Every once in a while when thinking up topics for No Meat Athlete posts, I hit on one that’s so obvious, it’s a joke that I haven’t already written it.
Protein is the subject of the question that vegans and vegetarians get asked more than any other. When it comes to supplements for vegans, protein is the big one people want to know about (even if other nutrients, like Vitamin B12, are far more important).
So have I really not written a big protein article on No Meat Athlete?
Apparently, not yet. So here it is.
First, my standard answer to the question, Where do you get your protein?
You don’t need as much protein as most people think, and it’s easy to get what you do need from beans, nuts, seeds, grains, soy, and even greens.
So how much protein do vegans need?
Not as much as people would have you believe. Somehow, everyone got the idea that we need exorbitant amounts of protein, way more than is even recommended. I know, it’s fun to blame government agencies and cry conspiracy, but if you actually look at the recommendations, they’re not that high at all.
For example, the U.S. recommended daily allowance of protein is .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (.36 grams per pound) for the general population.
Athletes need more than that, mostly due to greater tissue-repair needs. But how much more protein do we need as athletes?
Several sources I looked at cited a study which concluded that endurance athletes benefit most from 1.2 to 1.4 daily grams per kilogram of bodyweight, while strength athletes do best with 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram. In pounds, that’s .54 to .63 grams per pound for endurance athletes, .63 to .81 grams per pound for strength athletes.
A simple example
Let’s take a typical No Meat Athlete reader and see what this means for her, let’s a say a 140-pound runner. We’ll split the daily protein range for endurance athletes in the middle and aim for .59 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight:
140 pounds * .59 grams/pound = 83 grams of protein per day
Keep in mind that’s for a 140-pound endurance athlete, so you’ll need to plug in your own weight and, if you do a strength sport, use a different protein figure.
But really, only 83 grams?
All of this protein fuss — the incessant inquisition about where we get protein — is about 83 grams per day, even after adjusting for being an athlete? (And if our 140-pound woman weren’t an athlete, she’d need only 50 grams to hit the RDA number!)
What the pros say
Before we move onto good vegan and vegetarian protein sources for getting this amount, let’s take a look at what some well-known and credentialed vegans say about protein.
- In the documentary Forks Over Knives, China Study author Dr. T. Colin Campbell says that you need 8 to 10 percent of your calories to come from protein. (Keep in mind he’s not necessarily talking about athletes.)
- Vegan Ironman Brendan Brazier, in his appearance on No Meat Athlete radio (which is coming back soon, by the way!), says he eats about 15 percent protein when training for short events, and close to 20 percent protein during periods of heavy training (several hours per day) for long endurance events.
- Tim Ferriss writes in The 4-Hour Body that ultrarunner Scott Jurek gets 15 to 20 percent of his calories from protein.
- Matt Ruscigno, in the post he wrote for No Meat Athlete about protein for vegans and vegetarians, says he recommends that his athlete clients get 10 to 15 percent of their calories from protein.
Notice that everybody expresses things in percentages rather than grams. How does our 83 grams of protein, for a 140-pound female endurance athlete stack up in terms of percentage of total calories?
Well, the first thing to note is that a gram of protein contains four calories. (Yay for paying attention in health class!) So:
83 grams * 4 calories/gram = 332 calories of protein
We’ll need to divide this figure by total daily calories to get the percentage we’re after. I plugged my imaginary friend’s stats (5’3″, 140 lbs, female, very active) into this basal metabolic rate calculator to approximate her total daily calories at 2375. Drumroll, please …
322 calories of protein / 2375 total calories = 13.6% of calories from protein
Not far off from the 15 percent that most of our experts mentioned! Based on all of this, aiming to get 15 percent of your calories from protein seems like a pretty good rule of thumb.
(And by the way, I find using percentages to be a much easier way to evaluate a food’s protein content than grams. See a post I wrote about using protein percentages.)
Where do vegetarians get their protein?
There’s no shortage of lists of high-protein vegan foods floating around. As you might expect, they’re topped by soy products (tempeh is much higher in protein than tofu), seitan, and legumes.
My personal favorite vegan foods for protein, in rough, descending order of how often I eat them, are:
- Lentils (red are my favorites), 18 grams of protein per cup
- Chickpeas, 12 grams/cup
- Tempeh (locally made in Asheville!), 41 grams per cup
- Black beans, 15 grams per cup
- Nuts and nut butters (I eat a good mix, usually without peanuts), varied
- Tofu, 11 grams per 4 ounces
- Quinoa, 9 grams per cup
- Other legumes, varied
- Grains, varied
These protein content numbers come from the Vegetarian Resource Group’s excellent article on vegetarian protein.
I also add a protein supplement to my smoothie each morning, which gets me about 20 grams to start the day, before you consider the protein from flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and almond butter that I sometimes throw in there.
Don’t ignore amino acids!
All protein is not created equally. Protein is made up of amino acids, and there are certain ones, called “essential,” which your body cannot produce on its own and must get through food.
As long as you’re eating a wide variety of whole foods — a good practice to follow for many reasons — you’re probably getting a nice mix of amino acids. One, though, that’s particularly tough for vegetarians to get, is lysine, as explained in this article on protein from Vegan Health.
Only a few vegan foods contain lysine in large amounts, but fortunately, they’re staples in many of our diets: tempeh, tofu, and legumes. If you don’t eat beans or soy, because of allergies or some other reason, you’ll need to pay special attention to lysine, and it might be worth considering an amino acid supplement.
See another No Meat Athlete article for a breakdown of various plant-based protein sources and their amino acid content.
My easy way to get enough protein every day
As it turns out, I weigh around 140 pounds, so the 83 grams of protein mentioned above is right about what I aim for. (I’m fairly certain I’m not female, but sex only entered the conversation when we were estimating total calories.)
So how do I get my 83 grams of protein per day?
My approach to getting enough protein is very simple:
Make sure you include a decent protein source, even if just a little bit, in every meal or snack.
Mainly, this just keeps you mindful and prevents you from slipping into junk-food-vegan, carbohydrate-only mode. It’s as easy as adding nuts or beans to your salad, protein powder to your smoothie, almond butter on your bagel, or beans to your pasta dish (actually not an inauthentic thing to do in Italy). For snacks, eat a handful of nuts, spread some sunflower butter on your apple, make roasted chickpeas, dip a pita in some hummus … all of these add just a little bit of protein, but if you eat two or three snacks a day, it adds up.
So the next time someone asks …
You won’t have to tell them it’s complicated, or argue to no avail that broccoli would be a good protein source if only you could eat five pounds of it in a sitting. Instead, you can just explain that we don’t need all that much protein, and it’s easy to get what we do need from a half dozen, common foods, eaten just a little bit at a time throughout the day.
No big deal.
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