Protein—A Primer for Vegetarians
“But where do you get your protein?”
As a vegan, a nutrition professional and an athlete, I get this question more than any other.
At a recent talk I gave on vegetarian nutrition to 200 dietitians at the American Dietetic conference, my message about protein was that it should be a non-issue: High quality protein is abundant in plant foods.
Yes, even for athletes. So what happened at the end of my presentation?
A dietitian approached me and said, “I understand what you are saying, but how do vegans get protein?”
If you’re confused about protein on a plant-based diet, are wondering about vegan protein sources, or have a feeling in the back of your mind that you aren’t getting enough, relax — you are not alone. It’s often the biggest concern of people transitioning to a plant-based diet. The good news is that vegetarians (even vegans!) can and do get enough protein. Easily.
This is the message I have to share with the world. I’d like to start with this article for No Meat Athlete, one of my favorite sites.
What exactly is protein?
Protein, most simply, is a combination of amino acids. These amino acids have specific roles in our bodies, from metabolism to muscle development. Nine of them are absolutely essential to our basic functions, because they can’t be created by our bodies.
When we talk about dietary protein and getting enough, our concern is with these indispensable amino acids.
So how much protein do you need?
In the U.S., the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To calculate your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. (For those whose eyes have already glazed over because you’ve now seen two numbers with decimal points in them, the USDA provides a handy DRI calculator.)
This equates to roughly 10-15 percent of your total calories—remember that every gram of protein has four calories. Vegetarians and vegans easily get this amount of protein.
Why the advice that “athletes need more protein” is misleading
Sure, athletes need more protein than non-athletes. But we also need more carbohydrates and fat—our overall caloric needs are much higher since we burn so much energy in our training.
So because we’re eating more calories, we’re automatically consuming more protein if we stay at 10-15 percent of the total.
For example: I’m about 80 kilograms and I need 2500 calories most days. If I want ten percent of those calories to be from protein, then I need about 63 grams of protein.
When I’m Ironman training or have an otherwise heavy load, my caloric needs double. Therefore, so does my protein, to 126 grams.
I tell the vegan athletes I consult to shoot for 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. You can see from my numbers above that even when protein is only ten percent of calories, I’m getting 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight.
Contrary to what most people believe, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to protein. The body can only process so much per day, and any additional protein is inefficiently converted to energy or even stored as body fat.
Don’t stress over combining incomplete proteins at meals
If I am going to rid the world of ignorance about plant proteins, I’m going to start by eliminating the phrase “incomplete protein.” It is misleading and biased and vegetarians should stop using it.
The problem with the idea of complete and incomplete proteins is this: It assumes we only eat one type of food!
It’s an example of a common mistake in the nutrition field: focusing on the specific nutrients of one food without seeing it in the context of an entire diet. Saying a protein is incomplete ignores the big picture and is often used by pseudo-nutritionists as a critique of vegetarianism.
While it’s tempting to want to combine these “incomplete” proteins to form a whole, the truth is there’s no need to combine protein sources within a given meal.
Really. I know you have heard this one over and over—even the college textbook I teach from says it’s a must!—but trust me, it is not necessary to form complete proteins within single meals. Our bodies pool the amino acids we need as we eat them, and we use them when needed.
Some combinations happen naturally—think pinto beans with rice, chickpeas with couscous, or granola with soymilk. But this is not a requirement in order for us to get all of the indispensable amino acids. Combining proteins was popularized in the 1970’s, and even though it has been deemed unnecessary for decades, the idea lives on.
What it means when people say animal protein is “higher quality” than vegetable protein
When you hear about one protein source being better than another, it’s in reference to the amino acid makeup.
It’s true: Animal foods contain all of the amino acids in the amounts we need. So if you ate only beef and nothing else for months and months, you would not get an amino acid deficiency (but probably a host of other ones). Do the same with only lentils, however, and you may not get enough of the amino acid methionine.
Fortunately, no one eats like this. We eat a variety of foods, most of which have some protein, and at the end of the day, we get all of the amino acids we need.
Okay, okay, enough with science and numbers, what do I eat?
If you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. Guaranteed. And although there are a handful of hard-to-find nutrients and supplements for vegans to consider, a protein powder isn’t at the top of the list for most people (but if you’re looking for peace of mind, stick with a real-food powder like Complement Protein).
For example, lentils and soymilk are over 30 percent protein. Fifteen percent of the calories in whole wheat pasta are from protein, and even brown rice has protein, at about eight percent of calories.
See? It’s that easy to reach 10-15 percent of calories. If you want more help in creating a nutrition plan with adequate protein, see a fantastic list of vegetarian protein foods and meal plans compiled by my colleague Reed Mangels.
Now go fight for vegetarians!
The choice to be vegetarian, like the choice to do anything beyond what’s considered “normal,” constantly puts us on the defensive. But with the knowledge I’ve now given you, you can speak confidently the next time you get the protein question. Oh yeah, and you can tell Uncle Jerkface at Thanksgiving that you aren’t about to die of protein deficiency.
Matthew Ruscigno, MPH, RD is a 15-year vegan and Chair-Elect of the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. He has completed numerous marathons, iron-distance triathlons and ultra-cycling events including the Furnace Creek 508, a non-stop 508-mile bicycle race through Death Valley. Matt worked with Isa Moskowitz on her upcoming book Appetite For Reduction. You can read more from him at his personal blog, True Love Health, or follow him on Twitter.
Thank you both SO much for this. I was just asked this very question…from A DOCTOR! last week at dinner. Wish I’d read this first. Thanks so much.
I like these kind of protein posts Matt. I feel the supplement industry is mostly responsible for the scare.
I vary rarely worry about my protein intake anymore and even then it’s just me being paranoid because of ingrained hype. Those days I eat extra nuts or melons. I don’t eat any grains or legumes at all with the exception of the occasional corn (I’m still kinda paleo).
Ever hear or know anyone in an industrialized nation with a protein deficiency?
informative post. i kind of want to print it out and hand it over to every person who asks me that irritating “but where do you get your protein??” question. i eat a low fat raw vegan diet, which is made up of tons of fruit (including tomato, cuke and capsicum) and some greens. i eat about 2500cal on days where i have one average intensity training session, and 3000-4000cal on days where i train especially hard or more than once. my caloric breakdown is roughly 5% fat, 5% protein and 90% carbs. yesterday i got around 40g of protein, which is about average for me. a lot people tell me there’s no way i can be healthy with such a low amount of protein . . . but challenging them to a push up or heavy squat contests and kicking their @ss or telling them how much mileage i log in a week tends to shut them up, ha.
I’m not really concerned about protein; but two things I am concerned about are B12 and iron. Do you have any tips?
I take a 65mg iron supplement daily. It used to put me in a fuming rage when somebody suggested supplementing my diet, but I have to admit that my RBC has been much better since starting a few years ago.
65mg of iron daily??? you are putting yourself on track for toxicity. to anyone reading this post, DO NOT take this much iron daily. a 15mg supplement is more than enough, especially if your diet consists of leafy greens and whole grains. 65mg is way over the top.
B12 is only in animal foods so if you’re eating eggs, cheese and dairy that may cover it. If you’re a vegan you will want to take a supplement. Recently I’ve read that 40% of Americans are deficient in B12 anyway(and obviously they aren’t all vegan.
For iron I think beans and leafy green vegetables will help. And prune juice. lol. 🙂
Nutritional yeast is also a good source for B12. You can find it in bulk at good markets. It has great flavor for sprinkling over grains and veggies. I also use it to flavor soups.
And other yeast based products can contain B12 – such as the English spread Marmite. All you need is a thin spread on a sandwich, or use it like a stock base in soups and sauces. I thought the very similar Aussie spread Vegemite would have it too, but Wiki reckons it doesn’t!
I love Marmite…I was raised on the stuff. My husband won’t even try it – he says it stinks. Then again I think peanut butter and jelly is gross but I didn’t grow up on it.
Just make sure it does contain B12, especially if you buy it in bulk. “Vegetarian Support Forumula” nutritional yeast does contain B12. Not all types do.
Probably the easiest way to eat enough B12 and iron is to eat commonly available breakfast cereals such as Total or any number of other foods which are usually supplemented.
Read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. It deinfitely backs up what Matt Ruscigno is saying. The book also suggests plant protein is healthier than animal protein. I like what was written here about compete/incomplete protiens. Much to think about. Thanks.
Hey Matt awesome post, do you know Tim Vad Orden? He has a blog called running raw and has a lot of vids on youtube. Anways he does a talk about protein and since protein is basically in everything we eat he “doesn’t really get” his protein in the sense that we need a dedicated protein source.
Anways Tim is like 42 and he is an awesome runner; he puts 20 yr olds to shame.
AWESOME post! Posts like this one are why I come to this website! Thank you!
Thank you so much for this post! It’s really terrific. I am definitely sharing it, especially with people who push whey protein & insist that it’s the best way for athletes to get adequate protein!
Thanks for posting this !
The rule of thumb I like to use, which this article speaks to, is that as long as you eat a varied diet, you can’t be protein deficient without being calorie deficient as well.
This rule of thumb gets a “Thumbs up” 😉
You however can be calorie deficient and be getting all of your essential amino acids. Eating potatoes only provides glycogen and the essential amino acids. And water and fibre. Your body fat will supply the additional energy you need to live.
Thanks for all the info about protein! Even as a non vegetarian it’s interesting to read.
Fantastic article! I was lucky enough to sit in on Matthew’s discussion at FNCE, and I too was surprised/disapointed by the lack of knowledge most RDs even have about vegetarian/vegan nutrition. It just reaffirmed why I am on my way to getting the RD credentials to spread the veggie word! Thanks guys!
I’m only a 2-week old vegan and I prefer weight training over cardio, but it didn’t take me long to totally and completely accept that I can get more than enough protein from a plant based diet. Thanks for continuing to work to debunk the myth!
Thanks, good article. I don’t worry too much about where my protein comes from anymore. I do eat nuts and seeds every day also.
I get asked “Where do you get your protein?” quite frequently. I think it’s hypocritical because frequently the people who ask me are the sort who eat McDonalds several times a week, and are generally unhealthy in both diet and exercise. I point out that I work out a lot and because I eat the right foods and the right number of calories, I’m really healthy.
This is always the #1 question I get asked and I think you just gave me the perfect answer, I think it also has to do with the supplement industry telling everyone that you need more, I’ve actually read that you need a gram per pound.
Great info man, thanks.
Does anyone else realize that his math is not working out?
He tells vegans to get 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilo. Then in his example he says he weighs 80kilo but only needs 63g of protein.
With his rational you can only follow the 10-15% calories from protein if you are roughly doubling you caloric intake.
If your a sedentary vegan you need to up your percent of calories to meet the protein requirement to about 20% or more.
But why use calories to count grams anyway. The nutritional facts will say how many grams per serving their are of protein. Just make sure your meeting your gram of protein/body weight regardless of your total calories.
The 64 grams of protein is based on the RDI of 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight. 0.8×80 = 64 grams. Sixty-four grams at 4 calories per gram is 256 calories or 10.24% of 2500. There is a safety net built into the requirement of 0.8 as well. The actual necessary amount is even lower. And in the example I used the lowest percentage in my recommendation. If you bump that up to 15% it’s even easier to meet requirements for both sedentary and very active vegans.
I think there is a difference between the endurance athlete and most other types. For those trying to add muscle the RDI standard is woefully inadequate (if it is even good for endurance). Woefully. Matt’s advice is good for athlete’s sharing his goals. Those hoping to add muscle will need more protein.
Also, I was hoping this post would be about which no-meat foods had the best/complete protein. If you are reading this Matt do you have a post like that?
People in the New Guinea highlands only eat about 0.5g/Kg/day protein. They are typicallly quite muscular.
Chimps have 5x as much muscle density as humans despite eating low protein vegan diets.
Thanks for all the feedback everyone. I am very happy that so many people are finding this information useful. Vegetarians and vegans should be confident about what they eat and have the facts to back it up!
It’s funny how often I get asked about protein….
I once read that there has never been a medically reported case of protein deficiency except in cases of starvation. Since there are so many protein rich foods it’s funny how the media has painted an image of meat/dairy as the only protein sources. I love being vegan and eating all sorts of yummy foods without having to worry about protein.
Great post! My husband and I are both vegetarians, and he just completed his first IM in AZ yesterday, and made sure he was “representing” the fact that vegetarian athletes can do it as well as anyone.
Wonderful post with lots of great info. Perfect timing too for the holidays when vegans will be getting lots of inquiries from non-vegan family and friends. Thanks!
Soy milk is a strange recommendation. Nobody should eat soy that has not been fermented, especially not vegetarian and vegan athletes. Unfermented soy is loaded with phytates and enzyme inhibitors, disrupts glandular function, particularly of the thyroid, it is the opposite of nutritious and leaves you depleted of minerals. If you are going to eat soy, stick to tempeh, natto, miso and naturally brewed organic soy sauce. If you are going to drink milk, drink only whole (not homo/skim/2% ect…) pasture-raised organic cow/goat/sheep’s milk, preferably raw, or if you really want/have to have fake milk get brown rice milk or almond milk with only natural ingredients.
Also if you are a vegetarian/vegan athlete make sure to use unrefined (called celtic or traditional and coloured grey and slightly damp) sea salt fairly liberally, and either butter or raw olive oil, or coconut or palm oil with all your veggies.
These sound like Weston Price recommendations. Caution.
Yes, these sound exactly like the non-peer reviewed recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF). The mission of the WAPF is to spread false information about non-meat and non-dairy diets. The peer-reviewed research about soy does not agree with the beliefs (yes, beliefs) of the WAPF.
Yeah cows/goats/Sheep milk is for calves kids and lambs. End of story. No animal continues to need milk after weaning age including humans. Humans need breast milk to around 9-18months of age and then do not require it for survival.
Though interestingly, humans can get 100% of their nutritional needs meet through breast feeding until age 4.
Matthew, This is just, awesome. Would you have any interest in contributing it to http://uncooking101.com with full credit to you and a backlink to your site? If so please contact me here:
A little detail: It is a RAW vegan site but has vegan/vegetarian resources as well. I’ve been raw but still including honey for years. I’ve recently finally gone 100% vegan and totally dig finding info JUST LIKE THIS to share on my site and help educate people.
Can’t want to hear back!!
🙂 xxo Eva
Thanks for the article. I always believed that our bodies are capable of producing the protein and other basic components of cell structures from the most commonly available and easily obtained sources of food, plants. As far as I know, for a great length of time, human ancestors were vegetarians. Some tribes started hunting and being cannibals, but most of the time human populations grew around river basins where there were ample forests and chance to grow plants. Farming (the plant kind and not the murderous cruel caged-animal kind) was the source of food for a great number of civilizations.
Also, the scientific evidence is of humans evolving from primates which are usually (mostly) vegetarian. So, our bodies have inherent physiology to process vegetarian foods to extract what’s essential for our diet. That is unless we overwhelm our bodies with artificial foods and incomplete choice of foods, like protein shakes. A properly planned, whole food vegetarian diet and an active lifestyle should be more ‘complete’ than an unhealthy meat diet, where you consume unwanted amounts of protein, harmful amounts of fats and cholesterol and gain bad karma.
By the way, I think I recognize the picture on the blogpost. Isn’t it the protein booth next to Porter Square Bally Fitness, Boston?
It is also easy to simply supplement with a vegan protein powder. I use pea protein, as I do not like to rely too heavily on soy foods, which seem to have some controversy around whether they are healthy or not. There was one study i read done on runners that concluded that 1.29g/protein per kg of weight was the level that prevented net nitrogen loss. I calculate that on a normal day eating vegan i consume about 50-60g/day of protein, so the extra 25g of protein from the powder seems to me to be a great ‘protein insurance policy’ for athletes, in my eyes (i weigh 72kg). I buy my powder in bulk from trueprotein.com, it’s affordable with lots of flavor options, and it tastes great in smoothies.
Thank you! This is a much better article on protein than your previous one! As a nutrition student I have learnt that the two ways someone develops a protein deficiency is when you don’t eat enough eg. anorexia or when you only one source of food eg. corn meal. The one thing that vegans do need to supplement their diet with though is vitamin B12. You should do an article on that!
Curious… where do you all get your B12 supplements from? Do you like tablets or liquid best? I want to get mine from a reliable trustworthy source. Thanks!
When I started my journey as a fruitarian, I was concern that I wouldn’t get enough nutrients and enough proteins for my muscles. What happened is that I lost weight but I toned my muscles, it felt like my body adjusted to my ideal shape. There are many misconceptions out there about what keeps us healthy and nutrition in general (and that includes mainstream doctors!).
I’ve been put on a plan to lose fat and grow muscle at the same time (rather than cut first, bulk later) and I’m supposed to eat under 1,345 calories a day, with 150g proteins.
I have to say I’m struggling. I can reach 100g proteins a day, but that makes me only two thirds of the way there. I’ve been trying to find good sources of protein that wouldn’t be too high in calories but I’m getting discouraged.
Should I ask my doctor to change my plan to cutting first (low calories, but without caring about proteins) and then bulk (more protein, but higher calories as well)? It seems weird to second guess a doctor, but if I bring up the issue I know he’ll just tell me to eat lean meat, and I don’t want to do that.
Thanks for the reasonable discussion about this topic. I first heard this from Michael Polan and I then started to track my protein intake to see how right he was. So many people glorify or demonize the macronutrients without ever evaluating what actually is going inside their bodies. I actually gave up my vegetarianism when trying to lose weight because I thought I would die (or something horrible) if I didn’t keep my protein up high enough. As I tracked my intake, I haven’t seen any reason to suspect that I was defficient in anything. Further, I found out that when switching to my vegetarian diet, I hadn’t changed my protein intake at all (althought there are stronger variations day to day).
I guess this is yet another health myth busted.
I love this sensible approach. I have been vegetarian for over 30 years (some of those years vegan). I am 51, fit, healthy and very active (and many people say I look years younger than I am but I can’t comment on that!! :;). I don’t seem to have any of the chronic health problems that plague my friends and colleagues and am able to do so many more physical activities than they seem able to – go figure …. but I get oh so tired of defending my lifestyle choice and answering the boring protein question over and over. Why are we so obsessed with protein in the west?
Are you familiar with the Master Amino Pattern (MAP) supplement? My (holistic) doctor recommended this to me as a protein supplement — my hormones got out of balance and they believe it was in part due to inadequate protein intake (despite eating primarily whole foods and a decent variety). I hadn’t heard of it before and wondered if anyone has used it or knows anything about it.
How does a person in a wheel chair build muscle mass? He is a vegan no flesh! What would be recommended for his protein intake daily?
I’ve been sitting behind a desk for quite a while and decided to finally do something about getting more fit which lead me to reading all about protein. Being veg I was wracking my brain trying to think of how I can get by without eating three cans of beans a day, thanks for clearing this issue (and the air) up a bit.
I always enjoy a protein shake after my morning workout and then again one in the afternoon so that I am not starving when it comes to dinner time after having my lunch. And as vegetarian people always ask where do you get your protein from if you don’t eat meat? And I tells them shakes, quinoa, beans, tofu, and so on. But then I say there are actually healthier ways to get protein than eating meat because our meats. Then I get into how horrible our meat industry is, even the ones that are free range, or organic. You just dont know
I have been a sport nutritionist for 16 years. My specialty is around protein. The human body need specific amino acids and specific levels to function properly. An incomplete protein exists only in the sense that this protein by itself does not supply the need protein values for a human being. There is so much science to support this that your insistence against it is dangerous and life threatening. No one is making a judgement call against vegans or vegetarians, this is a respected choice. What is important is the health of the individual.
One consideration that all vegans and vegetarians should seriously consider is the digestibility of the plant based proteins. Anytime you look at nutritional values of a protein, the numbers you are seeing in the USA come from the USDA as a base data source. These numbers tell you the available protein in the food, however, no plant based and some animal based proteins will not give you 100% of the amino acids in the food. For example, a peanut will only give you 52% of the available amino acids. Even quinoa will only give you 82% of the available amino acids. Your followers should consider adjusting their protein intake based on these numbers. You can find more information about this by searching for Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score on the Internet. You should understand that Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score have been replaced with new ways of measuring digestibility. This newer way is Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, however, data really does not exist today to use this. Good luck
Any insight into the Wolverine Diet? It’s the nickname for the lifting and diet regimen that Hugh Jackman used to transform for the last few X-Men movies. Briefly, it’s 2 hours of heavy lifting (1-3 reps) followed by 8 hours of eating – no carbs on lifting days, no fat on the alternate non-lifting days. It works, but I can’t figure out why, as it’s the complete opposite of every thing I think I know about sports nutrition.
There are over 7.2 billion people on this planet and 7.2 billion ways to build muscle. I would not lose sleep over how this works, this is not the most efficient way of building muscle. This Wolverine Diet is simply a bad idea based on the many bad ideas that have come from bodybuilding enthusiasts. I am not saying bodybuilding is bad, it has as many bad ideas as good ideas.
Since 60 percent or more of exercise energy comes from sugars (carbohydrates) and none are supplied with this diet, the body will find a way to produce these sugars. However, the body will never produce enough sugar to meet the demand. So if you are eating large amounts of protein on exercise days this will offset the loss of muscle by making sugars. Sugars can also be made from fats.
Could Mr Jackman been more successful building muscle with a higher carbohydrate diet at the appropriate times, absolutely! The Wolverine Diet is a testament to Hugh Jackson’s fortitude rather than a sensible sport nutrition program.
Matthew, I am not certain if you were at the bottom of your class when you received your MPH or RD designation or if you think you have had some supernatural intervention that permits you to ignore the science and you are now on a mission to sell bad advice. I am equally amazed that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics would ask you to speak to anyone based on your lack of scientific knowledge. Oh well.
When you say “high quality protein available in all plant food” are you referring to the quality of the amino acids or the ability for the human body to digest all of these amino acids? If you are talking about the digestibility of these amino acids, one would never use the term “High Quality”.
When you talk about the Recommended Dietary Intakes (RDI) this has nothing to do with sports or sports nutrition. This standard is more of a minimum and not an optimum.
You discount the importance of Indispensable Amino Acids. You attempt to sell the concept that there is no such thing as a incomplete protein. What science are you reading? Have you gone so long without appropriate levels of amino acid intake that you brain is not functioning properly?
What is interesting is that I know for a fact that when a vegetarian is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis of any of the many disease brought on by lack of amino acids, that person does not come to you to find answers. You do a disservice to any lay person that might read your rantings. You should never call yourself an educated man or a scientist. What you are selling is voodoo.
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“If you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. Guaranteed.”
I eat very healthy and all real foods, nothing packaged or processed. However, I do not eat much meat – maybe once or twice a month – and I avoid grains and legumes completely. I know beans/lentils and grains are the main source of protein for vegetarians. Should I be worried about getting enough protein?
You state” Our bodies pool the amino acids we need as we eat them, and we use them when needed”. Where exactly does this happen and do you know the process the body undergoes to store these amino acids?
This is absolutely ludicrous. There’s tons of crucial info out there that you seem to not know yet. Look into the effects finer has on our protein and nutrient absorption. Also, zero mention of relative protein bioavailability of plant food compares to animal food. And zero references. Just the typical vegan unscientific rationalizations to feel better about the philosophy. Do yourself a favour and listen to the peak human podcast, or the dozens of others like that who pierce through all this vegan/vegetarian propaganda.
Hello, I am 5`3 and weigh about 115 pounds.I workout about 40 minutes a day.I am slowly starting to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle but I worry because of all the different information about protein intake. I eat about 78gprotein, 167g carbs and 56 g of fat.Is this enough?
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