The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Protein Sources
It happens to every vegan at some point or another. Maybe it’s after you order your pasta with no cheese, or when a co-worker finds out you don’t eat any animal products – not even fish. Suddenly, everyone becomes an expert on nutrition.
“But where do you get your protein?” they ask.
It often comes as a surprise to people that meat is not the only food that contains protein – we use the phrase “as strong as an ox”, but forget that the ox himself eats plants. If you’re already eating a varied diet of plant-based foods, you’re already consuming protein.
Which leads us to the second question in the script: “But are you sure you’re getting enough?”
In a nutshell: more likely than not, yes.
The Protein Obsession
We should first acknowledge the fact that, on the whole, people tend to consume far more protein than their bodies need. The recommended daily allowance of protein in the United States is .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (.36 grams per pound) for the average person, which would translate to 54g of protein a day for a 150-pound individual.
To put this in perspective, two tablespoons of peanut butter would fulfill nearly 17% of this individual’s protein needs for the day.
Unsurprisingly, a person’s nutritional needs increase with their physical activity. A frequently cited study from Kent State University found endurance athletes perform best when they consume 1.2-1.4g protein/kg of bodyweight (.54-.63g/pound).
For strength athletes, that number increases to 1.4-1.8g protein/kg of bodyweight (.63-.81g/pound). That means even if our 150-pound individual is a distance runner or a powerlifter, and has an above-average daily recommended amount of protein, she still only needs to take in 81g – 120g of protein per day.
This is easier to achieve than it might sound, thanks to an expansive list of vegan protein sources.
List of Vegan Protein Sources
It turns out that plants and plant-based foods have a lot more protein in them than you might expect. Let’s take a look at the Winner’s Circle of vegan proteins:
20g - 25g
15g - 20g
28g per 4 oz Serving
I try to spread the gospel of seitan to anyone who will give me the time of day.
Made from wheat gluten, seitan has a long history in Asian cuisine, where it was used to serve Buddhist guests who did not consume meat.
Nutritionally, seitan is a home run: low-calorie, low-fat, and high-protein, it is often compared to the nutritional profile of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Additionally, and maybe most importantly, it is the meatiest vegan protein I have ever had the pleasure of sinking my teeth into.
There are vegans out there who’ve lost their taste for meat – they either weren’t crazy about it, to begin with, or the craving has faded over time. I, however, am not one of those vegans. I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household and, while I thrive as a joyful vegan, I cannot deny that sometimes, I just plain miss meat.
Or, I did miss meat, anyway – until I discovered seitan. It has all the “springiness” of meat with none of the cruelty. Truly the best of both worlds, it’s also the protein I serve up when I have omnivores and self-described “carnivores” over for dinner. If seitan had a tagline, it would be:
Wait; this is vegan?
Seitan is easy and cheap to prepare at home, but a great deal of packaged varieties are available in too many flavors and styles to list. You can find it in most health food and specialty stores, but it is also widely available in Asian supermarkets. The mock duck style is one of my favorites!
A hearty dinner of breaded seitan cutlets, seitan sausages charred lightly on the grill, or thick slices of seitan meatloaf are all easy and delicious ways to satisfy your meat cravings and get a generous amount of protein into your diet all at the same time. And they say we can’t have it all!
20g per 4 oz Serving
Like seitan, tempeh packs a hefty protein punch and is a sturdy, toothsome protein that is perfect for grilling, stir-fry, and salad.
You can find tempeh in the refrigerated/health foods section of most grocery stores – it comes in a little vacuum-sealed package in blocks and is a fermented product made mostly from soy (I promise it’s much tastier than it sounds!).
Which is fantastic, because fermented foods are important for maintaining gut balance, in addition to ferrying much-needed protein to help worn out muscles recover!
Usually, tempeh is made from a mixture of soybeans and grains, such as barley and rice. However, if you’re unable to consume gluten, there are GF brands that are made with 100% soy.
11g per 4 oz Serving
Ask anyone what food they most closely associate with veganism, and they’re bound to say tofu. It’s unfortunate that tofu gets such a bad reputation because it is so darn good.
Most people write tofu off before they even try it, or base their whole perception off a single experience with the stuff. To find out why this little soy square has such an unfair- and frankly, undeserved - reputation, I asked a few people why they felt so strongly in the negative.
“Oh no,” they say, noses wrinkled. “I had tofu once. It was terrible.”
When I ask how it was prepared, I’m usually met with a shrug.
“I don’t know, I just took it out the package and cut it up. It tasted like nothing.”
Of course, it tasted like nothing!
If someone were to take a chicken breast out of the package and take it straight to the grill – no marinade, no spices, no nothing – it certainly wouldn’t bring home too many awards at the barbecue cook-off.
Like a lot of foods, projects, and relationships, you only get out of tofu what you put into it!
How to Get The Most Out of Tofu
The real trick to turning soggy, wobbly tofu into a chewy, savory star is to press the water out of a block of the extra-firm stuff. When you do this, it turns an otherwise squiggly white block into a veritable sponge for flavor, ready to slurp up your favorite dressing or marinade.
This small investment will completely change the texture of your tofu, make it easier for your marinades to permeate, and you’ll save a few bucks on paper towels, too.
But wait, there’s more! While firm and extra-firm tofu are perfect for savory applications, soft and silken tofu can be blended into refreshing fruit smoothies and decadent chocolate mousse to add a boost of protein to your breakfast or dessert. For more on what you can do with tofu, read our guide on prepping and cooking.
Between its versatility and nutritional profile, it’s no wonder tofu is so ubiquitous to veganism – but for all the right reasons. All it takes is a little knowledge and a little love.
TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein)
24g per ½ Cup Serving
Though it sounds a little like plastic tubing, TVP (textured vegetable protein), is a soy product that, when soaked in hot water or vegetable broth, takes on the look and feel of ground meat. Like tofu, TVP is essentially a blank canvas for flavor, and you should treat it as such when it comes to sauces and spices.
TVP is a real star as far as flexibility is concerned because it can take you all the way from breakfast to dinnertime. For breakfast, cook the granules in almond milk with cinnamon, sweetener, and vanilla for a high-protein alternative to oatmeal, or mix rehydrated TVP with canned tomatoes, beans, and spices for a vegan-friendly hearty chili that’s great for lunch and dinner.
At only 80 calories, no fat, and 12 grams of plant-based protein per 1/4 cup, TVP is a great protein source for vegans who are looking to limit their calories, too.
A Note on Soy
Some people are concerned about ingesting too much soy. While unfermented soy products do contain phytoestrogens, on the whole, it is a safe source of protein for those without allergies or thyroid issues. When I initially discussed concerns with my doctor about the consumption of soy, she assured me that most people take in more estrogen via oral contraceptives than they get from the consumption of soy. However, if you are concerned, you should discuss with your doctor – all bodies are different. Plus, there’s plenty of soy-free vegan proteins – see more below!
Beans and Legumes
Beans and rice have been a staple food combination all over the globe for centuries – they are cheap, especially when made from scratch, and are a nutritional dream team, coming together to provide all the amino acids necessary for healthy vegan muscles.
Costa Rican Gallo Pinto is perhaps the most well-known recipe, but you should feel free to experiment with different flavors that reflect your preferences.
Let’s take a quick tour of just a few beans and legumes that could be incorporated into a vegan diet:
4.5g per ½ Cup Serving
Perfect for chili, burgers, and Costa Rican Gallo Pinto, black beans are a high-protein, low-fat food that stands in perfectly where you would otherwise look for meat. Switch your animal-based proteins out for black beans and enjoy increased energy, a good dose of folate, and hunger-crushing fiber.
9g per ½ Cup Serving
Named for their lens-like shapes, are a legume high in protein and iron (a necessary mineral, which you can read more about here). Also cheap, easy to cook, and delicious, lentils are perfect for exotic curries, warming soups, and baking into meatless meatloaves.
6g per ½ Cup Serving
If I had to pick favorites, chickpeas would probably be my favorite legume simply because they are toothsome and versatile. You can go the simple route with chickpeas, but one of my favorite lunches is to mash chickpeas with vegan mayonnaise, celery, salt, and spices for a delicious vegan take on traditional tuna salad.
4.5g per ½ Cup Serving
While we tend to think of and prepare quinoa similarly to rice and other grains, quinoa is a member of the grass family. In addition to being high in protein, iron, and fiber, it’s also completely gluten free, which makes it a great choice for those with allergies. It is usually white, but there are also red and black varieties that make for a beautiful presentation.
You can prepare quinoa like you would rice, barley, or pasta – simply boil with some salt for a fluffy base for grain salads or as an easy side dish. However, it’s important that you rinse your quinoa before boiling – the raw seeds have a layer of bitter-tasting saponin, the plant’s defense against hungry birds. Packaged quinoa will usually come pre-rinsed, but it’s a good idea to give it a quick wash anyway.
I like to cook large batches of quinoa on the weekends and store in the fridge. That way, it’s ready and waiting for me when I’m hungry.
TIP: Try mixing cooked quinoa with chopped vegetables and dressing for a cold summer salad, or cook with coconut milk and cinnamon for a high-protein porridge.
Nuts and Seeds
Protein amount varies
As I mentioned earlier, nuts and seeds make high-protein additions to your meals or snacks to stretch your bang-for-your-nutritional-buck even further.
I love consuming nuts and seeds in any way possible, from grinding flax seeds into a smoothie, sprinkling chopped almonds over my lunchtime salad, or - let’s face it - eating warm-from-the-processor almond butter right off the spoon.
Peanut butter (technically a legume, but who has time for technicalities?) is certainly the most common form of nut butter available, but there’s an entire world of alternatives out there to try. Jarred almond, walnut, cashew, and even sunflower seed butter fill the shelves at my local grocery store, but if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, a cup or two of roasted nuts and a little salt processed in a food processor or high-powered blender is one of the small luxuries of this life.
When you’re choosing nut butters, be sure to pick one with as small an ingredients list as possible – nuts should be the first ingredient, followed by salt (if desired) and maybe a little sweetener (watch out for honey!).
In addition to their flavors and textures, each nut and seed brings its own collection of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients to the table. These are just a few of my favorites, but you should feel free to see which ones taste best to you:
12g per ½ Cup Serving
Almonds are comparable to milk regarding their calcium content and contain a hefty dose of fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E.
10g per ½ Cup Serving
It’s no coincidence that walnuts are shaped like little brains – in addition to their protein content, they contain ellagic acid, a cancer-fighting antioxidant.
10g per ½ Cup Serving
Brazil Nuts are practically the multivitamin of nuts! In addition to their pleasing taste and buttery texture, they pack lots of vitamins and minerals into their little bodies, and can help lower cholesterol.
24g per ½ Cup Serving
Chia Seeds have truly earned the name “superfood”. Yes, just two tablespoons of those little black seeds you got with your Chia Pet contain 4 grams of protein. They also serve as a thickener for smoothies and vegan puddings.
6g per ½ Cup Serving
My absolute favorite topping for salads is raw pumpkin seeds. Protein content aside, they’re rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and mono-unsaturated fats that prevent inflammation and help regulate weight.
TIP: Remember - t’s important to portion out nuts and seeds – at least the first time, so you can see what a serving looks like – as the calories from these tasty tidbits can add up quickly.
Protein amount varies
I’m all for meals that are unapologetically vegan, but sometimes, you just want something that looks and feels like what you ate as a kid.
That’s where “seems-like-meats” – packaged veggie burgers, vegan sausages, and chicken nuggets – come in.
Meat substitutes have come a long, long way since veganism came into the mainstream – gone are the days of tasteless tofu patties – many products look and feel similar to their animal-based counterparts.
A quick stroll down the refrigerated or frozen foods aisle of your supermarket will reveal a sometimes overwhelming variety of these products in every form and flavor imaginable.
Many products rely on the vegan protein sources I’ve already listed above and come in familiar shapes and tastes that are perfect for bringing to cookouts and transitioning kids to a plant-based diet.
15g - 25g per Serving
Some naysayers will tell you that supplements, like protein powders and bars, don’t count as “real” protein sources for vegans because they aren’t “real food”, but the fact remains that your body can’t tell the difference – protein is protein!
I’ve lived a vegan lifestyle for nearly a decade, during which time I’ve run marathons, lifted weights competitively, and, yes, consumed protein powders and bars on a near-daily basis. For me, it comes down to convenience, not the fact that I don’t have enough “real food” options – when I’m looking for a snack at work, or something to hold me over on a road trip, a protein bar or shake is an easy, quick, and tasty option.
When it comes down to protein powders and bars, it’s all in the name – these products can serve to supplement a balanced, varied vegan diet of otherwise whole foods.
The only downside to such a wide variety of protein powders and protein bars is that it can be hard to choose if you’ve never tried a certain brand. I know protein powders can be expensive, so I’ve compiled this list of my Top 5 favorite brands of protein powders and bars to take out all the guesswork.
So How Do I Reach My Protein Goal?
Now that you have an estimate of how much protein you should be eating a day and a list of tasty, vegan-friendly protein sources. How do you make sure to reach your goal every day?
If you aim to incorporate a little protein into each meal, reaching your daily recommended allowance will be a complete breeze.
On a typical morning, you might mix a serving of protein powder into your oatmeal (which turns it into “proatmeal”, one of my favorite easy weekday breakfasts). This would start you off with around 25g of protein for a full serving of powder – and that’s not even counting the protein from the oats or any other toppings.
At lunchtime, top a big salad with a cup of chickpeas for a midday boost of 12g of protein, or if you want to go the simple route, just pack leftovers from dinner the night before.
When dinnertime rolls around, you might have some tempeh triangles or seitan cutlets with barbecue sauce, cooked grains, and a side of green vegetables.
Snacks could include a handful of pumpkin seeds, packaged vegan jerky, or a protein bar.
To make planning a breeze and for peace of mind, you can always start a weekly meal prep plan for your each of your big meals. By planning ahead you can skip the guess work and feel confident in knowing you're getting the right amount of protein each day.
If you follow this template alone, you’d be well over your protein goal for the day, so don’t feel like you need to cram your meals full of protein. By ensuring that each meal and snack has at least a little protein in it, you’ll have no problem – and you can put your concerned friends’ and co-workers’ worries to rest.
Veganism, Protein, and You
While plant-based lifestyles are more popular than ever, they still tend to garner plenty of questions – well-meaning, and otherwise.
Aside from actually eating and thriving on a balanced vegan diet, the best thing you can do is to arm yourself with knowledge – and pass it along – to others who might be curious about your lifestyle.
In a world where we are constantly bombarded with articles and advertisements about consuming upwards of a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, it’s natural that someone who eschews animal products would raise a few eyebrows.
By eating the right amount of protein for your body and activity level through the foods on this list, you’ll be fueling your body with nutrients that help you reach your nutritional goals and align with your core values.
If that isn’t the definition of thriving, I don’t know what is!