I Eat Plants: Where Do You Get your Protein?


Have you tried to ask a vegan “where do you get your protein?” recently?

You may have been met with some condescension about there being protein in everything so that there is no need to worry about it.  Maybe a little hostility, too.  Although I am fairly knowledgeable about vegan nutrition, I was met with some extreme hostility in a vegan group online recently when I was asking around for high in protein snack ideas.  I might not have responded well, but that’s a column for another day.

While I generally think asking someone about their dietary choices like that might be little too personal, if you’re interested in learning, I think it’s a fair question.  (If your purpose in asking is so that you can tell said person they’re wrong, well, that’s just not very nice).

Typically, Americans eat more protein than they need.  The trick to this is, it’s not well-established what the bottom number for protein should be.  The book “Vegan for Life,” written by Registered Dietitians Jack Norris and Ginny Messina, suggests that a safe amount is 0.4 grams protein per pound of ideal body weight- so if your ideal body weight is 125 lbs, you would need about 50 grams of protein per day.  There are plenty of people who will tell you that you need more than that (and some that may argue less), but I use this figure simply as a starting point for conversation.  If you’re worried about the actual number for you, the best person to talk to would be either your health care provider or a Registered Dietician.  These would also be the folks to speak to about what your ideal body weight (IBW) is, as well, if you’re wondering.

That said… the typical vegan response about there being protein in almost all food is correct, and calorie for calorie, there’s a surprising amount of protein in say, broccoli, with 4.3 grams protein in 50 calories worth.  That’s about 1.5 cups of chopped broccoli, which means you would need a little over 3 cups worth to get 10 grams of protein, 1/5th of the daily protein needed for the 125 lbs IBW person.

That’s a lot of broccoli.

You will often hear vegans say that if you eat a varied whole foods diet that is adequate in calories, you will get adequate protein.

For many people, that is true.  However, if you have food restrictions (say, food allergies), are on a restricted calorie diet, or have a medical condition that requires a higher protein intake, you may have to work at it.

Despite that, it can be done, and it’s not that hard.  It just takes a little planning and attention.

5 Ways to Get Your Plant-Based Protein

  1. The classics: tofu, tempeh and seitan.  Tofu and tempeh are both soy products, while seitan is a gluten/wheat product.  Seitan beats the other two in the protein department, clocking in at 21.2 grams protein per 100 gram serving, with tempeh close behind 19.5 grams protein/100 gram serving, and tofu at about 10 grams/100 gram serving.
  2. The trendy: plant-based protein shakes (or bars).  if you’re someone who likes a morning smoothie, this one may be for you.  The green smoothie I shared recently clocks in at about 30 grams of protein, mostly from the protein powder, but also from the protein-enriched almond milk (5g/serving) and the spinach and berries.  There are many brands out there, flavored and unflavored, sweetened and unsweetened, enough that you can probably find one you like, too!
  3. The obvious:  meat analogues.  A serving of Gardein Teriyaki Chik’n Strips has about 18 grams protein/100 gram serving.  Meat analogues tend to be high in protein, like what they are meant to imitate.  Less obvious is that dairy analogues tend not to have so much protein (with soy milk as an exception).  Always check your labels!
  4. The crunchy:  nuts, beans and legumes.  in 100 grams of almonds, you will find 21 grams of protein. Unfortunately, you’ll also find 49 grams of fat and nearly 600 calories, so this is probably not how you want to get large amounts of protein.  But, as a snack, nuts definitely add protein and are satisfying.  Beans and legumes also clock in higher than many other plant foods in protein- 100 grams of cooked chickpeas will give you 9 grams of protein.
  5. The less expected: whole grains.  Whole grains pack a lot of protein.  For example, 100 grams of hulled barley gives you 12 grams of protein and over 10 grams of fibre.  It may be difficult in practical terms to eat large amounts of grains like barley, but  they help to contribute in moderation.

You may see here, that when you eat a variety of foods, it’s fairly easy to meet your protein needs, even if you leave out the protein shakes and the meat analogues.

You don't have to rely on this, but it's nice to know it's there.

You don’t have to rely on this, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

So how do you get your plant-based protein?


About Author

I Eat Plants columnist Jodie Deignan went vegetarian in 2004 and fully committed to veganism in 2007. By day she’s a psychiatric nurse practitioner and by night she spends a lot of time cooking delicious vegan food for herself and her friends. She’s a bit of a picky eater, with a special distaste for mushrooms, seaweed, raw tomatoes, and eggplant, though she’s discovered along the way she’s a little more open-minded than she once thought. She blogs at The Picky Vegan.

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