From the 1970s to the 1990s, people widely believed that vegetarians and vegans ran severe risks of protein deficiency. Much of this concern arose from the first bestselling vegetarian advocacy book, Diet for a Small Planet (published in 1971), which offered protein recommendations that, in hindsight, were needlessly stringent.
Today, many vegans show disregard for the topic. In fact, many some vegans dismiss all concerns about protein intake. But belittling the importance of protein is as unwise as believing that vegans are taking grave risks with their health. 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 fall far short of achieving an optimal protein intake. So if you believe that protein needs don’t merit attention you could be setting yourself up for trouble.
Perhaps the main source of confusion about this topic relates to a dire medical condition called kwashiorkor. The reason you may never have heard of kwashiorkor is because it arises from an extreme protein deficiency, which basically unheard of in thriving parts of the world. It’s impossible to develop kwashiorkor without a diet that’s extraordinarily protein deficient. In fact, kwashiorkor only appears 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 even close to ideal. What’s more, even blood tests can’t reliably tell you if your intake is a bit short of ideal. Instead, there are a variety of symptoms that may be associated with deficiency:
- chronic fatigue
- high blood sugar or triglyceride levels
- inability to maintain sufficient muscle mass
While there are countless terrible things about meat, milk, and eggs, it’s undeniable that all these foods are rich in protein. So if you stop eating animal products and don’t replace them with vegan foods that are protein-rich, there’s a possibility that your intake will decline from adequate to insufficient. Fortunately, just a little effort can ensure your protein needs are nicely met on a vegan diet.
Recommended Protein Sources and Daily Intake
VeganHealth.org recommends a daily intake of 1 to 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. In practice this means a 68 kilogram (150 pound) adult needs to take in about 70 grams 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 this advice translates to everyday eating you’ll discover that you may need to make a concerted effort to cover your needs. One way to step up your intake 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
- Orgain and other vegan protein powders
- Clif Bars and Probars
One food that is surprisingly low in protein is commercially-made almond milk. The stuff generally contains loads of sugar but very little protein. Soy milk is therefore typically a better choice for people wanting to boost their protein intake. In fact, it’s common for soy milk to have about six times more protein than almond milk!
Tips for Stepping Up Your Protein Consumption
If you don’t like the taste of beans or you have trouble digesting them, it can be a challenge to get sufficient protein on a vegan diet. Our beans page offers advice about how to prepare beans in ways that maximize digestibility. You may find that tofu, tempeh, and soymilk easier to digest than other bean-based foods. Alternately, nuts, seeds, and quinoa are all rich in protein, and easily digested.
Protein powders can be a godsend to anyone who can’t tolerate beans or nuts. They can give you a big dose of protein, in a form that’s more digestible than meals made with beans. Most brands of protein powder deliver about 20 grams of lysine-rich protein per scoop. Orgain makes an inexpensive all-organic vegan protein powder, and it sells for about half the price of some comparable organic 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 to your cooking repertoire may be all it takes to boost your intake to adequate levels. There is an entire cookbook devoted to these sorts of vegan meals. 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 aren’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 keep an eye on getting sufficient amounts each day. A little attention and vigilance is all it takes to avoid problems down the road.
For authoritative information about every nutrient of interest to vegans please visit our nutrition page or read Vegan for Life, by Jack Norris, RD and Ginny Messina MPH, RD.