Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about vegan protein, plus some protein-rich vegan recipes!
This post is another in my short series answering frequently asked questions about specific nutrients in the vegan diet. The first post in this series was about vegan iron and iron rich foods.
When you cut out animal products, you might think you’re also cutting out your best sources of protein. This makes complete sense. If your plate is normally centered around a piece of meat, chances are it’s the only protein on the table. Maybe there are some veggies on the side. Maybe some rice or pasta. Take the meat away, and it’s a sad, sad plate.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Let’s talk vegan protein, y’all.
Vegan Protein: Does it stack up?
The short answer to this question is yes, but here’s the longer answer, too.
If you’ve heard that vegans need to do careful protein-combining at each meal, I want to dispel that myth right now. If you’re eating enough calories, you’re doing a-OK in the protein department. For details on the vegan protein combining myth, I recommend checking out this article from registered dietician Jeff Novic.
If you want sample meal plans that are rich in vegan protein, I suggest checking out this article from the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG).
Like iron, your protein needs depend on your age, gender, and lifestyle. There is some debate about whether we really need as much protein as the USDA recommends, but let’s err on the side of too much, since folks tend to worry about not getting enough. Here is what the CDC recommends:
If you’re an athlete, you’re going to need more than this. In the VRG article linked above, they say that “Vegan athletes’ protein needs can range from 0.36 to 0.86 grams of protein per pound.” If you’re marathon training or body building, you need more protein, because you’re building up so much new muscle and burning approximately 80,000 more calories. I don’t have a source for the number because I made it up. But it sure felt true when I was marathon training!
Vegan Protein Sources
Some of the vegan protein sources on this list might surprise you. Protein hides in some pretty unexpected places! The protein below amounts are all from the Nutrition Data website.
I’ve got three protein-rich recipes for each of the 10 vegan protein sources below. That’s 30 recipes to help you stop worrying about protein and start eating a delicious plant-based diet.
1. Quinoa – 8g per cup
Whole grains are a great source for protein, and quinoa is one of the best grains for protein. Use it in a hearty lentil loaf, as a rice alternative in veggie paella, or as the base for a yummy dinnner bowl.
2. Beans – 14-18g per cup
Let’s get real: if I broke out beans, this list would be 90 percent beans. Don’t worry too much about which beans you’re eating. Just eat ’em! You not only get protein, but you get a nice dose of iron, too! I’m sure you know how to eat your beans, but here are some recipes anyway. Try some rice cooker rice and beans; make ’em boozy and stuff ’em into your tacos, or in a smoky chili.
3. Cooked Collard Greens – 4g per cup
Dark leafy greens actually have a nice amount of protein, and they’re lower in calories than other vegan protein sources. Dark and leafies have the most protein if you eat them cooked, since they reduce on the stove. Raw collards, for example, only have 1g protein per cup. Try these quick and easy collards, toss them into your crock pot, or try them for brunch with some creamy grits.
4. Seeds 2-10g in 2 tablespoons
Like beans, seeds are full of protein, and it can vary from seed to seed. Hemp seeds have 10g per 2 tablespoon serving, while flax seeds have a little under 2g. Eat your seeds with every meal! Try adding chia seeds to your juice for a boba-style treat, spoon flax seeds into your green smoothie, or make raw hemp seed tabouli.
5. Tofu – 9g in 1/5 of a block
It’s no surprise that tofu has plenty of protein. And tell me true: who eats just 1/5 of a block in a sitting? If you’re worried that soy is really some kind of terrible poison, I recommend checking out this piece that Tanya wrote about it for Eat Drink Better. She busts some soy myths beautifully! Dip coconut tofu in a sweet and spicy sauce, make a simple tofu stir fry, or fix a simple tofu scramble.
6. Potato – 7g in 1 large red potato with skin
Well, hallelujah! My family’s favorite food has lots of protein! Mash those potatoes up with soy milk, and you add even more protein to this underrated food. Eat them mashed with veggies and baked into savory cupcakes, pureed into a filling soup, or in a pesto potato salad.
7. Cooked Spinach – 5g per cup
I feel like we tend to skip spinach in favor of hipper dark and leafies like kale and collards, but when it comes to protein, spinach is the winnah! Bake it into a creamy dip, cook up a batch of saag tofu, or saute it up with chick peas and asparagus.
8. Cooked Peas – 9g per cup
9. Broccoli – 4g per cup
10. Nuts – 2-5g per 2 tablespoons
Nuts deliver a lot of healthy fat with their protein, which makes them a filling addition to any vegan diet. I like a handful of cashews or almonds as a snack, but you can cook with them too. Make mini vegan “cheesecakes” with cashews, roast them with spices for a fancier snack, or add some crunch to your mock chicken salad.