so in most cases.  One interesting consequence of this is that when you add tofu to your vegetable stir fry, you might not be increasing the protein percentage by much, or even lowering it, depending on which vegetables you’ve got in there.  (But since vegetables aren’t very dense in terms of calories per unit volume, you can pack in more protein with beans or tofu before you fill up than you can with most vegetables. So tofu probably does add to the protein you consume in a plate of stir-fry.)

But (as always) there’s a catch

We haven’t yet talked about one food that’s in every meal I’ve mentioned today, and it’s a big one, calorically-speaking.

I’m talking about oil.  Pure fat.  And in any risotto, pasta, or stir fry dish I’ve ever made, it’s in there.

Sure, the right fats are great for you.  But when we’re looking at percentage-protein figures, we’ve got to account for the fat, which contains 9 calories per gram.

Let’s go back to that asparagus risotto.  Before considering the oil, we were at about 15 percent protein for the meal.  But add just one tablespoon (14 grams = 126 protein-devoid calories ) of oil to that single serving of risotto, and now you’re looking at 48 protein calories to 451 total calories, leaving you at slightly more than 10 percent protein.  Not so good anymore.

Fat certainly has its own merits, and many of us consider several types of pure oil to be health food.  But here we’re just looking at protein, and you can see how cooking your food in a lot of oil can crush the percentage protein in your diet — a compelling reason to consider the strongly anti-oil viewpoints of people like John McDougall.  Remember, oil is not a whole food, and isolating it allows us to abuse it (albeit without a whole lot of processing, in the best cases).

The other buzzkill here is that when you eat, say, a banana for a mid-morning snack, you’re doing essentially the same thing, in terms of the effect on the protein level in your diet, since most fruit is low in protein.  You’re adding a bunch of calories that, though useful for something else, contribute very little to your protein intake and therefore drag down what you get from higher-protein sources.

What to do with this

Honestly, this is way more in depth than I’m comfortable thinking about protein, long-term.  Day-to-day, food and numbers don’t mix for me.  And besides that, protein is just one thing to consider when you’re looking at the nutrition in your diet.  Nevertheless, it’s an interesting exercise, and it’s a pretty good argument for a whole-food based diet.

This week, try it out.  Think about what you eat in terms of percentages instead of absolutes.  To do so, simply multiply the protein calories by 4 and then divide by total calories to get the percentage protein in a food or meal.  (Same for carbohydrates, but for fat you’ll need to multiply by 9 instead of 4.)

So rather than saying “adding black beans to this meal boosts my protein by 15 grams,” think about what it does to the protein percentage of your meal.  You’ll likely find, like I did, that the foods you think of as carbohydrate-only sources are a lot closer than you realize to your target protein ratio, and that your “high-protein” foods aren’t contributing quite as much as you think.  And just as importantly, you’ll gain an appreciation for the prominent role that tablespoon or two of oil plays in diluting the protein content of your meals.

And, if you’re bored with your cooking like I was, it could be just what you need to get out of that rut.

One more reminder: Half Marathon Roadmap.  Bonuses.  Gone tonight at midnight.  Don’t miss them.

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Comments

  1. I agree completely with the main point here, that too much focus on the nutrient content of meals tends to ruin the enjoyment of them. We eat food, after all, not numbers. Even still, I think focusing on protein as a percentage of the diet as opposed to a total has problems. First of all, protein becomes more important in hypocaloric conditions, for the sake of preserving lean tissue and workout performance. Conversely, it’s less vital if carbs and total calories are sufficient. A runner trying to shed some pounds on 1800 calories a day will almost certainly benefit from >20% of those calories coming from protein. If the same runner is focused on hitting performance goals during a period of high mileage, and is thus consuming 3000 calories a day, the total amount of protein consumed needn’t change, but the percentage certainly will.

  2. Matt, this is really interesting.

    I’m not a fan of calorie counting, or gram counting or any of that. I’m interested in understanding what types of food, in general, make up essential nutrients and then relying on my intuition/cravings/seasonal foods to make it work. Any plate filled with beans, greens and grains makes me happy and I know nourishes my vegan body.

    Good stuff. Thanks!

  3. Matt,
    If you really want to read something that will blow your hair back on macronutrient percentages, especially for vegans, read Doug Graham’s 80/10/10 diet (80% carbs / 10% protein / 10% fat). I could paraphrase the book on this subject but it wouldn’t do it justice. I can only highly recommend reading it.

    • Dan Donovan says:

      I agree also lookup some youtube video’s of Tim Van Orden he’s a raw vegan runner (a very fast runner to boot) and he has a few talks about protein (or his lack of protein for that matter) that are really good.

  4. I love this. I am vegan and I get very bored with food at times too. I am also checking out the latest blogs to try and find new and unique recipes. I also recently posted about protein. I feel like that is the number one question you get as a vegan. Where do you get your protein?

    http://onelovemeg.com/where-do-you-get-your-protein/

    Thanks for sharing, this is great!

  5. Good post Matt. When I was competitive weightlifting (and non-vegan), my meals were highly constructed deals, with 21g of protein per meal, 36g of carbs etc. When I thought like this, I cooked like this too. There was a piece of meat, next to some carbs, all compartmentalized and not so fun. Since going vegan, my cooking has been a lot more creative and while watching the fat content (not going overboard) I haven’t been as concerned about counting protein (percentage or grams). However, I still have the feeling sometimes that I’m short on protein. Not sure whether this is a case of ‘old habits die hard’, or if it’s what my body is actually telling me. Still working through this.

    Right now my only “added” protein is hemp powder, and small amounts of tofu or tempeh. I’m reluctant to go the route of meat analogues. Interested to see what your other readers are eating.

  6. Chris G. says:

    Beyond being a processed food that throws off the percent of protein in your diet, all oils pack on empty calories and elicit a strong inflammatory response within arteries following consumption. Additionally, all vegetable oils (especially olive oil) are enriched in omega 6 fatty acids, particularly relative to omega 3, a scenario with a series of profoundly negative health consequences. While all of this information is quite plain in the current scientific literature, my guess is that it will soon be common talking points in the lay media in the same way trans fatty acids came to light in the past decade. Drs. Campbell, Esselstyn, and several other prominent Drs (in Forks Over Knifes) already advocate for a non-oil diet.

  7. DumbBell says:

    At different times (mainly when losing weight and when doing heavy, intense weightlifting) I have been extremely punctilious about nutrition. There were weeks at a time where I knew the exact macronutrient breakdown of everything I ate (using a kitchen scale and Excel). I know that one can eat interesting, whole, healthful, protein-rich (over 20% some days) vegan food. I did it.

    But all this does come at a cost. It can be exhausting to think this way. Like Matt points out, you star tohave thoughts like “this tablespoon of oil is going to kill my numbers.” It actually kinda sucks.

    This latest round of heavy lifting I’ve decided to buy and use pea protein powder and it’s been an excellent decision. I know a lot of vegan athletes don’t like to rely heavily on supplements because they don’t like to create/perpetuate the perception that an active athlete just can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet. I hear this concern, but I can’t be bothered to live my life worrying about trying to educate every under-educated non-veg*an out there. Life is too short to worry about being a “model vegan.” I lift weights and work out because I like the way it makes me feel. I like the fact that using vegan protein supplements helps me get bigger and stronger without having to be completely obsessed with nutrition.

    Just food for thought for anyone else facing the same issues.

    Great blog.

    • I wouldn’t worry about how it looks to others to consume protein powders as a vegan anyway. I don’t think it makes the statement that we can’t get enough protein through food. It has been my experience that just about any omni bodybuilder or weightlifter will use protein supplements as well. So will many other types of omni athletes. So a vegan using a protein supplement won’t stick out in any way, as so many other athletes do it too.

      I do certainly believe that it’s possible for a vegan to get plenty protein through foods. But I go through periods where I’m a bit lazy in my eating or not eating the most healthy diet, and it’s good to be able to start my day with a green smoothie that contains a vegan protein powder just so I know I’m getting that extra bit in. (Basically I agree with you.)

  8. Dragonflyrunner says:

    Great post. I am a vegetarian (trying to get vegan, but not there yet) runner and I also do a fair amount of cross training (boot camp style workouts and yoga). I have about 8 lbs I would like to lose and it is just not coming off….i met with a trainer and he uses the metabolic typing method of eating and would have me integrating (high quality) meat back into my diet. I wasn’t willing to go this route as I am on the brendan brazier, scott jurek, kathy freston, NMA bandwagon currently and I just don’t want to eat animals (I haven’t for over 15 years so it would seem silly to start now). That said, I am starting to really look at my protein intake to see if I do need to increase it — if this could be an issue in increasing my fitness (strength, endurance, and weight). I think there is no one right way, and we all have to figure out what works for our bodies and lifestyle. I don’t want to over think it either – I love to eat and love food (hey- maybe that is why I can’t lose these stubborn few pounds) and want eating to be enjoyable and not a numbers game….. Great post – thanks as always!!!!

  9. going by percentages instead of absolute numbers is definitely an eye-opener when you apply it to your diet. i do agree that it’s a better way of tracking your protein, fat and carbs intake though. i’ve been doing it for awhile. a great little tool for this is cron-o-meter . . . you can set what your caloric intake and ratios should be, and even modify your vitamin and mineral levels.

    for the record, i do 5% protein and i’ve never recovered so quickly or built muscle so easily in my life. no protein powder, no supplements, no “add-in” foods . . just fruit and lots of greens!

  10. Hey Matt,

    this is great info and prespective considaration! I’m an ovo-lacto veg and take a huge calorie count– from cycling and teaching yoga. I’ve actually found that oils can be some of the best calories for me to run on for a nice, sustained burn… if you haven’t already, definitely check out Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions for some really important ideas about nutrient sources and (to use her phrase) nutrient density. While she’s not a veg-or-vegan and doesn’t necessarily advocate for it, modifying her recommendations has totally changed my athlete-oriented diet. (I even use her book as my ‘text’ when I teach cooking lessons!) The first chapter is entirely about oils and I think could be a really important addition to your arsenal.

    Let me know what you think!
    dietrich

  11. This is a really really random comment and maybe a bit too personal but since becoming vegan I eat a serving of beans or lentils/day because of the high protein content. However, the high fiber content of those foods plus other protein-filled whole grains also makes me gassy and bloated.

    Anyone have any thoughts??

    • DumbBell says:

      How long have you been vegan? Or, better yet, how long has it been since you started a legume-heavy diet?

      The reason I ask is because, in my experience, the longer you eat legumes, the less gassy you are and the more you just become accustomed to increased gassiness and learn to deal with it/not care.

      So, it does get better, but you’ll always be gassier than when you had a low-fiber diet. The tradeoff is that high fiber diets are generally (but not always) kinder to your GI tract.

      Some people claim that soaking legumes and then discarding the soaking water before cooking reduces gassiness (because it removes some of the oligosaccharides), but I’ve never done this consistently enough to have an opinion on whether it’s worth the effort. Give it a shot if you are really bothered.

      Good luck.

  12. My barley risotto has led to quite a few omnivores stuffing their faces with delight and going back for thirds. Oh barley, how I love thee. But defs not something I’d eat before rock climbing! Too much veg stock!

  13. Matt,
    Food rut…ahhh! The dreaded words alone strike fear into my culinary heart. I’ll help! I’ll send you a few of our samples, new products, idea, info always helps! You can email me your address at ian@crumcreek.com.

    Thanks,

    Ian Scott
    Crum Creek Mills

  14. Really interesting way to think about how much protein you get in each meal. So far i’m in no food rut, but ill definitely look into thinking this way if I do get into one.

    Really now I just want to make barley risotto ;)

  15. Protein is way over stressed. Adults need only 5% total calories from protein, a pregnant woman 6%, and a lactating woman 7% (WHO). We don’t have a protein deficiency in this country. If you get your calories you will easily get 10-15% from protein. Remember, the more you exercise, the more calories you require, and the more you eat, the more protein you’ll get for maintenance, repair, and build. The best way to be sure you get everything you need eat from the 4 basic food groups..whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits. It’s that simple. And as a side, less than 1% of people are gluten intolerant. Unless you have a problem, whole wheat is a great source of nutrition. But if you are concerned, there are so many other great grains out there it shouldn’t be a problem. Trust me, I’m a Dr.

  16. Michaela says:

    I do something similar, but easier for me. I’m going for 15% protein, 30% fat and 55% carbs. In any given meal or snack, I try to make sure that there are an equal number of grams of fat and protein, and about 4 times as many grams of carbs. I definitely pay more attention to fats and proteins, because I find it’s easy to add carbs with no protein (eg fruit) or a source of protein and fat (eg nuts) with no carbs. That’s part of how I figure out what’s for dessert: do I need more carbs or more fats?

  17. new vegan athlete and always feel tired. help ready to go overboard.

  18. Some very interesting material here, particularly considering that I have recently learned that I am Apo-E 3/4, so animal fat is not my friend. FOr this reason, I’m increasing my fish intake and decreasing my red meat. I am looking at information for vegan proteins, since that would allow me to intelligently switch to plant-based proteins for most of my protein intake, rather than using a shotgun approach. The only issue I have with the sites I’ve looked at, is that they reference Campbell and his cherry-picked, debunked China Study (look at all of the data sets, not just the once he kept and used. You’ll find a considerably different conclusion than he found. Campbell suffers the same flaw Ancel Keyes did). It would be nice to get some unbiased information of plant proteins.

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