As a vegan, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “Where do you get your protein?” (Fellow vegans, I’m sure you can relate.) The answer isn’t as complicated as many people think it is. Vegan protein sources are varied and easily accessible — and most are even very cost-effective!
So if you’re thinking about transitioning to a plant-based diet or are already vegan and looking to make some healthier choices, check out the options below. But before we get to good sources of vegan protein, we first have to answer one other very important question: how much protein do you need in a day, anyways?
You don’t really need as much protein as you think
Fitness professionals will give you all different ranges of how much protein you need. After thirty years in the business as a certified nutritionist, I can confirm what a lot of studies have shown: if you keep your protein level around 30% of your caloric intake, that’s how much you need to hold onto and build muscle. This is referring to when you are dieting, or trying to lose body fat. You see dieting is stressful on the body and when your body is under stress, it needs more protein for repair and replacement of all those cells.
Add in stressful workouts (yes workouts are stressful on your body too) and you need even more of the right nutrients and rest to recover from a workout. Combining results focused resistance training and a nutrition plan that includes adequate protein will help you to build a lean strong physique.
Let's take a look at what 30% protein looks like. If you eat 1500 calories per day, 30% of that is about 500 calories. Proteins contain 4 calories per gram, so dividing 500 by 4 puts us at 125 grams of protein for the day. That’s not too hard to fit in at all! It’s easy when you make it a point to space your out protein throughout the day, having some with every meal. Everyone’s body is slightly different, though, and to know what works best for you within that range, you really have to track your food and be consistent. In general women could shoot for 20 - 25 grams and men 30 - 35 grams at most meals. This is just a generalization so please do not follow strictly. You are going to have to track your food, be aware of how your body responds and make the necessary adjustments. Making these adjustments is key to getting and staying in shape. .
I know what you’re thinking: but what about vegan protein?
Don’t worry — we’re almost there. I’ve got one more crucial tip about how much protein to eat in a day.
If you have too much protein, you will gain body fat
Protein’s gotten a reputation as the super macronutrient: it can do no wrong, and you can never have too much. Unfortunately, you can. Our bodies do not store protein. Extra protein actually gets broken down and stored away as fat!
However, protein is still an essential part of any healthy diet. We have been ingrained to think we need animal products to get the protein we need, that’s simply not true. But I get it, I used to believe this myself. I was a meat eater growing up, AND my father owned a grocery store and was a butcher. When I first started eating a plant based diet, I did it because of the animals. I wasn't even convinced that it was the healthiest way to eat. As a educated myself, and started feeling healthier and stronger, I became a believer. Like you, I’m very familiar with the struggles of transitioning to a plant-based diet. It can be very confusing at first with all the mis-information out there making it even more so.
I encourage you to do your own research and then track everything you eat. Measure your successes as well as what's not working for you. This is exactly how I help my clients with their nutrition. Take it one step at a time.
With that being said, let's move on to vegan protein sources to get you started.
Healthy sources of vegan protein are widely available and varied
The go-to answer in everyone’s mind for vegan protein is tofu. Along with tempeh and edamame, these soy-based products are good whole-food options. Edamame makes an excellent salad topper or appetizer. Tofu and tempeh are easy to stir-fry or bake, taking on the flavors of whatever you cook them with, and tofu has rightfully earned its top spot amongst plant-based eaters thanks to its variability. It can be a ravioli filling, a breakfast scramble, or even a quiche base — the possibilities are endless!
Seitan is an excellent meat alternative as well. This wheat gluten-based protein source is often used as a replacement for chicken or steak. It's also loaded with protein at 21 grams in just one ounce!
Legumes such as black-eyed peas, chickpeas, beans, and lentils are staples of any vegan diet. They’re low-cost, easy to make, and go with many different meals. If you’re using a lot of these, just remember they count as a carbohydrate serving too. This is where people run into trouble with being too high-carb on a vegan diet. They do things like make beans and rice, then have bread later, and yet another carb serving in their next meal. That doesn’t make legumes any worse of an option as a protein source. Just make sure to balance it out. If you’re adding a serving of legumes to a meal, count it as a carb and plan accordingly.
Also playing double-duty are nuts and seeds. Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and nut butters are good options for adding protein to your meal. These are also healthy fats, but they’re still fats, so keep your serving size to about an ounce or a tablespoon. Hemp seeds in particular are a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Sprinkle a tablespoon of those on your salad plus a half-cup of chickpeas, and you have a well-balanced vegan lunch or dinner.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a main protein source of a vegan diet: vegetables. That’s right, vegetables have protein too! Spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and peas all have high protein content. You can't have too many vegetables just be sure to have a large variety so you get a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals.
On the substitute side of things, protein powder is a good, direct way to add a serving of vegan protein to your meal. Plant-based protein powders include Vega One, Plant Fusion, Sun Warrior, and Orgain, all of which can be used on their own or as a base for a smoothie or many other recipes. Just make sure to look at the ingredients when you buy, and try to stick to organic, non-GMO products.
Finally, there are mock meats, which I don’t like to use a lot of because they are processed foods, and our bodies thrive on whole food diets. Plus, they can range on the expensive side for anyone trying to do plant-based on a budget. However, they’re nice and easy to throw on in the toaster oven or a stir-fry and have a meal ready to go. Gardein, Beyond Meat, or Tofurkey provide vegans with many substitute options that let us replicate our favorite non-vegan recipes. These substitutes are especially helpful while transitioning to a plant-based diet.
Ready to try adding more vegan proteins to your diet?
I hope you've found this list of options helpful. Print out this infographic as a quick reference guide to help you as you make a transition to a vegan or vegetarian diet. If you still plan on eating meat, eggs and dairy, I do encourage you to limit your consumption of these animal products and make a commitment to eat plan based at least a few days per week.
If you're looking for some help with transitioning to a plant based diet, or if you're struggling to lose weight while eating vegan, I have a free 30 minute Discovery Call that will help you understand why you’re not getting the results you’re looking for and help you to gain clarity on exactly what you need to do in order to get you moving in the right direction. Just CLICK HERE to use my online scheduler.
In the meantime, let me know what your favorite plant based meal is.
Lisa Swanson is an ACE Certified Health Coach, Personal Trainer and Orthopedic Exercise Specialist as well as a certified AASDN and PN level 1 nutritionist. With over 35 years experience helping people turn their lives around, she is on a mission to provide relevant and useful knowledge to help women in midlife reach their goals.
Check out my interview with the Magnificent Midlife podcast on staying fit and healthy long-term.