Ask any vegan what question he or she gets asked the most, and the answer will undoubtedly be the same: “Where do you get your protein?” The simple answer is plants.
While there are protein superstars in the plant world—such as soy foods, pulses, nuts and seeds—protein is found in all whole plant foods in varying amounts, says Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, a plant-powered dietitian and author of California Vegan (Globe Pequot, 2021). Even better? “Research shows that most vegans meet their protein needs,” she says. What’s more, animals raised for food get their protein from plants, so you don’t need animals to get protein when you can go straight to the source.
No matter your diet, the Recommended Daily Allowance for protein for the average person 19 to 50 years old is .8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight or .36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, says Nichole Dandrea-Russert, MS, RD, registered dietitian nutritionist in Atlanta and author of The Fiber Effect: Stop Counting Calories and Start Counting Fiber for Better Health (Hatherleigh Press, 2021). Depending on their activity level, athletes may need 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, and some research shows that people older than 50 may need more protein to maintain muscle mass, perhaps 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram per day.
So how easy is it to get protein in just one vegan meal? Dandrea-Russert points to a simple breakfast idea to illustrate: 1 cup of oatmeal (6 grams), 2 tablespoons of hempseeds (6 grams), 1 ounce of walnuts (4 grams), handful of berries and 1 cup of soy milk (8 grams) — this meal contains about 25 grams of protein.
Want more help maximizing your protein intake on a vegan diet? Here are 10 strategies.
1. Eat a powerhouse plant protein at each meal
Pulses, soy foods, nuts and seeds have some of the highest amounts of protein in the plant kingdom, which is why Palmer recommends eating one of these at each meal and snack. Then make sure you’re adding whole grains and veggies to those meals, too.
2. Focus on variety
Getting the protein you need on a vegan diet means opting for variety. “Incorporating a balance of whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds daily will ensure that plant protein is consumed,” Dandrea-Russert says. If you’re consuming enough calories, you can easily meet your protein needs, she adds. Variety is especially key because of the nine essential amino acids your body can’t make. Such proteins as quinoa, soy, pistachios, hemp, chia, amaranth and buckwheat contain all nine, while legumes or whole grains may be short in one or two amino acids. Because your body maintains an amino-acid pool, “as long as you eat a variety of protein-rich plant-based foods throughout the day, you can maintain enough amino acids to create protein in your body for muscle, hormone and collagen synthesis, to name a few,” she says.
3. Become a smoothie queen
Smoothies are an easy and tasty way to optimize protein, Dandrea-Russert says. Fruits and veggies contain some protein, but so, too, do plant-based milks—especially if you veer toward soy milk, which has about 8 grams of protein per cup. However, be sure to opt for organic soy milk. “More than 90 percent of soy grown in the United States is GMO,” she says. Then add protein superstars like nut butter, nuts and seeds to your smoothies.
4. Layer your meals
Think about the vegan meals you’re already eating and add high plant-based protein to them. For instance, sprinkle nuts and seeds on salads or add tofu to grain bowls, beans to soup, and hempseeds and cashews to smoothies.
5. Learn to love soy
Tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame and soybeans are rich in high-quality protein, Palmer says. For instance, a ½ cup of tempeh has 15 grams of protein, a ½ cup of edamame has 13 grams and a ¼ cup of tofu has 5 grams, according to the Soyfoods Council. Eat one to two servings a day, she adds.
6. Make your plant milk protein-rich
Although healthier than their dairy counterpart, many plant milks have negligible protein levels. However, if you opt for soy milk and some fortified plant milks, you might get about 7 grams per serving. Spread that out throughout your day — add plant milk to cereal, coffee, and baking and cooking needs — to rack up the protein.
7. Chomp nuts and seeds daily
Not only will you get protein from nuts and seeds, even butters made from them, you’ll also get healthy fat, Palmer says. As an example, pumpkin seeds contain 8.5 grams of protein per ounce, peanuts contain 6.9 grams per ounce and almonds contain 6 grams per ounce. Opt for whole nuts or a nut or seed butter.
8. Get your daily pulse on
Pulses like chickpeas, beans and lentils aren’t only packed with nutritional benefits, but they also contain high amounts of protein. Each day, aim to eat at least a ½ cup (up to a cup, if possible) of pulses, adding them to grain bowls, burritos, tacos, casseroles, soups, pasta dishes or salads, Palmer says.
9. Follow the three-color rule
Fruits and veggies contain protein, albeit in smaller amounts than other plant foods. Yet to ensure that you’re not only maximizing the protein you’re getting from that produce but also consuming the phytonutrients that are key for optimal health, Dandrea-Russert recommends eating at least three plant-based colors per meal.
10. Give grains the green light
Whole grains have a surprisingly high amount of protein, which is why Palmer recommends eating them at each meal to help amp up the protein on your plate. Think oats, brown rice, farro, quinoa and sorghum, all of which you can eat as a side dish or in porridges, stews, soups, casseroles, stir-fries and curry dishes.
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