Where do vegans get protein? Don’t buy the myth that vegan diets don’t provide enough protein. Protein is actually one of the easiest nutrients to get on a vegan diet.
Proteins are the main building blocks of your body, helping you build and repair muscles, tendons, organs, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue; they’re vital in your body’s ability to produce enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters; they help your body fight off infections; they can be even be used as a fuel source.
Protein deficiency is incredibly rare in developed countries, where the extreme version, kwashiorkor, is virtually unheard of. Symptoms of deficiency include reduced immune function and loss of muscle mass.
Vegans don’t have a significantly higher rate of protein deficiency than non-vegans. In fact, poverty and calorie restriction have a much greater impact on protein deficiency than a vegan diet.
What Is Protein?
Protein is made of molecules called amino acids which are linked together, forming long protein chains. Your body naturally produces only some of these amino acids and has to get the rest through your diet.
Essential Amino Acids
The nine amino acids your body can’t produce on its own are known as essential amino acids.(1)
The nine essential amino acids are:
A whole-foods, vegan diet is able to provide all essential amino acids, provided daily caloric needs are being met, though it may be harder for some vegans to get two in particular: lysine and methionine.
Lysine and methionine aren’t found in significant amounts in many fruits or vegetables, so for vegans with certain food allergies, getting both of these amino acids in adequate amounts may be somewhat of a challenge.
Plant Protein Is Better For You Than Animal Protein
There’s a lot of misinformation about protein circulating in the world and most of it originates from the meat, dairy, and egg industries, which have an extremely harmful amount of power and influence over the media and numerous government agencies (such as the USDA).
These industries have a vested financial interest in you believing that animal protein is better for you than plant protein and that you need to eat large amounts of protein to be healthy, which is simply not true.
Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein
Your body uses the protein it gets from plants the same way it uses protein it gets from animals. There is no difference in the health aspects of plant protein versus animal protein in terms of how well our bodies are able to use the protein found within those foods.
But it’s not just about protein. We need to take everything into consideration when determining how healthy one type of food is over another. So while your body uses protein from plants and animals the same, animal protein comes along with negative effects that are detrimental to human health — negative effects which plants don’t have.(2)
Cholesterol is only found in animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs and doesn’t exist in plants, which is why diets high in animal protein are linked to heart attacks, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Fiber, on the other hand, is only found in plant foods and doesn’t exist in meat, dairy, or eggs. Your body needs fiber to help absorb and digest food properly.
Most meat eaters eat at least some plant foods and are able to get some fiber but it’s often not enough, leading to constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inconsistent stools, and reduced nutrient absorption from food (which causes even more issues).(3)
Heme iron is only found naturally in animal foods, while plant foods only naturally contain non-heme iron. Heme iron isn’t well-regulated by the body and is too-easily absorbed. While at first this might seem like a good thing, your body can actually get too much iron.
Eating too much iron in one sitting (which is easy to do with meat) especially heme iron, means your body has excess iron which it winds up storing in your organs. This can cause a multitude of health issues such as gallstones, weakened immune system, heart disease, oxidative stress (free radicals) and DNA damage.
Healthy and natural plant sources of iron are always non-heme.
Nutritional recommendations for protein and other nutrients are developed by the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) to plan and assess the nutrient intakes of healthy people.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 grams per pound (0.8 grams per kilogram) of body weight per day.
If you’re active, meaning you engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least four days per week, double the RDA to 0.7 grams per pound (1.6 grams per kilogram).
If math isn’t your thing, you can use this protein calculator to find out how many grams of protein your body needs per day based on your age, activity level, and other factors.
Best Vegan Sources of Protein
Vegans can find protein pretty much everywhere. All plants contain at least some protein, which means it’s in practically everything a vegan eats.
This is far from an exhaustive list. Pretty much all grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds have relatively high amounts of protein.
Top vegan protein sources:
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Pinto beans
- Split peas
- Sunflower seeds
- Brown rice
- Nut butters
Though not as necessary for optimal health as commonly believed, the most efficient vegan sources of protein are foods that naturally contain all nine essential amino acids.
Top vegan sources of complete protein:
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Nutritional Yeast
The idea behind protein combining is that you can create complete proteins by combining protein sources (such as grains and legumes) that would separately contain only certain amino acids, but when combined contain all of them.
For example, rice is high in methionine but too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein; by eating lentils or beans (which are higher in lysine), you can make sure you get all nine essential amino acids.
As a general rule for vegans: legumes tend to be good sources of lysine whereas nuts, seeds, and grains tend to be good sources of methionine.
I want to be absolutely clear: it’s a myth that you need to combine proteins in a single sitting to make complete proteins. Protein combining is something your body does naturally, so it’s not necessary to consciously try to combine proteins at every meal.(4)
Because protein is made of chains of amino acids, your body automatically assembles these chains from the various amino acids in the foods you eat throughout the day. So if you eat whole grains at breakfast and have beans at lunch, your body is still able to create those amino acid chains.
If you eat a varied diet with enough calories, you likely won’t have to give a second thought to whether you’re getting all nine essential amino acids.
For any control-freaks who need to know they’re getting complete proteins in a single meal, there are plenty of possible combinations.
Common vegan protein combinations:
- Brown rice and beans
- Pita and hummus
- Whole grain bread and peanut butter
You can also use this amino acid calculator to find out the amino acid content of different foods.
Vegans & Protein Supplements
Most people don’t need to take protein supplements because they get enough protein from their diet.
People who could benefit from protein supplements are people who are very physically active, such as athletes, bodybuilders, and people who work in physically-demanding jobs.
Certain circumstances can cause our bodies to have a harder time maintaining muscle mass. Protein supplements can be useful for helping prevent muscle loss that usually occurs while dieting for weight loss or through the natural process of aging.
Disclaimer: The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. To make sure your diet is providing you with the correct amount of nutrients your body needs, be sure to consult a nutrition specialist (ie: registered dietitian) with expertise in vegan diets.