High-Protein Vegan Diet

"But where do you get your protein?" is a question often asked of vegans. Because a vegan diet contains no animal products, people assume that it's impossible to get enough protein. However, what many don't realize is that all foods contain protein, and many plant foods are a rich source. Although it may take a little more planning, a high-protein vegan diet is both achievable and healthy.

Vegans have many options when it comes to increasing protein intake, from nuts to grains to tofu. (Image: Emilija Manevska/Moment/GettyImages)

What Do Vegans Eat?

There's some confusion about the differences between vegetarian and vegan diets. Vegetarians do not eat animal flesh, but will eat animal products such as eggs and dairy. Some vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs, and some eat eggs but not dairy. Vegetarian protein sources are more abundant than vegan sources.

Vegans eat no animal-derived foods, neither flesh nor animal products — no eggs or dairy. In a true vegan diet, adherents even avoid honey because it is made by bees. Vegans do eat:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Grains and cereals
  • Nuts
  • Beans, peas and lentils
  • Seeds
  • Plant milks and plant-based yogurt

High-Protein Vegan Diet

The first task is to develop your list of all the high-protein vegan foods from which you can choose. With that information, you can devise your high-protein vegan meal plan to pack in as much protein as possible. An extensive, but not exhaustive, list of high-protein vegan foods includes:

  • Quinoa: 8 grams per cup, cooked
  • Tofu: 10 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Tempeh: 15 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Edamame: 8.5 grams per cup
  • Seitan: 21 grams per 1/3 cup
  • Lentils: 9 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Chickpeas: 7.25 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Almonds: 8 grams per 1/4 cup
  • Hemp seeds: 10 grams in 2 tablespoons
  • Broccoli: 8 grams in 2 medium stalks
  • Potatoes: 8 grams in one large baked potato
  • Soy milk: 7 grams per cup
  • Spirulina: 8 grams in 2 tablespoons

Some of these protein sources may be unfamiliar to you. Get to know them, because they're nutritious ways to boost your protein intake:

Quinoa: Often referred to as a grain, quinoa is in fact a seed that cooks up much like couscous. You can use it in salads or alongside a piece of grilled seitan or tofu.

Seitan: Wheat gluten often used to make meat substitutes. It soaks up flavors and is perfect for marinating, then grilling. It's not a good choice if you're gluten intolerant or have celiac disease.

Tofu: Soybean curd whose texture ranges from custardy to firm and cheese-like. The firm versions are often used in stir-fries, while the soft varieties are used in smoothies.

Tempeh: Fermented soybeans that form a dense, chewy cake. Like seitan, tempeh is best marinated and then grilled or added to a stir-fry.

Edamame: Fresh soybeans that can be steamed and eaten straight out of the pod or shelled and added to soups, salads and stir-fries.

Spirulina: A blue-green algae that's rich in protein, as well as iron and B vitamins. It typically comes in powdered form and can be added to smoothies or sprinkled over salads and other dishes to increase the protein content.

Keep these foods on rotation in your high-protein vegan meal plan, and you'll be sure to get enough protein each day.

Complete Versus Incomplete Plant Proteins

Another mistake people often make is thinking that plant protein is somehow of lesser value than animal protein. It's true that most plant proteins are "incomplete," that is, missing or low in one or more of the amino acids, the building blocks of protein. In order for your body to be able to use the protein you eat efficiently, you need to get enough of all the essential amino acids.

A widespread myth is that in order to get sufficient amino acids, you have to eat "complementary" plant proteins together at each meal. Complementary protein foods are thought to be those that fulfill the low or missing amino acids of the other protein source. An example is rice and beans. Grains are often low in lysine, but beans are a rich source of the amino acid. Beans tend to be low in the amino acid methionine, while grains are an abundant source.

The truth is that, as long as you're eating a variety of foods each day as part of a well-rounded, calorie-sufficient diet, you'll get all the amino acids you need, and you don't have to worry about eating certain foods at the same time.

There are exceptions to the rule. Some plant foods provide complete protein, including soy, hemp and buckwheat.

Protein Supplements in a High-Protein Vegan Meal Plan

Most vegans can get all the protein they need and then some, without needing a protein supplement. However, sometimes at the end of the day, you realize you've fallen short of your protein goals. In these situations, you can certainly spoon some protein powder into your dessert smoothie.

Quick breakfasts on the go are another time protein supplements can come in handy. Just grab some frozen fruit, a handful of spinach and anything else you have a taste for, and combine it with a scoop of protein powder in your blender. That's a high-protein vegan meal you can take with you in the car when you're rushing to work, instead of relying on a low-protein bowl of cereal or piece of toast.

Just make sure you're choosing a high-quality protein powder that's low in sugar or sugar free. Look for ingredients such as hemp, pumpkin, sprouted rice, spirulina, peas and chia. Not only will you add protein to your smoothie, but you'll also add a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

How Much Protein You Need

To plan your high-protein vegan diet, first determine how much protein you need each day. The recommended daily intake established by the National Academy of Medicine is 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. Looking at the list of high-protein vegan foods, these targets are easy to reach.

Some people may need more protein than the RDA. Weightlifters, bodybuilders and very active people often need more protein to support muscle repair and growth. These people should aim for 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day, according to Chris Mohr, Ph.D., RD. For a person who weighs 160 pounds, that would be 87 to 130 grams per day.

Individuals who are interested in weight loss also may want to boost their protein intake. A study published in Obesity Facts in 2017 found that people who ate more protein each day lost more weight at the end of a six-month period than those who ate less protein.

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