Protein is a big topic among vegans and non-vegans alike. The macronutrient gets almost as much attention as calories, with uncertainty around how much is enough, and, of course, where this nutrient even comes from when your diet is plant-based.
To help clear up some of this uncertainty, I put together a little protein FAQ, answering many of the most common questions I hear in my practice as a dietitian. And for good measure, I’ve also included a go-to bowl recipe, packed full of plant-based protein.
Plant-Based Protein FAQ
Q: Where Do Vegans Get Protein?
A: If you have been around No Meat Athlete for very long at all, you probably already know the answer to this question. And, as a vegan Registered Dietitian I probably hear it more than most people do. But, it’s not a difficult question to answer:
Protein is found in nearly all plant foods, but beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are particularly rich sources.
Q: How Much Protein Do I Need?
A: While it’s a fact that vegans can easily get adequate protein from plant-based resources, the question of just how much is enough is an important one for some people.
For most people (ages 19-59 years), it is recommended to get 0.8 grams of protein per kg (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) of body weight per day. For vegetarians and vegans, it’s closer to 1 gram, because plant proteins are less well-digested than animal proteins. So, if you weigh 60 kg (132 lbs), you would need about 60 grams of protein per day. (To find your weight in kg, simply divide by 2.2046.)
Athletes need a little more. The latest research suggests that athletes move away the separation of strength and endurance when talking about protein, and instead focus on responding to the intensity of the workout. The harder the workout, the the higher the protein requirements for full recovery.
Under these updated guidelines, plant-based athletes should get 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day.
So, if you’re a vegan athlete who weighs 60 kg (132 lbs), you need roughly 72-120 g of protein per day, depending on the intensity of your training.
Of course, the amount of protein is only part of the story. Protein is composed of amino acids, and it’s important that you get the ones you can’t make on your own. To do that, mix up the food sources where you’re getting your protein.
If you want to dig into the particulars, check out this article for great protein advice, science, and math.
Q: When Should I Get that Protein?
A: If you eat whole foods, you’re getting protein throughout the entire day. That’s the goal, of course.
But for athletes, after you work out, the timing of your next meal is pretty important.
Your workout breaks down some of your muscles, and consuming a protein-rich meal gets the right kinds of nutrients to the right places to help those muscles build back up, stronger than they were before.
If you want to get the most bang for your buck, and maximize the muscle-building power of your workouts — and help prevent losing lean mass — eating a protein-rich meal within 2 hours post-workout will help (and don’t forget to drink plenty of water).
Q: How Should I Get My Protein?
A: This is where it gets fun: When the science and calculations are all done, you get to eat!
Of course you can consume protein in countless ways. There are powders, shakes, enhanced nut and oat milks, etc. — and some are better, more healthy, more effective, than others.
Arguably the best way to get protein is to consume it through a whole-food, plant-based meal. Not only will you be getting plenty of protein, but you’ll also be consuming a more balanced meal complete with carbohydrates, fat, and other nutrients that are just as helpful as protein is for building muscle, recovering from your workout, and staying healthy.
A Power Bowl Recipe, with Over 31 Grams of Plant-Based Protein
To help demonstrate a quick and easy way to get protein through whole plant foods, I’ve created a delicious, easy-to-make, and effective recipe, which delivers the nutrients right where they belong: your belly (and then to your muscles).
This bowl packs over 30 grams of plant-based protein, and it makes plenty to share — but it tastes so good you might want to keep it all to yourself.
Here is the recipe along with protein breakdown:
Plant-Based Power Bowl
- ¼ recipe sour cream (see recipe below) – 7 g
- ½ cup (cooked) kasha – 9.5 g
- ½ cup (cooked) black beans – 7.5 g
- ½ cup corn – 2.5 g
- ½ cup red peppers – 3 g
- ½ small avocado – 1 g
- ½ cup sweet potato – 1 g
Total: 31.5 grams of protein
All of these ingredients are easy to find, so that shouldn’t scare you away from adding this to your meal rotation.
If you have never had kasha before, it is toasted buckwheat (you can just toast your buckwheat in a dry pan for a few minutes to get the same effect). I love buckwheat because, like quinoa, it is a complete protein (meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids), but is a domestic crop in North America and does not need to be imported. Buckwheat is also rich in fiber, magnesium, iron, and copper.
- Sweet potatoes: Chop into 1/2 inch cubes and mix with either 2 tsp of olive oil or place directly on parchment paper if roasting with no oil. Bake at 400 F for 25-30 mins, stirring halfway through. Note: I tend to pre-prep lots of sweet potatoes ahead on the weekend so they are ready to just re-heat and eat during the week without having to take the time to roast.
- Kasha: Cook 1 cup of kasha (toasted buckwheat) in 2 cups of water or veggie stock. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer with the lid on until all the liquid is absorbed. This should take about 12 minutes.
- Assembly: Place desired amount of cooked kasha to bowl, then add cooked and strained black beans and corn, raw red peppers, and avocado.
- Drizzle Sunflower Seed Sour Cream on top.
Sunflower Seed Sour Cream Recipe
- 1 cup raw sunflower seeds (soaked, hot soaked or boiled and rinsed)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 tsp salt
Sour Cream Instructions:
- Toss all the ingredients in a high powered blender and whiz for 2 mins until well-blended. You might need to scrape down the sides with a spatula. Make sure it is smooth and creamy and well-blended.
- Add additional salt if needed.
This sour cream is so delicious and you can use it on your bowls, your baked potatoes, and your vegan tacos and nachos.
Tip: Did you know that sunflower seeds make a great, lower-cost swap for cashews? And they are higher in protein and better for the environment too.
Try this hearty bowl after your next long ride, run, gym session, or swim. You’ll be licking your lips and building muscle too.
When you dig in to the particulars of how much protein you need, it can get a little overwhelming. There’s math to do — to first figure out how much you need, and then to figure out where it’s coming from and how much you actually are getting…
It can drive you crazy.
But at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple: If you eat a well-rounded, whole-food, plant-based diet, you will get enough protein to keep you healthy, grow your muscles, and reach your goals.
Armed with a little knowledge about protein and a recipe for putting that knowledge into action, you can feel more empowered as a plant-based athlete.
About the Author: Pamela Fergusson is a vegan Registered Dietitian with a PhD in nutrition. She and her husband Dave have four children, and she loves to speedwalk ultramarathons. Read her nutrition blog and find her on Facebook.