Vegan Protein: A Simple Guide to Getting What You Need
“Where do you get your protein?”
It’s question vegans and vegetarians get asked more than any other. We hear it so often, in fact, that we tend to forget that some people really do want to know the answer, and aren’t just asking it with the aim of poking holes in our silly, granola-crunchy plant-based diet plan.
And 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).
First, the short 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, and even greens.
Then, a longer answer: in my new book, The Plant-Based Athlete, we devote an entire chapter to protein, where we really dive in and cover our preferred sources, amino acid considerations, and sample meal plans that show just how easy it is to get what you need on a plant-based diet. (Of course, we also devote a chapter each to carbohydrates and fat, since they’re just as important!)
And finally, a medium-sized answer… this blog post.
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.
Protein for vegan athletes is somewhat more complicated, as greater tissue-repair need require more protein and general, and athletes tend to pay more attention to amino acid balance.
Some successful endurance athletes (see the fruitarian diet) get as little as 5% of their calories from protein — and since a gram of protein contains about four calories, that’s less than 35 grams of protein a day for a 2500-calorie-per-day diet!
At the other extreme are vegan bodybuilders and those new to the plant-based diet who are accustomed to higher amounts of protein and worried about what will happen when they stop eating meat. They aim for higher amounts of protein, often 25 to 30 percent of calories. It’s hard to get this amount from whole plant-foods, so they often turn to vegan protein supplements to get the extra boost they’re looking for.
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.
Example: How to calculate vegan protein needs
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 experts say about plant-based protein needs
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, 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 vegetarians, says he recommends that his athlete clients get 10 to 15 percent of their calories from protein.
Notice that everybody expresses things in percentage protein instead of grams, in order to more easily account for different body masses.
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 vegans get their protein?
There’s no shortage of lists of high-quality vegan protein sources. But as you might expect, they’re often 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 often, but not always, add vegan protein powder to my smoothie each morning — depending on my fitness goals at the time. My son, for example, is an athlete trying to gain weight on a vegan diet, so he always includes protein in his smoothie.
Smoothies, in general, are a great way to boost protein intake on a plant-based diet, since you can easily add lots of other high-protein ingredients like walnuts, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and almond butter, and even beans (yep, people do it!).
See my basic smoothie recipe for details on how much of each to add.
Warning: 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.
The easy way for vegans 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.
So what does this mean in terms of actual foods? Try these:
- Adding protein powder to your smoothie. (10-15 g protein)
- Eating a whole-wheat bagel with peanut or almond butter for a snack. (17 g protein)
- Including beans in your pasta dishes (you’ll find plenty at our vegan recipes page). (~15 g protein per cup of beans)
- Lots of lentils. (18 g protein per cup)
- Hummus on a whole wheat pita for a snack. (10 g protein)
- Putting nuts on your salad or eating them alone as a snack. (5-6 g protein per handful)
- Eating quinoa as part of the main dish or a side. (11 g protein per cup)
- Occasionally eating soy products, like tempeh, (30 g protein per cup) — but don’t forget all the high-protein vegan alternatives to soy!
See? No huge numbers here, but mix in a few of them every day, and it’s no problem at all to get anywhere from 60-100 grams of protein, especially when you count all the other foods you eat that contain smaller amounts of protein. My point here isn’t to get you to start counting protein grams throughout the day — I certainly don’t do that — but you can see just how easy it is to get the protein you need.
A few other favorite, high-protein vegan recipes:
- 5 Easy Rice and Beans Recipe
- The Only Plant-Based Protein Bowl You’ll Ever Need
- Split Pea Soup
- Chocolate Quinoa Protein Energy Bars
- High-Protein Chocolate Pudding
And here’s a protein meal plan that puts it all together.
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.
Awesome read Matt. An incredibly simple breakdown!
I can’t wait for the next person to ask how I get enough protein, “It’s easy. No big deal!”
As someone who grew up in the midwest, and whose grandparents were dairy farmers, I get the horrified “but where do you get your protein?!” question all the time. The fact that I run on a daily basis also makes them seem pretty sure that I am going to keel over dead any minute now. It is so nice and refreshing to read things like this, and to seem a very logical and educated breakdown of something that I have know and been practicing since I was 12. Thanks for all you do, Matt!
Just tell them you get your protein from the same place as those cows they are eating. You’re just eliminating the middle man, per say. Also, same place as those muscular gorillas, which eat a 100 percent plant based diet.
In all fairness to cows and gorillas, they’re much better equipped to take in added nutrients from the plants they consume than us tiny humans. Either way, great article regarding human protein consumption!
Excellent information and very timely for me.
As you know Matt, I have lost a lot of weight through juicing so was always mindful to add good protein to my smoothie. My protein ally is spirulina.
From Wikipedia ‘Dried Spirulina contains about 60% (51–71%) protein. It is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids, though with reduced amounts of methionine, cysteine and lysine when compared to the proteins of meat, eggs and milk. It is, however, superior to typical plant protein, such as that from legumes.’
This article is very timely for me as I am on day 8 of a 21 day vegan eating program. I am working hard to shift the final 10 pounds. I am training for my third half marathon and also started lifting weights to aid my running. I will use this post as a reference and share it with my readers.
I’d be careful of spirulina. I know many athletes who take it, but some studies link it to dementia, Parkinson’s disease and kidney failure. Check out Dr. Michael Greger’s nutritionfacts.org for more info.
Most scientific studies I’ve read have shown positive effects from spirulina on dementia and related maladies. Here’s and example: http://www.ergo-log.com/spirulinadementia.html
What studies have linked it in a negative way to cognitive issues?
Check out these independent researched articles.
Torres-Duran PV, Ferreira-Hermosillo A, Juarez-Oropeza MA. Antihyperlipemic and antihypertensive effects of Spirulina maxima in an open sample of Mexican population: a preliminary report. Lipids Health Dis. 2007 Nov 26;6:33.
Cingi C, Conk-Dalay M, Cakli H, Bal C. The effects of spirulina on allergic rhinitis. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2008 Oct;265(10):1219-23. Epub 2008 Mar 15.
Mazokopakis EE, Karefilakis CM, Tsartsalis AN, Milkas AN, Ganotakis ES. Acute rhabdomyolysis caused by Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis). Phytomedicine. 2008 Jun;15(6-7):525-7. Epub 2008 Apr 22.
Food Chem Toxicol. 2009 Sep;47(9):2189-95. Epub 2009 Jun 9.First detection of anatoxin-a in human and animal dietary supplements containing cyanobacteria.Rellán S, Osswald J, Saker M, Gago-Martinez A, Vasconcelos V.
Or as I mentioned before, check out Dr. Greger’s advice on nutritionfacts.org.
Check these out and then make up your own mind. Personally, I find Kale to be cheaper and less harm inducing.
Personally know of someone who was a spirulina user who developed Parkinsons. I would also be careful with that one.
You’ve only cited one study and it’s about mice not humans.
My understanding Of the issue is that some spirulina and chlorella supplements can be contaminated with a neurotoxin that grows in the same water as the algae. You have to buy from reputable brands who ensure there is no contamination in their product. I use Organic Traditions after having spoken to their quality control manager.
I just recently found your blog and signed up for the e-course. It has been really helpful, but this blog has, so far, been the most helpful! I am new to the low/no meat way of eating. I am loving it, but as a newbie, I am constantly checking ingredients and protein/dietary fiber content of foods to be sure I am getting enough protein. I recently started drinking a protein smoothie I found on Kimberly Snyder’s blog (author of Beauty Detox Solution) and am still reading through The China Study. I have found that I don’t miss meat at all. We had already cut it down in our lives over the past few years to only at dinner, and in the past few months to only 3 or so times a week. I guess you could say I’ve been building up this lifestyle over a few years without quite realizing it. This is a great breakdown for beginners, too. I have read in the China Study that most people only need 55 to 60 grams of protein a day, and I saw the formula for calculating what an individual needs. My only question that I haven’t found an answer to yet is concerning weight loss and protein. My husband and I have been consistently losing weight as we have changed our diet. He has lost over 40lbs! He was originally at 328 and is now at 279. I have lost 21lbs from 200 to 179. Calculating by body weight, I should be eating 64grams of protein a day and he should be eating 100 grams of protein a day, but if we are aiming to get to our ideal weights for our body sizes (mine being 120 to 130, his being 185 to 200) should we be consuming the amount of protein for our current weights or the weights we are aiming for? Thanks so much in advance for any thoughts you have on this. Feel free to e-mail me personally or comment back here. 🙂
The China study is really flawed.. don’t rely on the data.
Can you please explain Why it is flawed?
While I fully admit it is way beyond my understanding, I read that some researchers and scientists feel the data was misinterpreted and the conclusions therefore incorrect.
I am not a scientist, so I could not sort out the errors.
It is not flawed. Read more by T. Colin Campbell and watch his lectures.
Higher Protein diets are effective in helping to reduce weight. I would keep up with the protein needed for your body weight. it will help keep you full and keep you from consuming excess calories in other forms. As you lose weight just adjust the protein percentage. Good Luck.
Thats not true. How can protein possibly ‘help you gain muscle’ and at the same time ‘help you lose weight’. Just doesn’t make sense! Don’t believe the rubbish propaganda. A calorie deficit helps you lose weight, nothing else.
Lean muscle burns fat too.
As Cassie pointed out, protein is very satiating and takes longer time to break down and that WILL help when you’re trying to loose weight. On the other hand, one could never pack on or even maintain muscle mass eating ONLY pure oil and/or sugar no matter how many calories they consumed. The ammount of protein (as well as sufficient calories and overall nutrients) does indeed play a critical role in recovering from hard training, this is also rightfully mentioned in the piece.
Great breakdown. I had never really given protein much thought (I am in the camp that we are being sold a line of BS about protein), but I have to say, my calculation gets me to 66 grams of protein a day and that still seems like an awful lot.
I switched to a plant based diet due to many food restrictions after major weight loss and gallbladder removal. I was having a hard time running and feeling like my muscles were tired right from the start of each run. After paying attention to my protein intake I realize that I wasn’t getting enough. I now aim for around 85g a day. I love Vega it had really helped get in the protein.
Thanks for the other great ideas.
Simple, basic, to the point – I love it! Every now and then I stray from the basics and fall into the carb-addicted vegetarian trap, but after this simple reminder, I’ll get back on track. Thanks for this!
A useful post, thank you.
This topic has been front and center in my life because I find it challenging to get enough protein for my 211 lbs body that I’m always making lift weights and run up stairs.
I’m not a vegetarian but I eat no red meat and little other meats, so look to get the bulk of my protein from eggs, powders and the veggie sources you name.
A 140-pounder might not find this difficult, but given your formula, I need to consume about 169 grams of protein per day (.8 x 211).
I almost never reach that mark.
Which begs the question, should we really be talking about some fraction of total weight or lean body mass (total weight – fat)?
I mean, does the fat need to be its share of protein?
I have read that the real mark is lean body mass, not actual weight. Any thoughts?
As an aside, I went a little crazy recently trying to determine my % body fat without the benefit of calipers or water immersion (Archenemies principle).
This left various equations, like BMI, which is worthless for the old, young, very short, very tall or athletes.
Eventually, I found some method the military uses. I write about the whole thing in an article called, “Just “Exactly” How Fat Are You Anyway?” http://wp.me/pA04z-10f
I wish he would have emphasized this…but it is .8g protein per KILOGRAM…not pounds. So, since 1 kg = 2.2 lbs, you need to divide your weight by 2.2 (95.9 Kg) 95.9 x .8= 77gm (give or take)
Hope this helps.
Give me some quick sample menus for the day for the 140 pound person.
One sedentary, one regular and one athlete.
Eighty doesn’t seem like a lot but do I have to eat 5 or 6 cups of lentils in a day??
When I told my bootcamp instructor I was vegetarian and training for my first triathlon, he let me borrow a book written by one of Lance Armstrong’s coaches (Chris Carmichael) called “Food For Fitness”. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you buying it, since it doesn’t focus on vegetarian diets, but maybe you could look it up in your local library. He gives tables of how much protein is in different foods per serving, and while he talks a lot about meat, I got a lot of good info and non-meat protein sources and how much of it to eat (and when to eat). He gives formulas for how to calculate your nutritional needs based on what part of your training season you are in, but also provides several specific examples (luckily including my weight/sex combo so I didn’t have to calculate) along with sample meal plans for a week. It would be less useful for a vegan, but it’s easy for a vegetarian to modify since not all meal plans depend on meat for protein source, and the author explains, like Matt here, that most meat eating americans eat too much protein as it is.
Some people need things spoon fed to them. Why would you just have to eat lentils?? There are dozens and dozens of other foods high in protein. Plus ALL foods contain protein. Try tracking your foods on myfitnesspal to see how easy it is
My calculation shows that I need 75 grams of protein per day.
All the other calculations make sense but I don’t know how people have time to figure it all out every time you eat.
So if I didn’t want to figure it out by percentages, just by the grams of protein, does that work too?
I am not full vegan/vegetarian yet…but working toward it. I am a runner and am now increasing my distances. Last year my longest run was 7 miles, and now this year I am running around 12 miles for my long run. Figuring out the eating gets my head spinning! So glad this blog is out there to help!
I really enjoy the articles about vegetable protein sources but why isn’t there any information on the amount of protein in the plants themselves? Like spinach, for instance, has 5g in one cup. yeah, you don’t get it all in one clump, but what if you juices a bunch of veggies?
I had my first raw vegan protein shake today (actually first protein shake of my life). What a thrill! It was not so yummy, but the rush I got, running the my veins made me feel more alive. I have been a vegan most of my life (minus five years of me “attempting” to eat meat), but my gosh, I never expected to experience this! Quite amazing!
I know exactly what you mean, I felt extremely sluggish while on a omni diet but since going vegan I’ve felt a lot better, vegan protein shakes I find taste a lot better (but that could be more of a personal preference than anything else) but I feel great when I have one!
Scott jurek is an ultra-runner so that means he probably eats aroud 13000 calories or so per race or long run which with it being 20% would be 650 grams, that is a lot of protein.
Two years ago, when our then 27 year old son began entering triathlons & went vegan, my husband & I freaked out! Both of us were morbidly obese & completely sedentary, and absolutely panicked over how he could possibly get enough protein in his diet.
Just before Halloween late last October, my 40 year old husband was diagnosed with high blood pressure & borderline diabetic. I’ve been disabled with a chronic pain disorder, arthritis, reflux, ibs, asthma, etc. plus a wide range of allergies & intolerances for 16 years and he is my primary caretaker.
I was shocked into reality & knew I had to make serious lifestyle changes to get the strength to take care of him, if necessary. He fought me the first few weeks, concerned he’d have to eat what I ate, workout when I did, etc. But being the supportive husband he is, he began cutting his portions down, eating a little better & going to the gym with me (out of concern for my ability to workout at all.)
I began walking, but with balance issues & such a heavy weight, I couldn’t get very far. Our son recommended I try riding a bike instead so I asked for one for Christmas.
Again, out of concern about my riding alone, my husband decided to get one, also, and ride with me.
In January, a dance studio opened in our neighborhood & I joined a weekly class for beginners.
By early February, I was hooked on strength training & yoga, and my husband, after falling in love with cycling, bought his racing bike and began riding with several groups each week.
After much research & experimentation, I had become an ovo-lacto (spelling?) vegetarian, meaning I eat eggs, greek yogurt, parmesan cheese and on rare occasions, a little little bit of chicken.
My husband dropped beef & pork and added fish to his diet. And we both eat tons of healthy colorful veggies, nuts & seeds, legumes, & brown rice.
We’ve lost over 180 POUNDS, dropping 90 pounds a piece, completely changing our lifestyles to one of eating healthy whole foods and making exercise a daily priority.
Though my primary, disabling illness remains unchanged, my ability to deal with & manage the pain, has increased exponentially! I’m off several medications, no longer have reflux, and almost no ibs,
My husband’s blood sugar is completely normal & his blood pressure is under control, though it was high enough, and with a genetic component, to require daily medication.
He has done numerous metric century bike rides & begins training for his first triathlon next week, while I am starting the “Run Your Butt Off,” 12 week training program!
The bottom line is this, VEGETARIANS & VEGANS CAN FIND PLENTY OF HEALTHY SOURCES OF PROTEIN, AND YOU REALLY DO NEED LESS THEN YOU THINK!
Thank you “No Meat Athlete” for another great article!
Congrats to both you and your husband! I love hearing stories about people taking control of their health. Yay for you! Happy running!
You two are awesome.
you and your husband are rock stars! Well done to you both! You should ask Matt to write a full post on the site. You are a true testament to what a healthy lifestyle can do for people.
That is so wonderful!! Your story is very inspiring, and I love hearing stories about husband and wife teams getting healthy together. My husband and I have lost 72lbs together, and we are still going. Thank you for sharing!
Congrats to both of you! Your story is so inspiring and uplifting! I wish you and your husband a long happy healthy life together! Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing!!! ;-}
One of my go-to’s (besides SunWarrior protein powder) is Ezekiel Bread…has a really solid protein-to-carb ratio, and is easier on the digestive system since it’s made from sprouted grains as opposed to flour. I suggest everyone give it a shot! (especially the Cinnamon Raisin…don’t even need to add anything to it, I just eat it straight out of the toaster!)
Thanks for the info. I recommend the documentary Vegucated. Watching it now.
This is excellent… after hearing the “where do you get your protein” question for the umpteenth time recently, plus training for the NYC marathon, I have been thinking I need to research how much protein I actually need, so I can have a good answer for myself and for others.
So thank you, thank you for doing the work for me!
Awesome article! Thorough and yet plain and simple. Thanks!
Great post! Because my circles mostly consist of other vegans who don’t ask such questions, I often forget that the protein myth is still, unfortunately, alive and well.
To add more about amino acids, several foods have all the essential amino acids including quinoa, hemp seeds and even goji berries! Eat the rainbow and you should be a healthy, happy and compassionate athlete!
…appreciate the article!!..when I track my nutrition on Livestrong, I’m often amazed to see that I’m close to or have met protein requirements after lunch!..and that is by eating whole foods, plant based 🙂 Deb
Great article, Matt! Really I believe that with a balanced, varied diet, “adequate” protein intake takes care of itself.
Can we have something similar for iron pleeease?? I’ve found in the past that when I struggle with fatigue with training, if I consciously up my iron intake for a few days it helps. Would be great to learn some more about incorporating iron/vitamin C combos in the daily vegan diet. 🙂
Thanks for all you do!
Tania, I have been doing some reading on spirulina, adding that as a powder to my green smoothies. What I found out is that is is a good source of B-12 and iron. I was just reading this off Amazon so if I’m wrong someone please correct me. I’m usually low energy so am looking for something that helps.
When I said something to this effect to a doctor, she told me that protien is not enough, we need animal protien! I told her no, we don’t, to please do some reaserch on it.
Lots of Dr’s know nothing about nutrition, let alone being vegan.
Thanks! love your blog … this post is very useful for my friendly arguments with my carnivore friends : )
Matt, I just want to thank you for your posts. On July 1st, I started a pescetarian diet. I’m not ready to go veggie yet, but I appreciate the thoughtful, well-written articles on this site. If you’ll pardon the pun, it gives me a lot of food for thought.
Dude…this is great stuff. I’m new to the running world and am vegetarian. Thanks for the great resource.
Thanks for this article, I really enjoyed reading it! I knew most of this, but it never hurts to remind yourself about how to feed yourself right 🙂
Perhaps I missed this, but is there also an issue with regard to the amount of protein we absorb vs. the amount of protein we eat? (‘net protein utilization’ or ‘biological value’). Proteins, due to the balance of amino acids, will not be absorbed 100% by our bodies. Eggs are high, at close to 100%, beans (alone, w/o rice) are about 50%. Vegetable and grain based sources of protein, even balanced with other foods, have a relatively low ‘biological value.’ As such, assuming 80% absorption (optimisitic), then if one NEEDED 83 grams, shouldn’t they EAT 103.75 grams of protein (80% of 103.75 = 83 grams protein actually absorbed)?
All protein from any source is made of the same building blocks, amino acids. Our bodies break down any protein molecule into amino acids and then use them to build our own proteins for various needs. The only reason eggs are said to be 100% is because they include our list of essential amino acids (needed from food) in the proportions we use for our own proteins. Guess we’re not all that different from baby chickens. But we don’t eat nothing but an egg like a baby chick before hatching. Any amino acids on our list missing or deficient in beans will be available in other foods we eat and the body will pick them up and utilize them just fine. So you can’t look at beans just by themselves, you have to consider what else is eaten within the next few days if not in the same meal. Often food combinations from plant sources do have the proper proportion of amino acids together. I have a vegan protein powder made from a blend of rice protein, pea protein, chia seed, and hemp seed which completely matches the human amino acid profile, for instance. The body doesn’t have to ingest an exact balance of amino acids – it will take what it needs in the right proportion at that specific time and just discard the rest. We don’t even need to ingest all the right amino acids in the same meal, although many traditional food combinations turn out to have them all for us.
It’s not as complicated as you might think, especially considering how much of a huge safety margin is incorporated in the figures. McDougall estimates we really only need 5% of our calories from protein, but 10% to 15% is suggested to allow for individual increased needs or poor absorption. It’s not hard to get more even eating vegan. But you really need to think in terms of amino acids, and apparently just using the weight of protein (always a combination of amino acids) is a good enough guide for human needs regardless of source. The important point for humans is that all of our essential amino acids are plentiful enough in plant sources. We don’t need to take all the risks of eating other animals (eating too close to your own species biologically is risky especially since their diseases and parasites are more likely be our diseases and parasites; true obligate carnivores like cats, who have two essential amino acids that they can’t get enough of from plants without human help, have far better defenses such as very strong stomach acids and short intestinal tracts compared to their size).
Modern humans who eat other animals (mammals, fish, birds) are much more likely to have problems with too much protein (our kidneys aren’t really up to it, for example), while vegans or vegetarians eating a reasonably varied diet are unlikely to be getting too little. But you have to go by how you feel also since protein needs vary.
Matt, samples of your daily menu and the protein totals would have been more useful. It is a PIA, but, for the sake of your blog 🙂 you should total up three of your days including all the extras like that 1 tbsp of flaxseed in your smoothie, etc. An online food calculator would probably help the most. (Fitday, etc.)
Great review Matt. I agree about looking at Amino Acids not just protein. I do laugh when people ask me were I get my protein (I am vegan now). I tell them every living cell (plant or animal) is made of protein. So anything you eat is made of protein. The meat industry used a scientific paper on meat having all 8 essential amino acids and plants not as a marketing tool to sell meat. It started as the more perfect protein but ended up as protein. Great BLOG keep it up.
Hi, I am not a vegan, but am interested in going that way to be as healthy as possible. Am in good shape, jog and work out every day, am 115 lbs. My problem is when I try to eliminate meat, I gain weight and do not feel well. Also, I do not like beans. So, my options are limited. There are only so many nuts and ways to make legumes. Any suggestion on a cookbook / recipes that I could try? I eat all organic lean meat. I think there are some meats (lean beef) that have less calories per intake of protein gram than many vegan choices, like beans or rice. So, I think I have to eat more to get the same amount of protein. It just doesn’t work for me.
Any ideas / comments?
I always enjoy your articles. You are very in-depth with your information. When I first started out on my vegan diet, friends and family became extremely concerned about where I was going to get my protein. At first, I wasn’t even sure what to tell them. I am a distance runner, so that caused even more concern. To be honest it concerned me. Knowledge is power and I now understand the importance of plant-based proteins and where to find them. I recently wrote an article of my story and dealing with the “protein problem.”
I weigh 180 and I am 5’11. I workout 6/7 days. I have a high metabolism and therefore use more calories and have less body fat. Most importantly, ive had undiagnosed stomach problems (pictures of inflamnation and hesled ulcers) that i have found to be aided by animal proteins in the morning.
I have experimented with avocado to see if i can receive the same substantial meal to fight off ulcer creating acid. I cant tell if it works as well, but it works better than water.
So as someone looking to be the strongest my potential allows for, can i sustain an all vegan diet? Considering my medical situation avocados are the meatiest, fattiest and have the best effect for me. I also have a very high metabolism. If i dont eat 2000 cal a day i drop down to 150lbs. An unhealthy weight.
I want to go vegan but i want that meaty protein and fat that solves my stomach acid problem.
Hopefully you’ve figured this out by now. But if fat is the key, maybe protein blends including nuts and seeds and possibly oily legumes (such as peanuts) might also help. Coconut products likewise – coconut oil and coconut butter are fats that many people find more digestible and coconut oil is used in formulas after surgery. So maybe that would be soothing also.
Also there is now a product called Prelief that is a form of calcium claimed to reduce acid in food while not actually affecting needed stomach acid. People with interstitial cystitis that are bothered by acidic foods such as tomato or carbonated drinks report that it makes quite a difference. I don’t know if it has been used for your condition, but it might be worth looking at if still needed.
As someone who has just become Vegetarian I found your article very informative. I hope you don’t mind but I put a link to your article from my blog http://www.changingmaddy.blogspot.com.au/ so all my readers can benefit from this information because you did a much better job of explaining it then I could.
Undeniably believe that which you stated. Your favorite reason seemed to be on the net the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get annoyed while people think about worries that they just do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and also defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks
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.
I have recently returned to a vegan lifestyle/diet after a long hiatus and have been concerned with getting sufficient protein. Although the percentages are good starting points, we need to remember that they are exactly that, starting points. A better question to ask would be “How much protein should an athlete consume to improve body composition and athletic performance?” The following article by John Berardi, gives good information http://musclenstrength.com/128/john-berardi-on-protein-requirements/ it is geared toward meat eaters but it still contains good information for those of us on the plant based diet.
In terms of percentages, it is recommended that active/athletic individuals get 25 to 30% of their daily caloric requirements from protein. I weigh 200 lbs and I eat approximately 3000 kcal each day. At 30% it comes to approximately 225 grams per day of protein consumed. Reversing the calculations to see how much of a percentage I get from protein, it comes to a whopping 2.5 grams of protein per kg of body weight (200lb /2.2 = 90.1kg, 225g/90.1 = 2.497). I get anywhere from 184 to 200 grams of protein per day in my diet.
Whoa that’s a lot o protein! How do you get all of it?
Soy milk (homemade! get yourself a soy milk maker) 16g for the two cups
Pea Protein powder 24g
Seitan (37.5g per serving of protein, ( I make big batches and larger serving portions)
Legumes 2 cups per day (30 to 36g depending on the bean)
Lentils 2 cup (36g)
Steel Cut Oats (1/2 cup) 10g
Nuts (1 oz) 6 to 8g
Plant sources 10 to 15 grams
I usually have either 2 servings of seitan made products or 4 cups of beans per day. I have 5 meals per day, and spread it all out. I usually have energy to burn most day, however, because of proteins appetite sparing effect and the slow absorption of the complex carbs, I sometimes forget to eat as I am not hungry, I usually eat by the clock (or try to, damned its hard).
No gluten problems here.
Great article and a great rebuttal to this all-to-common question. Thanks!
I know this sounds like an unnecessary question that has some type of foreseeable answer, but what would/will happen to all the animals that are being raised for food, if everyone just stopped today, eating them? Would the farmers just set them free, and then what? Not being sarcastic, just beginning to learn about the Vegan type food chain, eating that way, and the reasons why someone would.
that’s a good question that I’ve been thinking about too. Well, in your question, it’s just about not eating the animals themselves. So in this hypothetical world we’d probably still keep cows for milk, chickens for eggs… But it would drastically lower the numbers of farm animals and I don’t think that would be a bad thing. You may have heard of factory farms – the animals there are hardly living. It’s mostly day to day suffering – even the better ones have a hard time giving adequate space and outdoor time to their thousands of animals. Cutting out meat from our diets may mean that small family farms will have a greater shot at a living (instead of competing with factory farms now). These are just thoughts I’ve gained from the things I’ve read and seen. I’m no expert but I think this would be potentially a very nice future.
Great info! I’m converting to vegetarian so it’s very helpful. ALSO beware of those protein shakes. Vega Sport, Raw meal and other shakes recently came under fire for testing high for levels of heavy metals. There is nothing better than to obtain your protein naturally if possible:)
I’m prone to gout attack cause much of the foods on protein are high in purines. Any of these on the lower purine side?
Hi Matt! Thanks for a great site! I’m just getting started…
One question: Is there a way to search the site to find how to use a particular ingredient.
For example: I love beets and would like to search for recipes that use them…
I’d love a recipe for beets and dill too… be it smoothie, salad or something else!
I have been doing the Paleo eating plan for 3 years and have gained weight from it. I mostly did it for my hubby because he wasn’t very healthy. He got tired of not eating carbs so is back to the SAD diet.
I am now going meat and dairy free. This weekend was the first time I didn’t feel bloated. It’s amazing what our bodies are telling us but most of us don’t listen to it!
I have to unsubscribe from so many paleo web sites. I will keep nom nom paleo because I love her veggies. I loved this post on how to get your protein. I had people tell me this weekend that I will be back to paleo within a week because I need protein! I refuse to do paleo anymore so it’ll be fun finding web sites. I need to see if you have any favorite web sites on your site that I can subscribe to.
Thank you for your awesome site!
I have been vegetarian for 15 years and have added some animal products back in because I had some real health issues with a vegan diet.(I actually have neurological issues from malnutrition in the first several years of vegetarianism) Adding eggs helped me focus and feel strong and now seafood makes me feel less anxious and gives me calming energy. With my calculations I would need over 100g/protein a day but I just don’t see how I can get that much. I eggs 2-3 times a week, seafood 2-3 times a week and rarely any dairy. I cannot eat soy or gluten. I feel like I am losing my mind and would love some helpful ideas on getting protein without expensive powders. Without enough protein my weight has skyrocketed and my appetite is endless. I need some ideas! Thanks everyone for posting!
Neurological issues suggest B vitamin deficiency, in particular B12. Is that what you were told when diagnosed? You might make sure you seriously supplement with the whole B complex as well as B12 if not already doing so, trying a higher dose than currently, and look specifically for foods naturally high in B vitamins. Treating B vitamin deficiency definitely has a calming effect, I wonder if seafood includes B vitamins? I can’t remember which B is implicated, but I started sleeping through the night for the first time since I was six years old when as an adult, I started supplement with a B complex. So some of us are very sensitive.
Really helpful article, giving me the info and hope to go veggy again. Thank you!
Thank you so much for the wonderful website! This information is incredibly valuable for myself & my family. My husband was worried that as much running & exerice that I do that I would need protein powder to get what my body needed to build muscle. I am so happy to know that I don’t have to be very healthy. Thanks again, I really appreciate it!
Hi, I use to be a all meat person, I could not go threw my day with out having meat. Now I have health issues. Its not because of the meat, I just can’t digest the stuff anymore. I have been trying to eat nothing, but organic veggies, fruit and what ever else is not meat. Although I have to eat fish and eggs every once in a while so I can get my protein, But when I exercise I just don’t have the strength or the will to do it like I did last year. Is there something I am doing wrong in my diet?
I became unable to digest red meat & dairy in 2004, and since then I have studied and studied and I don’t honestly know how any humans can eat meat – if you look at how the animals who are later killed for food, you will see the crap that is injected in those cows especially and go “Wow… no wonder”. We have an epidemic of kids with autism and ADD, people in their 30s nd 40s (and some, like me, at 23. Hey, I’ve always been an over-achiever) with auto-immune illnesses, and people my parents age and more and more every day who are my age getting cancer. The *only* thing I can find thatmakes any sense is that is has to have something to do with how we eat. And it is getting worse with GMO and … ick.
My point is that if your body is telling you in cannot digest certain foods? Yeah it is the food’s fault. It was for me. I already had an auto-immune illness that sucked, and I’m not sure which came first, it is a real chicken or the egg” deal.
Check into what these people are writing. Can you eat soy? Pea protein? There is so much out there!! :0) I would encourage you to hang around the best healh food store in your town, Google some recipes… we do not need to eat “meat” (I don’t choose to say “meat” – it has been made really easy for us to think meat comes from some magical place… but if I have to say “I am eating a dead cow”? That is harder).
I started with really great protein bars, there are SO many awesome, high-protein options. I found the by Googling and then hitting the grocery store, tried a few and picked my faves.
Please do be sure that you are getting B-12. That has been tough for me, but there are excellent supplements out there as well.
I know I am late, but I hope maybe that helped a bit. I am running on no sleep for 20 hours, so hopefully some sense was made 😉
I’m so delighted to have found this site, I’m a keen newby runner currently training for a half marathon. 4 weeks ago I stopped eating meat completely and since then have struggled to get my pace up, feeling more fatigued. Thank you for all your fantastic knowledge, I’ll be applying tomorrow.
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Hey! great read. I was just wondering…when you say 1 cup of chickpea or 1 cup of quinoa, do you mean raw or cooked? Because, chickpeas grow in size by a lot and getting 1 cup cooked is easier than raw and hence my questions.
Cooked. Checked nutrition info on cronometer (lists source as NCCDB)
I like and eat plenty of lentils, chickpeas and quinoa – but it´s difficult to eat enough of them to get the amount of protein you-re supposed to have. A cup of chickpeas, say, doesn´t sound like much, but it is when you see it on the plate. and it´s only 12 grams of protein of the 60 or 70 grams a day that most people need. (Also, I don´t know whether when a cupful is talked about, whether that refers to an uncooked cupful or a cooked.)
[…] a general idea of how much protein a person needs to live refer to this explanation by No Meat Athlete. While the general public needs only .36 grams per pound, this all depends on each persons […]
I am new to the vegan lifestyle. Recently bought pea protein powder to add to smoothies, but I do not like it at all. Very thick and chalky…. Anyone have any good recommendations on a different one and would also love to here smoothie favorites as I struggle with the no added sugar and getting stuck on the daily strawberry spinach smoothie….
I like Lifetime’s Life’s Basics Plant Protein, unsweetened vanilla flavor. It’s a blend of rice protein, pea protein, chia seed, and hemp seed plus vanilla. It doesn’t have any chalky taste to me. It even tastes decent by itself in water. It will get thicker because of the chia but you can always just use less if that bothers you. So you might try blends rather than a single source protein powder. Most of them are sweetened, and even if it’s something tolerable like stevia – well, I don’t like stevia much… I’d rather have unsweetened so I can decide if I want to add something or not.
Try K.IN vegan protein powder is amazing!
This is a really great article! I read on Thrive Forward that as long as you are eating a sufficient enough food you will get enough protein but I still seem to have iron issues (which I think is somewhat related to protein maybe?) and have to take supplements. Do you have any articles relating to iron?
You don’t need to eat protein to ingest amino acids. The protein is anyway broken up into separate amino acids in the gut and put to where they’re needed in the body. So the amino acids in vegetables are anyway used the same way and put into the missing amino acid areas in our body and used however the body needs to.
This is great. Thank you. I am training for an Olympic tri in January. I eat a lot of beans and nuts but I only get to my protein daily intake goal (approx. 80 grams) when I supplement with vegan protein powder. My diet is around 1,800 calories a day. Is that common or am I doing something wrong?
I recently added hempseed hearts to my diet. I sprinkle them on lots of stuff, from my morning cereal to salads. 10 grams of protein in 3tbsp ads a protein punch to my meal.
[…] Include plenty of protein in your eating plan. Not sure if you’re consuming enough protein? Check out “Protein Intake-How Much Protein Should You Eat Per Day”. Vegans and vegetarians, read this article “Proteins for Vegetarians-A Simple Guide to Getting What You Need”. […]
I’m just wondering that if protein amounts for 15% of your macronutrients, in what ratio do you balance carbohydrates and fat?
I’m looking at the high protein sources and they’re also high in carbs. Do you worry about blood glucose and insulin levels?
You take a couple things into consideration here… The average healthy person and athletes. However, perhaps unhealthy or those in a healing process should be taken into account as well. They should have a greater amount of protein than most. It is not just a matter of proteins, but trying to supplement anything in your diet is not the same as actually consuming the real thing. Something to think about…
Everytime i read an article about protein in a vegan diet, there is always protein powder involved. And the simple reason is, that beside Tempeh you would have to east SERVERAL cups to come even close to the daily amount.
But even proteiin powder might be healthy, its no way it is natural (its manufactured).
The kick start plan sounds good. I am already a vegetarian but it’s complicated because I have also a gluten intolerance! I really do struggle and not sure if Kick Start is going to be the right thing for me. I have looked at vegan products but they aren’t considerate of gluten difficulties, similarly vegan restaurant choices do not consider the gluten intolerant.
i think its funny when people say they dont use any animal products. most people dont relize how much animal product is in most of the stuff you use, like make up, jello, perfume, nail polish, crayons, sugar, downy, plastic bags, your car tires, glue, fireworks, fabric softener, shampoo and conditioner toothpast, gummies, marshmallows, chips and even vegtable soup contain animal byproducts. so think about that next time you go to walmart or prush your teeth or take a shower!!!
You have to consider the protein content per gram of each of your selected sources. As a rough and ready guide I use 25percent. In my case that works out at about 200 grams of “source” per day. Yes I am quite small!
Interestingly, when I became a veggie I started to enjoy beans and seeds, my mind seemed to tell me what I was lacking in my diet, I would not have eaten them before. The same with all types of nuts.
Was about two stones overweigh which I lost without trying
Lot’s of great tips, thanks. Although I do wonder if the ratios should be adjusted to get more plant protein than you would need animal protein. As I understand it plant protein is not as digestible (my stomach seems to agree after I eat a lot of beans) and I’ve found that my muscles seem to recover faster with animal protein than plant, so I wonder if I need 2 grams of plant for ever 1 of animal or something like that.
Hey when you mention one cup beans/lentils/quinoa, are you saying cooked or raw?
I can’t wait for my book to come in from Amazon!
I need help in balancing my aminos, micros & macros because I can’t have Sodium or caffeine because I have tachycardia. I eat an organic diet as much as I can.
We have eaten vegan / vegetarian off and on. We struggle because my daughter is allergic to almost all plant proteins! Especially soy, peas, nuts, lentils.
She can eat beans, flax and hemp seeds. We eat these daily. Most protein supplements she is allergic to. Just wonder if you’ve ever addressed allergies to plant protein.
*FYI – organic frozen okra in a shake is undetectable and is supposed to be extremely beneficial to the digestive tract… just wondering if you agree. I add it to all my shakes.
My husband and I recently started an Alzheimer’s prevention diet which is pretty much vegan but with further restrictions regarding sugar, etc. Because we are in our 70s, we need more protein and we are finding that very difficult. The protein numbers you are assigning to beans, seeds, etc. sound good but we can’t eat a cup of chickpeas and a cup of lentils, etc. It’s just too much food to consume comfortably. We do add protein powder to smoothies, etc. but we are still struggling to meet the quota. Now we are considering adding eggs and chicken to the diet because we can’t risk sarcopenia (muscle atrophy) which is a problem for seniors.
Great article, what about for older person less active than an endurance athlete. They do gym classes, light weights and walking? How many grams of protein per pound/kilo body weight should they have?
Thanks so much! This article has really calmed my nerves on protein.
Thank you, simply explained! ❤️
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