“People eat meat and think they will become as strong as an ox, forgetting that the ox eats grass.” -Pino Caruso
As a rite of passage, every vegan will be asked how they supply their bodies with protein. I’ve handled the question with varying degrees of elegance. 10 years ago, I handled it defensively, “Protein is a really overstated nutrient”, I would say, “and most Americans lack fiber in their diet, not protein. Where do YOU get your fiber?!”
I actually enjoy this question now because I’ve done my homework and I realized it’s a very reasonable question. I think a lot of us grew up in households where protein came from meat, and only meat. I actually didn’t realize that plants have protein until I started researching. It’s not insane to wonder about how vegans find protein sources!
To the shock of my family and friends, I’m still alive, despite not getting any protein from animal sources.
Humans definitely need protein to maintain muscle mass and be healthy, and athletes certainly need more than sedentary people. But I think that protein is wildly over-emphasized. The average person in the U.S. eats far more than they need.
There’s evidence that humans have optimum health with a diet around 10-percent protein – that’s easily met by just eating greens like spinach. So, it’s not like a typical American needs to be seeking out more protein. Again, I’m not a nutrition expert, so talk to a nutritionist if you have very detailed questions. But as you start out reducing animal protein from your diet, here’s a basic rule of thumb for protein. To determine your daily protein intake, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36, or use this online protein calculator. For a 50-year-old woman who weighs 140 pounds woman and who is sedentary (doesn’t exercise), that translates into 53 grams of protein a day.
Here are some surprisingly protein-rich vegan ingredients, all of which can be paired together effortlessly to create protein-dense meals:
- Quinoa, 1 cup, cooked: 8 grams
- Buckwheat, 1 cup, cooked: 5 grams
- Oat bran, 1 cup, cooked: 7 grams
- Rolled oats, 1/2 cup, cooked or raw: 5 grams
- Sprouted grain bread, 2 slices: 8 grams
- Tempeh, 3 ounces: 17 grams
- Tofu, 4 ounces: 12 grams
- Edamame, 1/2 cup, shelled and steamed: 9 grams
- Almonds, 1 ounce (about 1/4 cup), raw: 6 grams
- Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons: 7 grams
- Hemp hearts (shelled hemp seeds), 3 tablespoons: 10 grams
- Nutritional yeast, 2 tablespoons: 8 grams
- Lentils, 1/2 cup, cooked: 9 grams
- Chickpeas, 1/2 cup, cooked: 7 grams
- Black beans, 1/2 cup, cooked: 8 grams
- Seitan (wheat protein), 1/3 cup, cooked: 21 grams
- Broccoli, 1 cup, steamed: 3 grams
- Kale, 1 cup, steamed: 3 grams
- Collard greens, 1 cup, steamed: 5 grams
- Hummus, 1/4 cup: 5 grams
Current nutrition wisdom is that we don’t actually have to seek out complete proteins with every meal, because our bodies can assemble them efficiently when given an array of amino acids building blocks from a well-rounded diet. Whoa, bodies are awesome! Still, it doesn’t hurt to seek out some of the most well-known, plant-based complete proteins, including soy foods, quinoa, and the time-honored rice and beans combo.
There has never been a protein deficiency logged by doctors in the United States that did not stem from malnutrition. All that to say, as long as vegans are eating enough calories from a variety of food, they exceed protein requirements. Plant proteins have been shown to be better for humans, overall.
Excess animal protein intake is linked with osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in the urinary tract, and some cancers. Despite some persistent confusion, it is clear that vegetarians and vegans tend to have more optimal protein consumption than omnivores.
A recent study from the University of Finland found that men whose primary sources of protein were animal-based had a 23% higher risk of death during the follow-up than men who had the most balanced ratio of animal and plant-based protein in their diet. The men participating in the study mainly ate red meat. Most nutrition recommendations nowadays limit the intake of red and processed meats. In Finland, for example, the recommended maximum intake is 500 grams per week.
This makes sense:
Unlike plant protein, which comes packaged with fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, animal protein comes with exactly none of that. To this point, meat, eggs, poultry, dairy, fish, and other animal foods have absolutely no fiber whatsoever. Many people, in their effort to “get enough” protein, tend to eat large amounts of animal foods, which displaces plant foods that have these important nutrients. As I mentioned, fiber deficiencies, in particular, are far more common than not.
Also, if you have any sort of inflammatory disease – IBS, Crohn’s, asthma, acne, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and even atherosclerosis of heart arteries – meat and dairy consumption will only make it worse! Your body has an inflammatory response to protein derived from animal sources – exacerbating any underlying issues you may have.
Vegan Inspo Time!
Now here’s a list of elite vegan athletes. Some of the strongest, fastest, best athletes in the world only get protein from plant sources, and they swear it helps their performance:
I would love to know what you’ve found on nutrition and protein sources! As I mentioned, I’m not an expert, but I’ve spent 10 years thinking about this and trying to do right by my body (I say this as I’m on my second cup of coffee with no breakfast).
Drop a comment or a question! I love feedback 🙂