The question that vegetarians and vegans are constantly being asked is “How do you get protein?” As annoying as this question is (no one cared about how you got protein before you went veg!), you can’t blame the general public for mistakenly thinking that the vegan diet is lacking in protein. The meat industry has been very influential in getting people to think that meat = protein. For a long time, the government even promoted meat as one of the food groups to eat every day.
The meat industry has also been very successful in overplaying our need for protein. A typical healthy adult only needs about 46 to 56 grams of protein per day. In meat terms, this is about 1.5 cups of chopped chicken or about a half pound of steak. Most Americans are eating a lot more meat than this per day. In the 1950s, Americans ate just about 45 pounds of meat per year. Today, Americans are consuming 6x this much meat for an average of 270 pounds of meat per person (source).
Eating this much meat can be dangerously unhealthy. Meat is high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease (the number one killer in the US), high blood pressure, and a slew of other cardiovascular problems. Overconsumption of meat is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and kidney damage.
News flash! You don’t need that much protein – and you don’t need to eat meat to get it!
The Institute of Medicine puts protein RDAs at 0.4 to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. The higher end is for athletes. Based on these guidelines, they recommend the following protein RDAs:
- Adult Males: 56 grams per day
- Adult Females: 46 grams per day
For everyone who has asked, “how do vegans get protein”, here is a visual guide which shows just how easy it is to meet protein RDAs on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Protein for the Foodie Vegetarian
If you love to cook and constantly have your refrigerator stocked with vegetarian protein sources like tofu, seitan, and tempeh, and also eat healthy, protein-rich grains like quinoa and brown rice, you’ll find that you are probably exceeding your protein RDAs on a vegetarian diet. Even treats like these peach oatmeal bars can provide some protein (not to mention fiber, antioxidants, and micronutrients).
Protein for the Lazy Vegetarian
But what if you don’t like to cook? Even then, it is still really easy for vegetarians to meet protein RDAs. This sample lunch may not be the healthiest (many vegan processed foods are often made with GMOs and chemicals like hexane), but it goes to show that it isn’t difficult to get protein. As for the spaghetti dinner, lazy vegetarians can cook easy recipes like these “beet balls” in advance and freeze them. Just defrost them and you’ve got a healthy, nutritious topping for pizzas, spaghetti or sandwiches.
Protein for the Busy Vegetarian
I know – you are too busy to cook, so how could you possibly meet protein RDAs while sticking to a strict vegan diet? Yep, even then it is pretty easy. For breakfast, you can whip up a protein-rich smoothie in minutes and even drink it on the way to work. Increasingly more fast food places are offering vegan options, like this Chipotle sofritas burrito. As for dinner, just throw some legumes or beans and veggies in a pressure cooker. It takes less than 10 minutes of effort and you will be rewarded with a tasty stew like this ridiculously easy lentil stew.
Vegan Sources of Protein
There is no shortage of good sources of protein for vegans. The best ones are obviously going to be beans, legumes, seeds, nuts, and products made from them. But even fruits and vegetables contain some protein. While you may not be able to meet protein RDAs on fruits and veggies alone, their protein content can quickly add up towards your total daily requirements.
Beans and Legumes and their Products (per 1 cup)
- Seitan – 60 grams
- Tempeh – 31g
- Soy beans – 29g
- Tofu – 24g
- Lentils – 18g
- Adzuki beans – 17g
- White beans – 16g
- Kidney beans -15g
- Mung beans – 14g
- Fava beans – 13g
- Chickpeas – 12g
Nuts and Seeds (per 100 grams)
- Pepitas – 33g
- Walnuts – 24g
- Almonds – 22g
- Pistachio – 21g
- Sunflower seeds – 20g
- Flax seeds – 18g
- Cashews – 18g
- Peanuts – 17g
Cereals and Grains (per 1 cup)
- Oats – 26g
- Bagel – 10g
- Amaranth – 9g
- Quinoa – 8g
- Whole wheat pasta – 7g
- Couscous – 6g
- Brown rice – 5g
Vegetables (per 100 grams)
- Sun dried tomatoes – 14g
- Soybean sprouts – 13g
- Edamame – 11g
- Raw garlic – 6g
- Peas – 5g
- Fiddlehead ferns – 5g
- Portabella mushrooms – 4g
- Frozen spinach – 4g
- Brussels sprouts – 4g
Fruits (per 100 grams)
- Dried apricots – 5g
- Dried bananas -4g
- Prunes – 4g
- Raisins – 4g
- Figs – 3g
What about Amino Acids?
One of the things that the vegetarian diet is criticized for is that there are very few sources of complete protein. A complete protein is any food which contains all 9 of the essential amino acids our bodies need (more on amino acids here). Further, a complete protein must also contain each of these amino acids in amounts which could sustain bodily function. So, even though brown rice does contain all 9 amino acids, it does not have all of them in adequate amounts to qualify as a complete protein. Only a few vegan foods are complete proteins, such as quinoa.
In order to get enough amino acids, some people mistakenly think that vegans have to resort to complex methods of combining proteins – like eating corn (which doesn’t have much of the amino acid lysine) with lentils (which are high in lysine). This is not the case.
So long as you are eating a varied diet, you are most likely going to get all of the essential amino acids that you need. As the Vegetarian Resource Group points out, even if you ate just one protein source all day long, you could still meet amino acid RDAs – you’d just have to eat a lot of that protein source. For example, you’d have to eat almost 13 cups of corn in a day to get all your amino acids from corn alone. Most people don’t eat the same thing all day, every day, so getting amino acids isn’t an issue.
If you are really worried that you aren’t getting enough amino acids, of you have a higher demand because you are an athlete or bodybuilder, then there are always vegan protein supplements which you can add to your diet.
Thanks to Susan Voisin of Fat Free Vegan for letting me use images from some of your tasty recipes. For more delicious, healthy vegan recipes, I recommend checking out her blog.
Other images were sourced from Flickr and originals can be found there.
*Almond butter milkshake by Miriam Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
*Vegan Diet Day 7/21 by Bill Roehl Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
*I love the ‘Super Luxury’ muesli from M&S with 63% fruits, nuts & seed. Enjoying my favorite banana, muesli and honey breakfast after two weeks, because of the Amsterdam trip and the juice detox. by Gaurav Mishra Attribution-NonCommercial License
*Vegan Diet Day 6/21 by Bill Roehl Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
*#FOODZ: Seitan carnitas/avo/blue corn tacos, wild arugula/baby radish/olive oil/lemon/sea salt salad. *Local! by Xeni Jardin Attribution License
*tofu scramble and a sprouted wheat bagel by Ari Moore Attribution License