I went vegan in the middle of a semi-professional soccer season.
I fully expected my performance to decline because: “How am I going to get enough protein as a vegan?”
Spoiler: I found a way to get all the protein and nutrition that I needed and didn’t notice any negative impact. A few years later, I put on roughly 25 pounds of (mostly) muscle.
Recent research has shown that when it comes to athletics, vegans stack up well to omnivores (1):
Both groups were comparable for physical activity levels, body mass index, percent body fat, lean body mass, and muscle strength. However, vegans had a significantly higher estimated VO2 max and submaximal endurance time to exhaustion compared with omnivores.
This guide will walk you through all the important things you need to know about getting protein on a vegan diet, without having to struggle through it like I did.
It’s written with everyone in mind, regardless of whether or not you’re an athlete.
Let’s get started...
Table of Contents
How Much Protein Do Vegans Need Per Day?
Vegans don’t need any more or less protein than non-vegans.
However, there are a ton of myths out there about how much protein you actually need, and we need to clear those up first.
Even for athletes, the 2-3 grams of protein per pound of body weight is absurd.
While that amount should be “safe”, any protein past a certain point is just converted to carbohydrates or fats and is unnecessary.
Examine.com did a thorough review on this topic, with over 100 references to peer-reviewed papers (2).
They found that sedentary people need at least 1.2g/kg (or 0.55g/lb), while experienced lifters need at most 3.3g/kg (1.5g/lb) – but that’s on the very high end.
For example, a sedentary 150 lb person would need at least 82.5 grams of protein per day, which isn’t all that much.
In reality, even a vegan trying to gain weight doesn’t need that much.
In a highly referenced metastudy (3), they found the number for athletes is closer to 1.8g/kg (0.82g/lb). Anything past that does not help maintain or gain muscle:
There is normally no advantage to consuming more than 0.82g/lb (1.8g/kg) of protein per day to preserve or build muscle for natural trainees. This already includes a mark-up, since most research finds no more benefits after 0.64g/lb.
As a final note, studies typically look at the amount of protein per weight.
But protein is only useful for muscle tissue. If you’re overweight and trying to lose weight, you don’t need to fall on the aggressive end of those ranges above.
The most commonly suggested number is 0.8 grams of protein per lb of lean body mass (that’s your total weight – estimated fat mass).
While the optimal amount of protein depends on the person, athletes don’t need much more than 0.82 grams of protein per lb of body weight (at most!), and sedentary vegans only need 0.55g/lb. More won’t hurt, but it won’t help.
The Digestibility of Plant Proteins
There are 2 aspects of protein quality.
First is the essential amino acid profile of a protein source.
It’s not a big deal as long as you’re eating a variety of foods. Even if one protein source is lacking a particular amino acid, some other food you eat throughout the day will make up for it (4).
For example, beans are generally low in methionine, but if you eat some seeds or oats (which both have a good amount), you get enough of all essential amino acids.
The second aspect is that plant protein doesn’t absorb as well as animal protein.
This is true, many studies have shown this. It’s mainly due to “antinutrients” that inhibit absorption of nutrients.
It’s not a huge amount, but it is significant.
So vegans might need a little more protein, but it’s not something to worry about too much.
For example, a well-known vegan bodybuilder, Nimai Delgado, says he eats about 150-160 grams of protein while weighing 180 lbs (that’s 0.83-0.88 g/lb).
Plant protein is a bit lower “quality” than protein from animal sources, but unless you’re an elite athlete (and even then), it’s not going to make a significant difference in planning your diet.
The Best Vegan Food Sources of Protein
Now that you know how much protein you need, where do you get it from vegan foods?
We’ll look at recipes soon, but for now, let’s start with whole foods.
I collected nutritional data for well over 100 vegan foods. The results are in the table below.
Most people will want to look at the ‘protein per 100 gram serving’ column. That’s because if you sort by ‘protein per 100 calories’, tons of leafy greens like spinach do well. However, it takes multiple servings to get to that point, and it’s just a huge volume of food.
So if you’re losing weight, the calories column could be useful. Otherwise, look mainly at the protein per 100 grams column.
|Food||Protein (g) per 100g||Protein (g) per 100 calories|
|Vital wheat gluten||75.2||20.3|
|Wheat flour (whole-grain)||9.6||2.9|
|Lettuce (red leaf)||1.3||10.3|
|Red bell pepper||1.0||3.8|
|Green bell pepper||0.9||4.3|
Vital wheat gluten is kind of cheating, since it’s essentially pure protein powder derived from wheat (yes, it’s that “gluten”). It’s very useful for vegan athletes, but should be considered more of a protein powder rather than a whole food.
Other than that, 4 types of foods are near the top:
- Nuts – Decent amount of protein per 100 grams, but also a lot of fat, which means a lot of overall calories.
- Legumes – The most balanced vegan protein source in terms of protein and calorie density. They’re quite cheap (dry is even cheaper than canned), and a staple for most vegans. They don’t score that well on the lists above because they have a lot of fiber and water.
- Seeds – Seeds like flax and chia both have a good amount of protein, and are also some of the best vegan sources of omega 3 fats. However, you can only eat so many of these, typically sprinkled on top of salads or oatmeal.
- Grains – Grains have a bit of protein (not a ton, but decent), and they’re pretty useful if you need to eat a lot of food trying to gain weight.
If you’re interested in a bit more detail about things like amino acids in those foods and complete proteins, see my page on the best vegan food sources of protein.
To get a lot of protein, focus on eating as many legumes (e.g. beans, tofu, tempeh, etc.) as you can. Grains, seeds, nuts, and leafy greens can also contribute a significant amount.
A Handy Vegan Protein Sources Chart
If you’re a new vegan, you won’t remember all this right away.
So i made this chart that you can save directly if you’d like or even print out.
Just right click it and select “save image as” if you’d like, or click to open a larger version.
Alternatively, here’s a Google Sheet with all the data that you could bookmark if you prefer that instead.
Will Soy Affect Testosterone or Estrogen?
Soy increasing estrogen is an old myth that refuses to die.
Soy contains phytoestrogens, which are processed by our bodies very differently than the hormone estrogen.
I did a detailed summary of studies looking at if soy raises estrogen levels. The gist of that review is that unless you’re eating a ridiculous amount of soy, it won’t affect your hormones at all.
You can have a block of tofu a day with 0 worry (and probably more, but studies haven’t looked at that yet).
One study from that post that I will highlight is a meta-analysis of 15 controlled studies that concluded (5):
No significant effects of soy protein or isoflavone intake on T, SHBG, free T, or FAI were detected regardless of statistical model.
Where “T” is testosterone.
So don’t worry about it.
Soy has no statistically significant effect on testosterone or estrogen levels.
Should Vegans Use Protein Powder?
Protein powder is incredibly convenient, especially for athletes. I drink protein shakes myself on a daily basis.
One serving of a typical protein powder has something like:
- 120 calories
- 20 grams of protein
That’s really helpful if you’re trying to hit some tough macros.
Consider a 160 lb person who is aiming for 130 grams of protein and 2,000 calories a day. If they ate nothing but lentils (a good source), they’d get 143 grams of protein and 1800 calories. So you can make high protein goals eating just whole foods, but it’s tough. It’s much easier just to eat a few cups of legumes with other foods, and then add a protein shake in.
There are quite a few vegan protein powders these days. Most are made from peas or a blend of protein isolated from a few different sources (e.g. peas, hemp, brown rice).
Are they as good as whey protein powder? You bet:
- Pea protein was as effective as whey in a 12 week study of 161 males (6)
- Vegan protein powder are free of antinutrients and just as digestible as animal proteins (7)
- Young men using brown rice protein gained the same amount of muscle as the whey protein group in an 8 week study (8)
I did an extensive test of over 20 of them. If you’d like to see which ones I thought were best, here’s my page of the best tasting vegan protein powders. Or, if you live in Canada, see my page of the best vegan protein powders in Canada (sorry other countries).
While it’s typically good to focus on getting nutrition from whole foods, vegan protein powder can be a helpful tool for vegans that are struggling to get enough protein.
What About Vegan Protein Bars?
I also did a detailed test of over 20 bars to find the best vegan protein bar.
And while bars are nice, they’re more expensive than protein powder and the macros aren’t as good.
Bars have a lot of other ingredients besides protein isolate. The best bars have around 40% of calories coming from protein, versus over 85% for protein shakes.
If you have money to spare and really like bars (some do taste really good), plant based protein bars are an option. But they’re not something I think most vegans should focus on.
How Do Vegan Bodybuilders and Athletes Get Enough Protein
Looking at protein in foods is one thing, but translating that to a meal plan that you can actually follow is another.
There are 2 things that can help you.
First, you can see what other bodybuilders are eating (this section).
Second, you can look for recipes that are high in protein to make (next section).
I mentioned Nimai Delgado before. He’s a vegan IFBB professional bodybuilder who I believe has been vegetarian from birth (and vegan now).
He has some videos on YouTube about his training and diet. Here’s one where he goes over what he eats in a typical day:
If you don’t have time to watch that, here’s a summary:
|Meal 2 (Shake)||
He certainly loves his sweet potato.
That’s not a very extreme diet, but lets him get ~30-40 grams of protein per meal. If that’s enough for him, it’s probably enough for you and me.
150+ Vegan Recipes High In Protein
Over time I’ve collected a lot of vegan recipes that are relatively high in protein.
I’ve compiled them on this page of high protein vegan recipes.
You can filter them by protein source, or sort by macro.
How To Track Your Protein Intake
To end this guide I want to recommend tracking your protein intake using a food tracker.
I use Cronometer, but there are others out there.
Eventually you might not need to use it as you get better at guessing how much protein is in your foods.
With that, you have everything you need to figure out how much protein you need, and how to get it on a vegan diet.