How do vegans get protein? Plant-based protein sources are abundant, and we’ll explore them here, from whole foods like grains and legumes, to today’s wide array of vegan meat substitutes. Chances are, if you’ve gone vegan and report the news to a non-vegan you’ll be asked, “How do you get your protein?”
It’s a question that just won’t go away; there’s still so much bewilderment over this question about plant-based protein sources. Longtime vegans might roll their eyes at having to endlessly explain and justify their protein sources.
But the myth that it’s hard to get adequate protein on a vegan diet is tenacious. There’s plenty of evidence, as we know, that a varied whole foods diet has little chance of falling short in protein, especially if it provides sufficient calories.
Many foods have at least some protein. Whole grains, legumes, soy foods, nuts, and seeds all offer high-quality protein. Many common vegetables have small amounts of protein, so if you eat plenty of them, they add in to your daily total as well.
The body can manufacture all but nine of the 22 amino acids that make up proteins. These nine amino acids are referred to as “essential” amino acids and must be derived from food. That is why getting sufficient, good quality protein is crucial.
The operative word here is sufficient — this isn’t a case where more is necessarily better. Many Americans eat twice as much protein as needed. Excess protein can’t be stored, and its elimination puts a strain on the kidneys and liver. Too-high protein consumption is linked to kidney disease, cancers of the colon, breast, prostate and pancreas, and even osteoporosis.
How to determine your daily protein requirement
Arriving at how much protein you need is based on a simple calculation. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), established by the National Academy of Sciences, states that an adult in good health needs 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Thus, a 160-pound man needs about 58 grams of protein a day, and a 120-pound woman needs about 43 grams.
Exceptions to the RDA guidelines: Pregnant and lactating woman need considerably more protein – add at least 25 grams of protein per day.
Infants and children need more total protein per body pound than adults. For toddlers age one through three years, calculate 0.5 grams per pound of body weight; children four through 13 years, 0.43 grams per pound and teens, 0.39 grams per pound.
Some notable exceptions to the RDA guidelines: Pregnant and lactating women need considerably more protein, as do those recovering from surgery and other physical trauma. Infants and children need more total protein per body pound than adults, and the protein must be of high quality and rich in amino acids.
The next time someone asks you where vegan get their protein, refer to this list. It’s by no means an exhaustive list of all plant-based protein sources, but a fairly thorough rundown of many of the most common, and ones you’re likely to use most.
Beans and legumes (cooked, 1/2 cup serving)
Remember, beans and legumes are so blessedly low in calories and fat that if you need more protein and have the capacity, a 1-cup serving isn’t unreasonable — so you can double the protein count from these sources below.
- Chickpeas = 7g
- Edamame (fresh green soybeans) = 8.5g
- Black beans= 8g
- Pinto beans = 6g
- Lentils, brown and others = 6 to 8g
- Lentils, red = 13g
- Split peas (green or yellow) = 8 to 10g
Tofu, tempeh, and seitan
- Seitan (4 ounces) = 28g
- Tempeh (4 ounces) = 20 to 21g
- Tofu, firm (4 ounces) = 10g
- Tofu, extra-firm (4 ounces) = 8g
- Tofu, baked (2 ounces) = 10g
- Tofu, silken (4 ounces) = 7g
Nuts (1/4 cup)
- Almonds = 8g
- Cashews = 5g
- Peanuts = 7g
- Pistachios = 6g
- Walnuts = 4g
See our guide to Nuts
Nut butters (2 tablespoons)
- Peanut butter = 8g
- Cashew butter = 6g
- Almond butter = 8g
- Chia seeds = 4 g
- Flax seeds (2 tablespoons) = 3.8g
- Hemp seeds, also known as hemp hearts (2 tablespoons) = 6g
- Sunflower seeds (2 tablespoons) = 3.5g
- Pumpkin seeds (1/4 cup) = 8g
Grains (1/2 cup cooked serving)
As with legumes, whole grains are low in fat and high in fiber. If you need more, up to a 1 cup serving for those with heartier appetites or higher protein needs is a reasonable quantity.
- 1 1/2 tablespoons = 8 g (also a great source of Vitamin B12;
See our Guide to Nutritional Yeast)
Pastas (1 cup cooked serving, unless noted)
- Quinoa pasta = 4g
- Spelt pasta = 12g
- Soba noodles (2 ounce serving) = 7 to 8g
- Whole wheat pasta = 7g
- Ordinary durum wheat pasta = 7g
Plant-Based Meat alternatives
Plant-based meats are an easy way to pack in a lot of protein. It would be “Impossible” (get it?) to list all the various brands and varieties on the market today — which seem to be growing by leaps and bounds — so here’s just a small sampling of some of the popular products. For more info on brands, see our post on companies that make meat alternatives.
- Beyond Burger® (1 patty) = 20g
- Beyond Sausage® (1 link) = 16g
- Gardein Beefless Ground (1/2 cup) – 12g
- Gardein® Mandarin Orange Crispy Chick’n (7 nuggets) = 11g
- Field Roast® Sausages, any flavor (1 link) = 25g
- Field Roast ®Fieldburger (1 patty) = 25g
- Impossible® Burger (1 patty) = 19g
- Lightlife® Smoky Tempeh Strips (4 strips) = 12g
- Lightlif®e Smart Dogs (2 links) = 14g
- Tofurky® Bologna Style Deli Slices (3 slices) = 14g
- Tofurky® Italian Sausage (1 link) = 30g
- Asparagus (1 cup) = 4 g
- Broccoli (1 cup cooked florets) = 2 to 3g
- Brussels sprouts (1 cup cooked) = 4g
- Kale (1 cup packed) = 2g
- Spinach (1/2 cup wilted, packed) = 3g
- Sweet potato (1 medium) – 2. 25g
Other vegetables and fruits, including butternut squash, green peas, blueberries, medjool dates, and others, have from 1g to 2g protein per serving. So it does all add up!
Even ordinary foods like bread (whole grain, of course), add to your day’s total protein needs. A slice of whole grain bread has 2.5g to 4g protein, so a two-slice sandwich gives you 5 to 8 grams, before you even add the filling.
A medium banana has about 1.5g protein! So a simple peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole grain bread provides nearly a third of the daily protein requirement of an average-size woman.
Photos (other than broccoli, nutritional yeast, and Beyond® Burger) by Hannah Kaminsky