The Golden Question
The question of "where do you get your protein?" is posed to vegans the world over at one point or another. While plant-based foods are certainly becoming more popular, protein is still often equated with animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy.
A vegetarian or vegan diet is readily available in protein.
Not only is it possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet, it's relatively easy to do so without having to eat tofu all day long, everyday. And the amount you need may not be as difficult to obtain as you may think...
Protein-packed Lentil Quinoa Salad (protein sources featured: lentils, quinoa, edamame, tahini, & pumpkin seeds)
What does Protein Do?
Without getting too into the nitty gritty, protein is one of the 3 macronutrients (alongside carbohydrates and fats). It's EXTREMELY important in the overall structure, function and metabolism of our body. Here are just a few of its functions:
+ Structure: it's the major structural component of muscles and other tissues (ex. collagen, keratin and elastin)
+ Hormones: which act as chemical messenger to transmit signals (ex. insulin)
+ Enzymes: for several metabolic processes in the body
+ Transport proteins: such as hemoglobin which carries oxygen from the lungs to body tissues
+ Immune defence: from the antibodies & immunoglobulins for protection of the immune system
Each type of protein consists of a specific sequence of amino acids: these are the small "building blocks" of protein molecules and there are 20 of them all together. The human body requires all 20 identified amino acids for proper growth and development on a day-to-day basis:
+ 11 "non-essential" amino acids: these our bodies are able to produce on their own (i.e. we do not need get them from our diet).
+ 9 "essential" amino acids: these our bodies cannot produce and we need to consume them from foods.
Beginner's Green Smoothie: Peanut Butter & Banana (protein sources featured: peanut butter, spinach, soy milk)
How Much Do I Actually Need?
How much protein a person needs can vary based on their age, build, activity level, health status, presence of any illnesses, and so on. It's true that plant-based proteins may not be as efficiently absorbed in the body but the difference is quite small. By eating within the range below, you can easily and adequately meet your needs (1).
The protein requirements for an average adult is 0.8g/kg - 1.0g/kg of body weight (recall that 1 kg = 2.2lbs). So, for example if someone weighs 143lbs (143 / 2.2 = 65kg), then their general protein requirements would be 52-65g per day. Fairly simple, right?
» Keep in mind that requirements will be different (higher) for young children, elderly people and for pregnant women. It's encouraged these groups to speak to a dietitian regarding their specific protein requirements.
Spicy tempeh tacos with cashew lime sauce
(protein source featured: tempeh and cashews)
Plant-Based Protein Sources
There are loads of plant-based food sources, below are a list of just a few top ones - gathered from here and here.
1 cup (170 g) green peas: 8 g
1 cup (190 g) artichoke: 6 g
1 cup (190 g) spinach: 5 g
½ cup (85 g) buckwheat, cooked: 10 g
½ cup (80 g) rolled oats: 5 g
½ cup (90 g) quinoa, cooked: 5 g
½ cup (80 g) tempeh, cooked: 20 g
½ cup (80 g) edamame: 12 g
½ cup (100 g) tofu: 11 g
½ cup (50 g) lentils, cooked: 10 g
1/4 cup (35 g) peanuts: 10 g
½ cup (100 g) beans (most varieties), cooked: 8 g
Seeds, Spreads and Other
1/4 cup (40 g) hemp seeds: 14 g
1/4 cup (60 g) chia seeds: 10 g
2 Tbsp (30 mL) nutritional yeast: 9 g
2 Tbsp (30 mL) almond butter: 8 g
2 Tbsp (30 mL) tahini: 5 g
1 cup (250 mL) soy milk: 8 g » this is why we use mostly soy milk at the PUL headquarters :)
1 cup (250 mL) oat milk: 4 g
1 cup (250 mL) almond milk: 1 g
Get The PDF
Here's a sample page from our 3-page list of top plant-based protein sources.
» Download Your PDF Here
Say you weigh 60 kg (132 lb). Your requirements would then be 48 - 60g protein per day.
+ Breakfast: oatmeal with 1/2c oats (5g), 1Tb flax (2g), 1c soy milk (8g), 1Tb almond butter (4g) = 19g protein
+Lunch: 1 serving of our Lentil & Quinoa Salad (pictured above) = 18g protein
+Dinner: 1 serving of our Soba Noodle Bowl (pictured above) = 51g protein
+Snack: 1 cup soy milk latte (8g) + 1/4 cup peanuts (10g) = 18g
»TOTAL: 106g protein... that's double the requirements! Needless to say, it can be done. Easily.
Cocoa Granola & Mixed Berry Breakfast Parfait (protein sources featured: soy yogurt & granola)
(watch the video here)
What's The Deal With Complementary Proteins?
As we mentioned above, there are 9 essential amino acids that we need to obtain from foods. If a food item contains all 9 amino acids, it's called a "complete protein". Examples include buckwheat, quinoa and soy. However, some plant-based protein sources are low in a few specific essential amino acids, namely lysine and methionine.
+ Most Grains tend to be high in methionine but low in lysine
+ Most Legumes tend to be high in lysine but low in methionine
And so, protein combining emerged. The idea was that if a person combined these "complementary" proteins in the same meal, they would optimize the bioavailability of the protein wherein one food group would "make up" for the lack of particular amino acids in the other food group. However, we now know that you do not necessarily need to consume these two foods in the same meal (1). Having them within the same day will have the same effect. By consistently consuming a varied diet from all food groups, you'll have your bases covered.
You may find that many of your commonly eaten foods are already complementary, here are some examples:
Toast + nut butter
Hummus with pita bread or whole grain crackers
Rice and beans (in a nourish bowl, wrap, taco etc.)
Stir fry with tofu or edamame, served over rice or with noodles
If you want to learn about creating a nutritionally balanced plate, check out our article on The Plate Method.
Mousse au Chocolat (protein source: tofu)
Protein & Exercise
It's a common misconception that all athletes require high protein intake. It's true that athletes training at an elite level, whether it's strength or endurance training, have higher requirements at about 1.3g-1.8g/kg of body weight to account for the building of extra muscle tissues. However, for an average adult that regularly exercises, 0.8g-1.0g protein per kg of body weight is enough to meet their needs.
Supplementation & Protein Powders
If you've read our previous articles, you'll know that PUL is a big fan of obtaining nutrient from food first, when possible. The same goes for protein. It's absolutely possible to obtain adequate levels -- even as an athlete -- from food alone.
With that said, if your requirements have been determined to be very high or you are otherwise unable to meet your needs from food alone, you may choose to supplement with a powder. Some plant based sources include soy protein and pea protein and/or combinations of hemp protein, flax protein, chia protein, brown rice protein, etc. Aim for brands that are not heavily sweetened.
Chewy No Bake Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Oat Bars (protein sources featured: rolled oats, peanut butter & flaxseeds)
It's doable: obtaining adequate levels of protein on a varied plant-based diet is absolutely possible and does not necessarily require supplementation.
0.8g - 1.0g of protein per kg body weight: this is how much the average adult who exercises regularly requires to meet their needs. Requirements will be different for children, elderly, pregnant women and high endurance athletes.
Best sources: download + print this PDF on protein-rich plant-based sources. The best plant-based sources include legumes and grain products such as tempeh, lentils, beans, quinoa, buckwheat. Other great sources include nuts, seeds and some vegetables.
Athletes: requirements for an average adult who exercises regularly remain at 0.8g - 1.0g/kg of body weight. Elite endurance and strength athletes require higher levels (about 1.3 - 1.8g/kg).
Focus on whole foods: obtaining protein from food first, before supplement powders is ideal. Aim to choose whole plant foods over processed vegan substitutes which may contain higher levels of sodium and saturated fat.
Creamy Artisan Hummus (protein sources featured: hummus & tahini)
(1) Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. "Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition." Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition, Book Publishing Company, 2014, pp.81-89.
Psst: » Find this book in our shop! Choose between the comprehensive edition or the express edition.
Want to Learn More?
Read this previous nutrition article called THE PLATE METHOD » a nutritionally balanced meal for vegans
What about You?
What are your favourite protein sources? Let us know in the comment below or share your recipes with us on Instagram with the hashtag #pickuplimes.
❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Assistant and Dietetics Student) & Sadia