Despite all the confusion that surrounds what should be a simple topic, there are plenty of rich sources of vegan protein. In this article, we’ll look at how easy it is to satisfy your needs for protein on a vegan diet.
Protein for Vegans: Basic Information
During the 1970s and 1980s, conventional wisdom said that vegetarians and vegans run 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, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Some vegans believe that their protein intake isn’t worthy of any consideration. In fact, you can even find vegans who mock the topic when it’s brought up.
But belittling the importance of protein is as misguided as believing that vegans are courting deadly protein deficiencies. The truth is that while it’s easy for vegans to get plenty of protein, it’s also easy to come up short. Unfortunately, it’s fair to assume that many vegans fall far short of achieving an optimal protein intake. It’s therefore needlessly risky to believe that, as a vegan, you’re exempt from having to pay attention to protein.
Severe vs. Moderate Protein Deficiency
When it comes to protein, perhaps the main source of confusion relates to a dire medical condition called kwashiorkor. This disease 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.
Some vegans make the mistake of thinking that avoiding kwashiorkor means that protein levels are acceptable. This is a dangerously misguided belief—avoiding kwashiorkor doesn’t indicate that your protein intake is even close to ideal.
What’s more, there’s no clear-cut way to know for sure whether you’re getting all the protein your body needs. Even blood tests can’t reliably tell you if your intake is sub-optimum. Instead, a variety of symptoms may indicate mild to moderate protein 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.
Vegan Protein Intake Recommendations
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 of protein per 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.
The Best Vegan Protein Sources
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:
- Unsweetened 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 has surprisingly little 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 Increasing Your Protein Consumption
If you don’t like the taste of beans or you have trouble digesting them, you could have a tough time getting 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 soy-milk 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 several 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 to your cooking repertoire may be all it takes to boost your intake to adequate levels. There are two different cookbooks devoted entirely to protein-rich vegan meals.
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 has become 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.