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Whether you’ve been vegan for many years or you’re just exploring a vegan lifestyle, you’ve probably heard this question countless times from skeptics: “But how will you get enough protein?!”
Annoying, unsolicited concern aside, getting enough vegan protein—from high-quality sources—can be a challenge for people who’ve cut out animal products from their diets. However, with the right plan and the right foods, you can easily get all of the nutrients you need from a vegan diet.
What is vegan protein?
Vegan protein comes from plant foods. While most of our food sources that provide protein come from animal products, a variety of plant-based foods provide small amounts of protein. Some are better sources than others, though. Many plant foods contain mostly carbohydrates, although some options have both healthy fats and protein.
Another factor to consider is the type of protein in plant-based foods. Protein is made up of smaller compounds called amino acids. The body produces some amino acids, while other types need to come from the diet. The amino acids that the body can’t produce are called essential amino acids.
The nine main essential amino acids are (Lopez, 2021):
A protein food with all of the essential amino acids is called a complete protein. Most animal foods are complete proteins, while most plant-based proteins contain only some of the essential amino acids, so it’s often a good idea to pair different vegan protein sources to make a complete protein.
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Here are some great plant-based sources of protein:
Most dried beans, like black beans, chickpeas, pinto, and navy beans, provide large amounts of both fiber and protein. For example, one-half cup of black beans provides around 8 grams of protein.
In addition to being a high-protein food, the soluble fiber in beans could help keep your heart healthy. A 2021 study found that eating 1 cup of canned beans daily decreased total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol to lower overall cardiovascular disease risk (Doma, 2021).
Try adding beans to chili, soups, salads, dips, or making bean meatballs or burgers.
Lentils and peas are part of the legume family. Both lentils and green peas are high in protein and fiber. In addition, they’re packed with other nutrients like folate, potassium, iron, and phosphorus.
Like beans, lentils may provide similar benefits to heart health and disease risk.
Quinoa is one of the few plant proteins that also is a complete protein. It’s a unique plant and called a pseudo-cereal because it grows differently from other grains and its unique nutrition profile.
Quinoa provides vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and antioxidants. Research suggests the nutrients in quinoa may help (Vega-Galvez, 2010):
- Protect cells from damage
- Support brain health
- Lower risk of chronic disease
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4. Seeds and nuts
Seeds, nuts, and the products derived from them, like peanut butter and other nut butters, are loaded with good nutrients, including protein. Many varieties of seeds and nuts contain around 5–7 grams of protein in a one-ounce serving (USDA, 2019).
In addition, many varieties provide iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium, and other micronutrients.
Walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds also provide omega-3 fatty acids. Typically, people consume omega-3s in fatty fish or fish oil, so these four seeds and nuts provide a vegan alternative to consume this anti-inflammatory compound.
Here are a few other types of seeds and nuts:
- Brazil nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are all created from soybeans, another complete protein option for vegans. Because of its benefits, manufacturers have created a variety of products using soy. Here’s how three popular options are made from soybeans:
- Edamame are immature soybeans. They’re picked before the soybeans fully develop and provide a sweet, grassy flavor. Usually, they’re added to soups or salads, or they can be dried or roasted as an alternative to chips.
- Tofu is made using a similar process to cheese. It’s created when soy milk is processed and pressed into blocks. Tofu has little to no flavor and a soft texture.
- Tempeh is made of pressed, whole soybeans. It has a chewy texture and nut-like flavor.
Both tofu and tempeh are popular vegan proteins because of the large variety of ways they can be used. Since they have minimal flavor, adding spices and using them as a meat alternative in recipes is easy.
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Seitan is made from gluten, the main protein in wheat. It’s a popular protein food among vegans because the look and texture can resemble meat when cooked.
There are about 25 grams of protein in a 3.5 ounce serving of seitan. It’s also a good source of selenium, iron, phosphorus, and B vitamins (USDA, 2019).
You can saute, fry, or grill seitan and use it as a meat alternative in recipes.
7. Whole grains
Products made from whole grains are good sources of protein. While most people only think of wheat in this category, there is a wide range of whole grains to choose from, like:
- Brown rice
- Buckwheat and wheat gluten
Bread made from sprouted grains is an especially good source of protein. One popular brand is Ezekiel bread, which provides around 8 grams of protein (along with other vitamins and minerals) in two slices.
8. Nutritional yeast
Nutritional yeast is a yellow powder (often available as flakes rather than a powder) that provides a savory flavor to foods. It’s made from an inactive type of yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. One serving of nutritional yeast provides around 8 grams of protein.
It also comes as fortified nutritional yeast, which has zinc, magnesium, copper, vitamin B12, and other B vitamins added during processing (USDA, 2019).
Nutrition yeast can be added to recipes or sprinkled on popcorn or pasta for a cheesy flavor.
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9. Vegan protein powders
Most protein powders are made with either whey or casein protein. These proteins are the two proteins found in milk. Vegan protein powders are typically made with pea protein.
Pea protein powder is a great source of iron and contains high-quality protein content. Pea protein contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.
The total amount of protein in each serving depends on the brand. Many varieties contain around 15–20 grams per serving (USDA, 2019).
Protein powders provide a quick and easy option to bump up your daily protein intake during a busy day. You can add pea protein powder to smoothies, oatmeal, and other foods.
If you’re concerned about meeting your protein or other nutritional needs while following a vegan diet, don’t hesitate to speak with a registered dietitian about your body’s needs.
- Doma, K. M., Dolinar, K. F., Dan Ramdath, D., Wolever, T., & Duncan, A. M. (2021). Canned beans decrease serum total and LDL cholesterol in adults with elevated LDL cholesterol in a 4-wk multicenter, randomized, crossover study. The Journal of Nutrition, nxab323. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxab323. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34642756/
- Lopez, M. J. & Mohiuddin, S. S. (2021). Biochemistry, essential amino acids. [Updated 2021 Mar 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Oct. 19, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557845/
- Vega-Gálvez, A., Miranda, M., Vergara, J., Uribe, E., Puente, L., & Martínez, E. A. (2010). Nutrition facts and functional potential of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa willd.), an ancient Andean grain: a review. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 90(15), 2541–2547. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.4158. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20814881/
- US Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2019). FoodData Central. Retrieved from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.