No matter how often vegans are instructed not to worry about protein, it’s an issue that tends to come up again and again. It can be tempting to laugh the protein question off, because plant-based diets do provide all of the protein that folks need.
But I think it’s important to keep the dialog about protein going. For one thing, there are a lot of conflicting opinions about how much protein is necessary, both for everyday needs and also to support fitness goals. It’s also one thing to hear an estimate of how much protein is advisable, and quite another to actually go about sourcing that protein with real, everyday meals.
If plant based eating is new to you, then it can be an additional challenge to translate what you know about protein already over to a new eating paradigm. Perhaps you know exactly how much protein is in Greek yogurt or tuna or chicken, but you’re not really sure about the protein in legumes or grains or nuts.
This is an issue that surfaces often with my clients. It’s not that they’re all nervous Nellies about protein; it’s simply that they’re new to plant based eating, and they’re not entirely sure where protein should come from and how much of it their favorite plant foods contain. Is hummus a good source of protein? What about nuts? Is it necessary to use protein powder? Are complete proteins something to worry about? These are questions I often talk through with my clients, and once we do, the issue becomes a lot clearer.
So, how much protein should we get each day? Dietary reference intakes put forward by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, suggest 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight for adult men and women (in other words, protein needs are proportional to weight, and not to total energy intake) (1, 2). Plant protein can be slightly more difficult to absorb than animal protein, so some vegan dietitians suggest getting 0.9 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight (3). This comes to about 0.41 grams per pound. For a 150-pound woman, this would mean about 61.5 grams daily.
The USDA’s Choose My Plate site, which provides nutrition information to industry professionals and consumers, frames the issue a little differently. That site’s recommendation is in ounce equivalents per day. The recommendation for women age 19-30 is 5.5 ounce equivalents per day. For women 31-50, it’s 5 ounce equivalents per day, and the same is true for 51+. For men aged 31-50, it’s 6 ounce equivalents per day.
If you’re curious about how “ounce equivalents” work, here’s a short list of foods that are equal to one or two ounce equivalents, taken directly from the USDA resources:
Nuts and Seeds
1/2 ounce of nuts (12 almonds, 24 pistachios, 7 walnut halves)
1/2 ounce of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds, hulled, roasted)
1 Tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter
1 ounce of nuts of seeds = 2 ounce equivalents
Beans and Peas
1/4 cup of cooked beans (such as black, kidney, pinto, or white beans)
1/4 cup of cooked peas (such as chickpeas, cowpeas, lentils, or split peas)
1/4 cup of baked beans, refried beans
1 falafel patty (2 1/4″, 4 oz)
2 Tablespoons hummus
1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) of tofu
1 ox. tempeh, cooked
1/4 cup roasted soybeans
Soups and Burgers
1 cup split pea soup = 2 ounce equivalents
1 cup lentil soup = 2 ounce equivalents
1 cup bean soup = 2 ounce equivalents
1 soy or bean burger patty = 2 ounce equivalents
OK, so how to make sense of this?
Personally, I find it easier to think about protein in terms of a daily recommendation in grams, rather than ounce equivalents. I think all of the 1-ounce equivalents listed above are easy to source on a vegan diet, but for whatever reason, I find the gram system a little more intuitive. If you’re navigating your own protein needs, you can go by the system that feels sensible to you.
If we’re aiming for, say, 60 grams of protein daily (as per the above example), the next challenge becomes distributing that amount of protein through one’s daily diet. Let’s say you’re having 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily: that would probably break down to 15 or so grams of protein with each meal, and 5 with each snack — give or take, because of course it’s fine to have a little more protein with one meal or snack than with another.
The next step is familiarizing yourself with protein quantities in your favorite foods. When I sit down with a new client, I often provide him or her with a short list of protein counts for some common plant foods. Here’s a sampling:
Tempeh, 3 ounces: 17 grams
Tofu, 4 ounces: 12 grams
Edamame, ½ cup, shelled and steamed: 9 grams
Quinoa, 1 cup, cooked: 8 grams
Buckwheat, 1 cup, cooked: 5 grams
Oat bran, 1 cup, cooked: 7 grams
Rolled oats, ½ cup, cooked or raw: 5 grams
Sprouted grain bread, 2 slices: 8 grams
Almonds, 1 ounce (about ¼ 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, ½ cup, cooked: 9 grams
Chickpeas, ½ cup, cooked: 7 grams
Black beans, ½ cup, cooked: 8 grams
Seitan, 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, ¼ cup = 5 grams
Beyond Meat chicken strips, 6 strips = 20 grams
Butler Soy Curls, 30 grams = 10 grams
I’m often asked whether or not it’s necessary to get a “complete” protein with each meal. Complete proteins contain all of the amino acids that human beings need to source from food. It was once thought that vegetarians and vegans had to get complete proteins with each meal, either through a single food that’s a complete protein on its own, like tofu or quinoa, or through a combinations of foods (rice and beans is a well known example). Recent nutrition research suggests that a complete protein with each meal isn’t necessary; so long as one gets all of the amino acids overall, day in and day out, the body can assemble complete proteins efficiently.
Nevertheless, I think it can be limiting to think about protein only in terms of single ingredients and what they provide. So, I often give my clients the following list of protein rich food combinations. Check it out. You may be surprised at how simple, accessible, and appealing these combinations are. You may be eating a lot of them on you own already!
1 cup cooked rolled oats + 2 tablespoons peanut butter = 12 grams
4 ounces tofu + 1 cup steamed kale = 15 grams
½ cup lentils + 1 cup steamed broccoli = 12 grams
3 ounces tempeh + 1 cup cooked collard greens = 22 grams
1 cup cooked buckwheat + 1 ounce almonds = 11 grams
1/3 cup seitan + 1 cup steamed kale = 24 grams
1 cup cooked quinoa + 3 tablespoons hemp hearts = 18 grams
2 slices sprouted grain bread + ¼ cup hummus = 13 grams
1/2 cup roasted chickpeas + 1 ounce almonds + 2 tablespoons raisins (inspired by my favorite homemade trail mix) = 14 grams
2 slices sprouted grain bread + 2 tablespoons peanut butter = 15 grams
1/2 cup cooked lentils + 1 cup cooked quinoa = 17 grams
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds + 1 cup cooked broccoli = 12 grams
1 cup cooked oat bran + 1 ounce almonds = 13 grams
Of course, when it comes to protein–as with any other nutrition question–individual needs can vary quite dramatically. While the Institute of Medicine and USDA guidelines are reasonable for most people, and while I’ve found them to be successful for most clients, protein needs can certainly shift around with activity level, health circumstances, and other unique factors.
Sometimes a person simply feels better when he or she exceeds the “standard” amount of recommended protein–which is also fine. If you believe that more protein works better for your body, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get an extra ounce equivalent or some extra grams daily. The point of this post is not to suggest that one size fits all, but rather to show you that getting a reasonable amount of protein is perfectly achievable with simple combinations of plant-based foods.
You’ll notice that I didn’t include protein powders on the list. This isn’t because I have anything against them, but rather because I think it’s important for folks to realize that they’re not 100% necessary for plant-based eaters (or for anyone who’s being mindful of protein). They certainly have a place: for example, they can be convenient during travel, or during busy periods of time in which balanced eating is a challenge. And they’re great for an extra boost. Just know that there are a lot of ways to source protein with simple, affordable foods that you probably have sitting in your pantry, or marinating in a grain salad in the fridge 🙂
I hope this post is helpful! Questions, comments, and personal experiences are welcome, as are suggestions based on your own favorite high protein plant food combinations.
On that note, I’m visiting family this weekend, so it’s time to get back to catch up time. I wish you all a lovely Friday, and I’ll see you on Sunday for some weekend reading.
1. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
2. Donald K Layman. Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needs. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2009; 6: 12.
3. Messina, Virginia, and Norris, Jack. Vegan for Life. Da Capo Lifelong Books, July 12, 2011.