FREE E-Guide: 10 Things Every Vegan Needs to Know About Nutrition

Plant-Based Protein 101

"Intro to Plant-Based Protein" over bowls of various dried beans and lentils and tofu

We don’t need to eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy in order to get enough protein. But does that mean vegans don’t need to think about protein or are guaranteed to get enough? What what is “enough” protein, anyway? Get the facts about plant-based protein and learn how to cover your protein needs without overthinking it!

What is Protein?

One of the three macronutrients, protein provides energy and building blocks for our body. Many people associate protein with muscles but there’s a lot more that protein does in addition to building muscles, including providing structure for bones, skin, hair, enzymes and more. There are literally thousands of kinds of proteins.

Protein is made of 20 different amino acids, of which there are 9 that are essential to humans, meaning we cannot make them so we have to eat them.

All essential amino acids can be found in plant foods.

Bowls of various fried beans, lentils and nuts

How Much Protein Do I Need?

Meat eaters love to ask vegans where they get their protein and vegans love to talk about how protein deficiency doesn’t exist in the United States. Well, what does a protein deficiency look like? How would you know if you’re eating enough protein to support your body’s functions? While it’s true that many people effortlessly eat enough protein, some people do not.

And just because you don’t have a protein deficiency doesn’t mean you’re eating an optimal amount of protein. We can can underconsume nutrients without having a clinical deficiency, and that’s still an issue!

If you’re following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate (or the vegan version that I teach in my online course), you’re likely getting enough protein. But if you’re following a diet or restricting any foods, there is a much higher likelihood that you might not be getting enough protein (and lots of other important nutrients).

Research shows, on average, vegans and vegetarians consume enough or more than enough protein. The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Vegans should eat slightly more than this (0.9 g/kg) because plant protein foods are not digested as well as animal protein foods. This equates to about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So, for example, if you’re a 150-pound person, that equates to about 60 grams of protein, which is not hard to come by.

Does this mean you need to calculate your protein needs and track your protein intake? No.

We don’t need to count grams of protein. If we’re eating enough food and eating a balance of food groups, protein won’t be an issue.

Individuals who are highly active or have certain health conditions need more protein. It’s best to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to get personalized recommendations.

Text "protein recommendations for vegans" with a list of high-protein legumes over a photo of bowls of dried beans and lentils

Where Can I Get Plant-Based Protein?

The good news is protein can be found all throughout the plant kingdom. Some foods, such as lentils and soy, are great sources of protein while others, such as fruit, contain very little protein.

Here are two main rules of thumb to remember when it comes to plant-based protein.

Eat enough calories. This way your body can use protein for building, structure and other critical functions and not for energy. The last thing you want is your body breaking down its own tissues. In other words: don’t diet. Eat when you’re hungry and eat enough so that you’re comfortably full. And of course eat foods that are satisfying to you!

Eat at least 3 servings of legumes daily, which includes:

  • Beans
  • Peas (and pea-protein-based meats)
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts & peanut butter
  • Soyfoods (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yogurt, soy-based meats)

Legumes are particularly rich in the amino acid lysine, which is limited in other plant foods. They’re also super affordable, a great source of fiber and overall wonderfully nutritious foods.

There is no need to “combine” foods to create a “complete protein,” but it is a good idea to eat a variety of protein sources daily. In addition to legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains diversify the amino acids you’re eating.

RELATED: 25 Quick and Easy Vegan Meal and Snack Ideas that are Nourishing and Satisfying

Learn more about plant-based protein, including how to build protein-rich vegan meals and snacks, in my vegan nutrition course!

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A Vegan Dietitian's Guide to Plant-Based Protein

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