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 2018, 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.
What You Should Know About 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.
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". (1) (2)
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. (3)
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 (4).
This methodology was time-consuming, boring, and required you to carefully plan your meals.
Fortunately, it isn’t true (5). 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 (6).
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. (7)
In fact, the World Health Organization recommends less than you might think – 0.41g of protein per lb. of body weight (8). 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.
List of Vegan Protein Sources
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.
For some practical tips on using beans and legumes in your daily life, be sure to check out our printable vegan grocery list.
Beans / Legumes
The protein content is for the foods in their dried state taken directly from the USDA database (9).
The Benefits of Beans and Legumes go Far Beyond Protein
- 100g = 24g protein.
- 100g = 21g protein
- 100g = 22g protein
- 100g = 26g protein
- 100g = 19g protein
- 100g = 25g protein
The protein content listed is for the grains in their dried state take directly from the USDA database.
- 100g = 14g protein of protein
- 100g = 12g of protein
This is what Buckwheat Looks Like!
- 100g = 17g of protein
Nuts & Seeds
All protein content is for roasted, unsalted foods.
Unsalted and Raw / Lightly Toasted Nuts are Packed with Protein & Healthy Fats
- 100g = 33g of protein
- 100g = 24g of protein
- 100g = 19g of protein
- 100g = 17g of protein
- 100g = 15g of protein
TIP: Soak cashews and process in a blender with lemon juice, nutritional yeast, salt and pepper. The end result is a cheesy cashew cream you can put on toast or even use as a salad dressing.
- 100g = 15g of protein
Soy Beans & Soy Products
- 100g = 40g protein (dry roasted)
- 100g = 8g of protein
Tofu with Sesame Seeds
TIP: If you're preparing tofu at home, try using a tofu press to get the water out before marinating it. See our guide to the best tofu presses here.
- 100g = 19g of protein