From the 1970s through the 1990s, there was a widespread belief that vegetarians and vegans ran great risks of protein deficiency. Much of this concern is traceable to the seminal pro-vegetarian book Diet for a Small Planet (published in 1971 ), which in hindsight offered protein recommendations that were needlessly complex and demanding.
Today, many vegans have contempt for the topic, and will dismiss any concerns about protein intake as laughable. But belittling the importance of protein is as unwise as believing you can never get enough.
The truth is that while it’s easy for vegans to get plenty of protein, it’s also easy to come up short. And in fact, it’s fair to assume that many vegans come up far short of achieving an optimal protein intake. So if you believe that your protein needs are automatically met simply by being vegan you could be setting yourself up for trouble.
Perhaps the main reason vegans get confused about this topic is that there’s a dire medical condition called kwashiorkor, which arises from an extreme protein deficiency. It’s impossible to develop kwashiorkor without a diet that’s extraordinarily deficient, and in fact kwashiorkor is typically only seen in areas of famine, or among people with severe eating disorders. Relatively tiny amounts of protein are all it takes to avoid kwashiorkor, so for obvious reasons this deficiency disease is unheard of in the vegan community.
But just because you don’t have kwashiorkor doesn’t mean your protein intake is anything close to ideal. What’s more, you can’t really do blood tests to determine whether your protein intake is sub-optimal. Instead, there are a variety of symptoms that may be associated with a diet that lacks sufficient protein:
- chronic fatigue
- high blood sugar or triglyceride levels
- inability to maintain sufficient muscle mass
There are plenty of things that are terrible about meat, milk, and eggs. But it’s undeniable that all of these foods are quite rich in protein. So if you stop eating these foods and don’t replace them with vegan foods that are protein-rich, there’s a strong possibility that your protein intake will decline from adequate to insufficient. Fortunately, as we’re about to see, with a little effort you can make sure your protein needs are met on a vegan diet.
VeganHealth.org recommends a daily intake of 1 to 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. In practice this means a 150 pound adult needs to take in about 70 grams of protein a day. What’s more, much of this protein ought to be rich in the amino acid lysine. Beans are rich in lysine, whereas rice, wheat, and nuts are significantly lower in this amino acid.
If you crunch the numbers and see how it translates to everyday eating you’ll discover that you may need to make a concerted effort to cover your protein needs. One way to do that is to get into the habit of incorporating rich protein sources into the majority of your meals, including foods like:
- Soy milk
- Seitan (Wheat Gluten)
- Beans, including lentils and split peas
- Nuts & peanuts
- Green peas
- Protein powders
- Clif Bars and Probars
One food that you might mistakenly assume is rich in protein is commercially made almond milk. The stuff generally contains loads of sugar but very little protein. Soy milk is almost always a better choice for people wanting to boost their protein intake.
If for whatever reason you don’t like beans or have trouble digesting them, it can be a challenge to get sufficient protein on a vegan diet. You may find tofu, tempeh, and soymilk to be far more digestible than foods made with whole beans. Our beans page offers advice about how to prepare beans in ways that maximize digestibility.
Protein powders can be a godsend to anyone who has trouble getting sufficient protein. There’s no more convenient way to get a big dose of protein, and these powders tend to be far more digestible than foods made with beans. Most brands of protein powder deliver about 20 grams of lysine-rich protein per scoop. Orgain is an inexpensive all-organic vegan brand of protein powder, sells for about half the price of some competing brands. Buy a shaker cup and you won’t have to dirty a blender each time you prepare a serving.
Adding just a few protein-rich meals into your cooking repertoire may be all it takes to boost your protein intake to adequate levels. There is an entire cookbook devoted to high-protein vegan meals: The Great Vegan Protein Book. This book contains more than 100 recipes, each based on protein-rich foods like beans, nuts, quinoa, tempeh, and tofu.
It’s reasonable to speculate that many people who fail to thrive on a vegan diet weren’t eating sufficient protein. Since meat is loaded with protein, a vegan who becomes protein deficient would doubtless feel better within days of putting meat back into the diet. The best way to ensure that you don’t develop a deficiency is to have a realistic attitude about protein, and to recognize that a bit of effort may be needed to consume adequate amounts.
For authoritative information about protein and every other nutrient of interest to vegans see Vegan for Life, by Jack Norris, RD and Ginny Messina MPH, RD.