Many people in the Western world have been brought up with the idea that you need to consume animal products (especially meat) to meet your daily needs for protein. Without doing so, you're liable to end up frail, weak, and unhealthy. However, in 2017, there is more than enough peer reviewed scientific evidence to know this is not the case.
We've put together this article order to help educate people on the truth of vegan protein sources, as well as protein itself. By understanding plant protein can be just as adequate, if not better, than animal based protein for staying healthy and building muscle, one can make informed choices about the food they consume and it's impact on the well-being of animals, the environment, and their own bodies.
Introduction to Vegan Protein
Despite common misconceptions, balanced vegan diets that are adequate in daily calories will successfully fulfill protein requirements. Unless you eat nothing except chips, candy, etc, reaching daily protein requirements on a vegan diet is effortless.
Plant protein is just as adequate for building a strong, healthy body as animal protein – except plants don't come with all the harmful baggage such as saturated fat, cholesterol, and mammalian hormones. All whole foods contains protein, even vegetables. While the protein content of different foods vary, it is important to know that there are a larger variety of plant protein sources than meat. This wide selection means there are always delicious new options to try, and getting enough protein doesn't mean just force-feeding yourself lentils.
If this wasn't the case, there wouldn't be an increasing number of athletes of all disciplines going vegan.
List of Vegan Athletes
Top athletes are increasingly turning to a vegan diet because plant foods not only contain adequate protein for them to train optimally, but also include various compounds and phytochemicals not found in animal sources. As a result, many of these athletes have actually reported an increase in performance at their given sports. Here’s a short list of vegan athletes that are worth checking out:
Vegan Strongman Patrik Baboumian Setting a World Record
- Serena and Venus Williams – Tennis Champions
- Brandan Brazier – Bodybuilder
- David Haye – Boxer
- Alex Dargatz – Bodybuilder
- Jimi Sitko – Bodybuilder
- Patrik Baboumian – Strongman
- David Carter – NFL lineman
- John Joseph – Ironman Chamption
- Tia Blanco – Surfer
This short list is by no means comprehensive, but is meant to show the range of disciplines one can excel in without needing to harm animals or the environment. If these athletes – whose health and strength are their most precious commodities – can go vegan, you can rest assured that the average person can achieve all their health and fitness goals with eating animals.
The Basics of Protein Itself
Proteins serve a bunch of important functions in the body, and are essential to life.
They are made up of amino acids, which are “building blocks” that can be stacked in different combinations to make different proteins. There are only 20 amino acids, and 11 of these are already produced by the human body. So in order to get all of the amino acids that your body needs to function, you just need to get the last 9 amino acids from external sources - hence why they are often referred to as "essential amino acids".
The Amino Acid Lysine
Despite what you may think, this is simple. Most vegans simply eat a range of plant foods and call it a day. But if you’re new to this, you might need to look more closely at what you’re eating so that you can rest assured that you're going to be getting everything you need.
We all need to get these 9 essential amino acids from our food. Luckily, all plant foods contain them.
The only question is: in what amounts? – one source may be high in lysine, for example, but low in methionine.
The Incomplete Protein Myth
Meat is typically considered a source of high-quality protein because it contains all 9 essential amino acids in large amounts. Many plant foods, however, do not. Plant-based sources of protein are typically lower in one amino acid than others, which led to the assumption that they were “incomplete” sources of protein.
In turn, this led to the idea that you needed to carefully combine different protein sources to make sure that you were getting a complete source of each amino acid. In other words, if you ate something that was low in one amino acid, you should also eat something that was high in that amino acid to balance it out (source).
This methodology was time-consuming, boring, and required you to carefully plan your meals.
Fortunately, it isn’t true. The founder of this methodology has since withdrawn her support for it, saying it is much easier to get all the essential amino acids from plants than she had thought . The body is now known to stockpile amino acids, and can offset a deficiency of certain amino acids in a meal with its reserves.
The Truth Behind the Protein Combining Myth from NutritionFacts.org
In other words, this isn’t something to worry about. Don’t worry about the combining foods to make a perfect combination of each amino acid – focus instead on whole sources of protein, eating what tastes good and what makes you feel good.
But how much protein do we actually need?
The world has an obsession with protein – and the focus seems to be on how to get more, rather than how much we actually need.
The belief that we are all living with too little protein stems from studies in the 1930's of certain diseases, despite the fact that these findings have been debunked many times since then. There is also some evidence that bias studies funded by the meat and dairy industry have enabled the myth to continue.
In fact, the World Health Organization recommends less than you might think – 0.41g of protein per lb. of body weight. That’s a blanket recommendation for every adult, too, regardless of your sex, your age, or your size (so long as you’re within the healthy range).
If we look at it from a caloric point of view, roughly 10% of your calories should be coming from protein.
If you have athletic goals, or you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’re going to want to take in a little more than that. Just focus more closely on the high-protein foods listed in this article and you’ll find that you can easily reach all of your daily protein requirements . If you're eating a well balanced plant based diet that's more than just fruit or candy, you'll find that meeting these protein needs generally isn't something that even needs to be thought about.
We actually put together an entire article on Building Muscle on a Vegan Diet which you can find here.
Vegan Protein Sources, Benefits, & Recipes
To make sure you’re eating the right foods, especially in the beginning, it’s important to know what to look for. Here we've listed the most protein-heavy vegan foods that can be used in a variety of recipes and eaten as staple foods. Most of these are inexpensive, they are all easy to cook, and they can all lend themselves to different cuisines and styles of cooking. Check out the recipes linked, too – they’ll give you new ideas on how to jazz up old favorites.
Beans / Legumes
The protein content is for the foods in their dried state taken directly from the USDA database.
The Benefits of Beans and Legumes go Far Beyond Protein
- 100g = 24g protein.
- Kidney beans are very high in protein – they are known as “poor man’s meat” in many parts of the world – and their high fiber content also helps the body to stabilize its blood sugar and increase maximum absorption of nutrients in the gut.
- Read more about Kidney Beans Here and Here.
- 100g = 21g protein
- Black beans are known to have positive impacts on gut health by supporting the bacteria in the digestive tract, and their black seed coats provide a burst of important phytonutrients. A one-cup serving of black beans provides half your RDI of fiber and a third of your RDI of protein!
- Red more about Black Beans Here and Here.
- 100g = 22g protein
- The navy bean is so named because it was a staple food of the United States Navy in the early 1900s. Many battles were fought on this little bean, which has historically been used to make baked beans and provides a hearty dose of magnesium, folate, and potassium – all of which can improve your heart health.
- Read more about Navy Beans Here and Here.
- 100g = 26g protein
- Lentils are fiber powerhouses, and are also very high in iron. One of the greatest virtues of lentils is their versatility: there are so many different varieties, each of which lends itself best to a different style of dish. They’re quick-cooking, too, so there’s no excuse not to reach for them in the cupboard.
- Read more about Lentils Here and Here.
- 100g = 19g protein
- Chickpeas are common in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, and it is easy to see why: as well as providing plenty of protein and fiber, they are also rich in several antioxidants and have been found to reduce appetite.
- Read more about Chickpeas Here and Here.
- 100g = 25g protein
- Peas contain a surprising amount of protein, and their additional phytonutrients have been known to protect against cancers and reduce the risk of diabetes. They are also a good source of omega-3 fats, despite otherwise being a low-fat food.
- Read more about Peas Here and Here.
Beans & Legume Recipe Ideas
Beans are so incredibly versatile, and it’s easy to make so many dishes out of them. Some common favorites are burgers, chili, and curries – perfect to mix with anything, in any weather. This black bean burger recipe is a super quick, easy, and delicious way to experiment with making bean burgers for the first time.
As for chili, this is a thick, beautiful, vegetable-heavy chili that features two different types of beans and is super easy to make from Tasty.
Can't go wrong with a vegan chili. This one is from The Edgy Veg.
And this timed 5-minute chickpea curry shows that you don’t need a lot of time to create delicious, healthy, and flavorful food from The Happy Pear.
The protein content listed is for the grains in their dried state take directly from the USDA database.
- 100g = 14g protein
- Quinoa had its boom a few years ago, when it went from a virtually unheard-of Bolivian grain to one of the prime health foods of 2013. Quinoa is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, and provides plenty of omega-3 fats with a great taste.
- Read more about Quinoa Here and Here.
- 100g = 12g
- Although technically not a grain – buckwheat is actually a seed – we tend to use buckwheat in the same way as grains, so it’s included here. This is a great source of heart-healthy nutrients, like flavonoids and magnesium, for people who are sensitive to wheat products – and it can be used in so many different ways.
- Read more about Buckwheat Here and Here.
This is what Buckwheat Looks Like!
- 100g = 17g
- Oats are such a versatile and easy grain that we eat them every morning for breakfast. Rich in antioxidants and heart-healthy fiber, there is also evidence that oats can improve your immune response and protect against cancer. Like buckwheat, oats are a great alternative for anyone with gluten allergies.
- Read more about Oats Here and Here.
Wheat Germ or Cereal Germ
- 100g = 31g
- Wheat germ is the small center of a wheat kernel, and contains the vast amount of its nutrients. It is packed with omega-3 fats, B vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytosterols, which appear to lower cholesterol and reduce heart disease. Wheat germ can be added to cereals, used to top yoghurt or fruit pies, and replace breadcrumbs in most recipes. It should be available at your grocery store – keep an eye out!
- Read more about Wheat Germ Here and Here.
Grain Recipe Ideas
Most grains are incredibly versatile, so it’s easy to use them in all sorts of things. Everyone knows that quinoa is ideal in salads, but check out this recipe it can also be used for delicious sweet breakfast bowls.
Vegan Quinoa Breakfast Bowls from Healthy Voyager TV
Likewise, we all know that oats are a sweet breakfast food, but one of my favorite ways to cook it is in savory form, like this:
Hearty Vegan Savory Oatmeal from Cooking with Plants
Nuts & Seeds
All protein content is for roasted, unsalted foods.
Unsalted and Raw / Lightly Toasted Nuts are Packed with Protein & Healthy Fats
- 100g = 33g
- Pumpkin seeds are one of the best sources of zinc and vitamin E, and contain a diverse range of antioxidants that make them unique among most foods. They also have anti-microbial benefits and their oils have historically been used to treat conditions like Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia because of their high doses of phytosterols.
- Read more about Pumpkin Seeds Here and Here.
- 100g = 24g
- Peanuts are a crowd-pleaser; as well as being cheap and delicious, they’re rich in monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and resveratrol, a phytonutrient that has been found to increase blood flow to the brain. They are also linked to lower rates of cancer, gallstones, and Alzheimer’s.
- Read more about Peanuts Here and Here.
- 100g = 19g
- There is evidence that vitamin E, which sunflower seeds contain in abundance, has an anti-inflammatory effect that reduces the symptoms of asthma and arthritis and has been linked to reductions in cancer. They also have high levels of selenium, which has been shown to induce DNA repair and synthesis in damaged cells, thus inhibiting the spread of cancerous cells.
- Read more about Sunflower Seeds Here and Here.
- 100g = 17g
- Sesame seeds are well-loved in Middle Eastern cuisine, and our household is especially am addicted to tahini, the spread of crushed sesame seeds that can be used in anything from salads to toast. Sesame seeds are very rich in minerals, and contain two unique forms of fiber that are known to lower cholesterol, prevent high blood pressure, and protect the liver from oxidative damage.
- Read more about Sesame Seeds Here and Here.
- 100g = 15g
- Despite having a lower overall fat content than other nuts, cashews have a much greater proportion of monounsaturated fats, which are known to reduce the risk of heart disease, especially for those with diabetes. They are also high in copper, which is important at all levels of body functioning – from development of connective tissue to skin health.
- Read more about Cashews Here and Here.
- 100g = 15g
- Walnuts are very high in phenols and phytonutrients, and have an alternative form of vitamin E to most other foods that is very effective at protecting from heart problems. They are also known for their blood benefits, improving overall quality and reducing the rates of inflammation and excessive clotting.
- Read more about Walnuts Here and Here.
Nuts & Seeds Recipe Ideas
Nuts and seeds can be used to make all sorts of delicious vegan cheese and sauces! The fats help with the absorption of vitamins when eating greens and veggies so you don't want to forego eating them. Check out some of these delicious things you can do:
No Salt, Sugar, or Oil Vegan Cheese from The WFPB Cooking Show
Vegan Caesar Salad Dressing from Cooking with Plants
If you're looking for the best tools to make creamy salad dressings (like the one above) and other creative foods from plants be sure to check out our best blender section.
Soy Beans & Soy Products
- 100g = 40g protein (dry roasted)
- Soy beans have historically been called “meat without bones”, because they provide a source of protein of the same quality as meat. Unique peptides in soy beans have been known to improve blood pressure, immune response, and blood sugar levels, while reduced cholesterol associated with soy bean consumption seems to support increased heart health.
- Can also easily be made into tasty beverages using a soy / nut milk maker.
- Read more about Soy Beans Here and Here.
- 100g = 8g
- Tofu is the classic vegetarian meat substitute, and can be used for anything from stir fries to curries. Studies have found that tofu does a better job of reducing cancer than soybeans alone, and the fermentation process also increases the amounts of antioxidants. Tofu is low in saturated fats, high in phytonutrients, and can lend itself to any flavor imaginable.
- Read more about Tofu Here and Here.
- If you want to make your tofu to restaurant quality standards, we highly recommend getting a tofu press.
Tofu with Sesame Seeds
- 100g = 19g
- An alternative soy-based product to tofu, the calcium in tempeh has been found to be equally well-absorbed by the body as the calcium from milk, which makes it a rich source of a very important mineral. Tempeh has been found to have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system and contribute to decreases in cardiovascular disease.
- Read more about Tempeh Here and Here.
Soy & Soy Products Recipes
Cooking tofu for the first time can be a bit tricky. Check out the video below to learn how to cook it properly:
How to Cook Tofu Right The Vegan Zombie
If you’d tried tofu and weren’t a fan, try to incorporate it into other recipes, such as this tofu mayonnaise:
Tofu Based Mayo from Cooking with Plants
And if you’ve never tried plain soy beans – often called edamame – give them a go in this spicy edamame and yu choy dish:
Spicy Edamame and Greens from Mary's Test Kitchen
Want to see some more awesome mock meat / soy photography? Check out this post from Vegan for all Seasons.
Why Choose Plant Proteins?
As you can see, there’s plenty of high-protein vegan foods to try, and plenty of ways to try them. Experiment – add things to your ordinary meals to get a burst of protein that will help carry you through the day. There’s plenty more information to be had about protein on a vegan diet, some of which we've listed below.
But why choose plant proteins?
There's obvious ethical and environmental reasons which we've covered in our Step by Step Guide to Going Vegan, but how about from a health perspective?
While we aren't going to cover that in depth in this article, here's just a few of the reasons (sources provided) why getting your protein from plants is far better for your health:
- Animal Proteins Cause Inflammation within the Entire Vascular System with EVERY Meal
- Animal Proteins Promote Cancer via IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1)
- Animal Proteins may Increase Your Risk of Bone Loss & Fracture
- Plant-Based Diets can Improve and Enchance Kidney Function
- You're Avoiding Cholesterol Thus Reducing Your Heart Disease Risk