Hi Sweet Friends,
Hi Sweet Friends,
Today we’re tackling the topic of protein, which can be a touchy subject in the health world—especially when it comes to animal vs. plant-based protein. And just so you know, this blog isn’t about converting you to a vegetarian or vegan diet. It’s about helping you make healthier, more conscious food choices. No judgment. Just knowledge and love.
I’ve written a lot about animal and vegan protein sources in the past, so I looked back at Crazy Sexy Diet and Crazy Sexy Kitchen while writing this post. I’ve updated some fantastic excerpts from these books, added a bunch of tips and even created a handy infographic for you!
A Protein Myth: The More Protein in Your Diet, the Healthier and Stronger You’ll Be
The belief that we need a high protein intake to be healthy and strong is one of the most pervasive myths in America. In fact, overdosing on protein is one of the reasons we’ve become so unhealthy.
Studies show that as protein consumption goes up, so do the rates of chronic disease. Hello, inflammation! In truth, protein deficiency is virtually nonexistent in industrialized countries.
Is protein important? Absolutely! But as you just read, in large quantities it can harm your health. The trick is to upgrade the proteins we consume and make safer choices on a regular basis.
How Much Protein Do You Need in Your Diet?
How much protein you need depends on your body weight (and a couple of other factors). The USDA’s recommended daily allowance is about 0.36 grams of protein per every pound of body weight (so, at 130 pounds, you’d need about 47 grams of protein daily). I’ve also broken down how to calculate your protein needs and the best plant-based protein sources in my infographic below.
Please note: If you’re an athlete trying to build muscle, are pregnant or lactating, or are under physical stress, use 0.45 when calculating protein needs (so, at 130 pounds, you’d need about 59 grams of protein daily).
Reality check: Are you getting enough protein? The average American adult consumes between 100 and 120 grams of protein every day. Not only is that nearly two to three times what we need, but it also comes from high-fat animal products instead of protein-rich plant foods.
How to Meet Your Protein Needs with a Vegan Diet
Here’s how a moderately active adult who weighs 140 pounds could meet their protein needs (50 grams per day) from vegan protein sources:
- Breakfast: 12 ounces green juice = 2 grams protein | ½ avocado (1.3 grams protein) on 1 piece Ezekiel toast (5 grams of protein per serving) = 8.3 grams protein
- Snack: 1 cup raspberries and ¼ cup raw almonds = 9 grams of protein per serving
- Lunch: Large green salad with ½ cup black beans, ¼ cup raw sunflower seeds with olive oil and brown rice vinegar dressing = 15 grams of protein per serving
- Snack: 10 rice crackers and raw veggies dipped in ½ cup hummus = 13 grams of protein per serving
- Dinner: Broccoli stir-fry served over ½ cup brown rice = 6 grams of protein
- Snack: Green apple with chamomile tea = 1 gram of protein
TOTAL: 54 grams of protein
So clearly, if you’re eating a well-balanced plant-based diet—meaning you’re consuming a wide variety of high-quality protein-rich foods, like vegetables, greens, sprouts, legumes, tempeh, beans, nuts, grains, and so on—then you will certainly be getting enough protein. Even the higher protein needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women and athletes can easily be met just by eating a varied diet of plant-based proteins.
Getting the Right Combination of Protein and Essential Amino Acids
Proteins are long strings of amino acids. There are twenty different amino acids you need for good health, but our bodies can only make eleven of them. The remaining nine are referred to as essential amino acids.
Because we can’t make these essential building blocks, it is essential for us to get them from our diet. Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are known as complete proteins, although they are not necessarily better protein sources.
While animal flesh is a complete protein source, it’s also “complete” with potentially harmful saturated fat and cholesterol, plus hormones, antibiotics, and oftentimes other unsavory party-poopers like E. coli. And unlike their plant-based counterparts, they lack phytonutrients, water, antioxidants, enzymes, and fiber.
Plants are often touted as incomplete protein sources but many plants have complete proteins providing all the amino acids you need. Quinoa, soy products, buckwheat, and hemp seeds are all vegan protein sources.
Other plant protein sources are only slightly incomplete, so as long as you’re eating a variety of them you’ve got a complete protein powerhouse. You don’t even have to eat them all at the same meal or even on the same day.
The Best Vegan Protein Sources
Without further ado, here are some high-protein vegetarian foods that you can include in your well-rounded diet.
Seitan has become a popular staple of vegan diets. It has a high protein content, containing around 25 grams of protein per three-ounce serving. Seitan is made from vital wheat gluten and is one of the best meat substitutes to mimic the texture of meat.
Because Seitan is made from wheat gluten, anyone with Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance should focus on other vegan sources of protein.
Tempeh is a soy-based protein that’s made by cooking and fermenting soybeans. Then they’re pressed into a block. A half-block serving of Tempeh packs a powerful protein punch with 20 grams per serving.
Tofu is similar to tempeh, except soybean curds are pressed together (similar to how cheese is made). 3 ounces of tofu contains 9 grams of protein.
Edamame is considered an “immature” soybean that must be steamed or boiled to be edible. These extremely versatile beans can be used in salads, stir-fries, and vegan sushi. They also pack a powerful punch with 17 grams of protein per cup.
Just like tofu and tempeh, soy milk is derived from—you guessed it—soy. Soy milk is a decent alternative to cow’s milk that also provides 6 grams of protein per cup. It’s usually fortified with vitamins and minerals (like calcium, Vitamin B12, and vitamin D).
Cooked lentils contain 18 grams of protein per cup and include other key nutrients, such as folate and iron. Lentils also contain over half of your daily protein needs. They’re versatile and can be used in soups, salads, and even curry.
Looking for a lentil-full recipe? Try my 1-Pot Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup!
Legumes, i.e. beans, are another versatile staple of high protein options on plant-based diets. 1 cup of cooked beans contains 14.5 grams of protein. They’re also one of the cheapest sources of protein available. Legumes are full of antioxidants (which can prevent inflammation) and are a great source of fiber.
I’ve created many great bean recipes you have to try!
Just 3 tbsp of hemp seeds contains 10 grams of protein! That’s a pretty high protein content in a small serving (and the most protein of all the seeds). Plus, hemp seeds contain other nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. They’re also a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids not derived from fish. Hemp seeds are great in salads, granola, and protein balls.
Quinoa (and Amaranth)
Quinoa and other “ancient grains” like amaranth are great sources of protein, containing about 9 grams of protein per cup. They are also unique because they’re complete proteins, whereas most cereal grains are incomplete proteins.
Some great ways to use cooked quinoa include:
You might have heard these little guys called garbanzo beans, but chickpeas contain 14.5 grams of protein per cup. They’re a great addition to Coconut Thai Curry or Chickpea Tuna Salad and are the base for one of my favorite dips—hummus!
Here’s a few scurmpitous hummus recipes:
Almonds contain fat, fiber, and protein. A one-quarter cup serving of raw almonds has around 8 grams of protein. You can eat almonds plain, make your own almond butter, or toss them on your favorite salad. Other nut butters like cashew and peanut can be great sources of fiber, too.
High protein foods also include sunflower seeds. They’re allergen-friendly, gluten-free, and contain 7 grams of protein per quarter cup.
Pumpkin seeds contain 10 grams of protein in 1/4 of a cup. They make a wonderful snack or great addition to a salad for some added crunch. You can even use them in vegan mac & cheese.
Flax seeds contain nine grams of protein per serving. They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients and are rich in fiber.
Chia seeds are another source of both fiber and protein. Just like hemp seeds, they contain selenium, magnesium, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds are a great topping on my Raw Cashew Banana Yogurt (a great replacement for dairy-based greek yogurt).
This little, green guy is another completely allergen-friendly protein source that’s a vegetable. One cup of chopped broccoli holds 6 grams of protein. Give my Broccoli Curry Udon or Vegan Broccoli Salad a try to get your greens in.
Peas are another vegetable that packs a powerful protein punch. Cooked peas are full of protein, with 9 grams per cup. If you want to add protein to a smoothie, pea milk and pea protein can be a great edition.
Ah, kale. Two cups of chopped kale hold 4.5 grams of protein. Kale is also versatile and can be used in many different ways. Here are some of my favs:
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (that’s a mouthful!). This powdery substance is a great flavorful addition to mashed potatoes or a fun topping to sprinkle on popcorn. Just half an ounce contains 8 grams of protein.
Wild rice is a surprising source of protein, with 7 grams in a cup. But because wild rice isn’t stripped of bran, it can be commonly contaminated with arsenic. But careful washing and boiling will reduce (if not eliminate) most arsenic contamination.
Spirulina is algae and is also considered a superfood. Why? Just 1 tbsp. of dried spirulina holds 4 grams of protein. It’s the highest source of plant protein in the smallest serving. Spirulina is also full of iron, minerals, and B vitamins. Spirulina is even known to help boost your immune system.
Dry oats provide approximately 5 grams of protein per half a cup (and are also packed with fiber). Oats can be used to bake bread, make a great alternative to dairy milk, or simply be eaten as oatmeal.
As you can see, vegan diets based on plant foods provide adequate protein necessary for the human body.
Animal Proteins: The Big Picture
Whether or not a particular food is healthy for us doesn’t solely stem from its nutritional value or health benefits. It’s also about how your dinner got to your plate. When evaluating the health consequences of animal products we must also consider the way the critters were raised and treated. Compassion aside, this is about your well-being.
How an animal is cared for from birth to slaughter truly, madly, deeply affects your body. Unhealthy animals create unhealthy food. The unsanitary and inhumane practices of factory farms threaten our food supply. Would you knowingly drink from a polluted well? We must remember that we humans are at the tippy top of the food chain. This means that we eat everything that the critter below us ate and below them ate and so on.
If you want to include animal-based foods in your diet, that’s your choice and I totally honor it (and you!). My advice: keep it to a minimum (two or three times per week), as a garnish or side dish, and make the best selections. According to the American Dietetic Association, a portion of meat shouldn’t be larger than a deck of cards, or the palm of your hand (about 3 ounces).
In addition, do your best to say “no way” to factory-farm products. Instead, look for the Certified Humane Seal, which is the gold standard in farming. As for seafood, Food and Water Watch is a terrific resource to learn what seafood products are safest and, therefore, healthiest. Unfortunately, farm-raised fish often experience similar confinement and health issues. As for wild fish, our oceans aren’t what they used to be and as a result, high levels of mercury (especially in deep-sea fish) and other heavy metals are abundant.
And once you embrace the deliciousness of plant-based cooking, there’s a entire world of whole foods (filled with all the protein you need) waiting to be experienced and savoured.
Your turn: What’s your favorite way to add plant-based protein to your diet?
Peace & protein smarts,
Protein rocks! Loving all the tips included here.
What if we shift the focus from macronutrients (the protein, carbs and fats in foods) to the thousands of phytonutrients that protect against cancer and cancer recurrence? Flavonols (such as quercetin and kaempferol ) act as anti-oxidants in normal cells but as pro-oxidants in cancer cells, meaning they trigger cancer cells to commit suicide, and keep cancer cells from utilizing glucose and fatty acids as fuels. Which plants are the best sources? Onions, kale, watercress, dill, capers and a host of others.
Thank you so much for your well-thought out and logical post on protein. I’m a vegetarian holistic nutritionist (I’ve been off and on again eating meat but a few years ago, committed 100% to being a veg). This pervasive myth you talk about with protein-exists between practitioners! I was at the Canadian Organic Growers Conference last weekend and got an earful about how vegans are riddled with candida and are super unhealthy. I just go into angry mode and shut down at the ignorant views/misinformation and downright prejudice against vegetarians and vegans. Even in my field!! The argument was-they can’t get the proper amount of protein. Ugh. I like reading your information because it makes so much sense and I can breathe a sigh of relief that there are still people out there with common sense.
Lots of love and blessings, Eleanor
The Mediterranean diet is the best in the world and they traditionally eat heats of lentils and chick peas and not a great deal of meat.
This is so interesting! As a fitness instructor I was told by a nutritionist that I needed 25g of protein at every meal eating about every 3-4 hours…That seemed like a LOT and when I was stuffing my face with that much I felt aweful!!! I will go back to what you stated above, I always felt better when I ate a more plant based diet:)
love and green juice to you! 🙂
Is Spirulina a complete protein? How much protein in a TBSP? Thank you and wow you glow!!
Thank you for this SO MUCH. Can you do the same infographic for plant based iron intake and calcium intake? And vitamin D intake?
I’ve often worried that I don’t get enough protein, but now I feel reassured! Thanks!
If you’re worried about it you could be a worrier, or your body might be telling you something. Listen to your body.
This has become a hot topic in our household, this post couldn’t have been better timed 🙂 . Me and my man made a recent shift in the new year to eat mostly vegan. It’s working for us and we feel great! The only time we slip is maybe once on the weekend or when friends ask us out to dinner. But recently, we have increased how often and how intense we work out. My man seems to think he’s not recovering like he used to (on the “old” diet and pumping himself with crappy supplements, btw we’ve changed our supplement cabinet to vegan friendly plant based as well) and a lot more sore the next day. Any suggestions?
Hi Kendra, for recovery, I use AdvoCare’ Night Time Recovery….and or Catalyst and or PostWorkout Recovery…I was lucky enough to find out about these effective products in 2002 when I was kickboxing…for weight loss. Sue
Check out the book Thrive by Brendan Brazier. He goes into a lot of detail regarding nutrition to fuel your workouts, as well as what to consume for optimal recovery. He also talks about what kind of fuel the body needs based on the various activity levels (low, moderate, intense). I can’t recommend it highly enough for athletes. I’ve healed adrenal fatigue and am able to play hours of tennis and keep up with my gym workouts at very high intensity now – it’s amazing!
I second your recommendation, Dayna! Brendan Brazier’s Thrive is what I used when training for my first marathon. It all worked, and was against everything my personal trainer was telling me to eat. So, I gave her a copy. The information and recipes really kept my energy up and my recovery time to a minimum.
Thank you Kris for this enlightening post!
I’ve a learned a lot about protein thanks to you and Crazy Sexy Diet which has enabled me to convince my fiancé to go vegetarian more of the time 🙂
Excelent post!!! Brilliant!
My favorite way to add plant-based protein to my diet is veggie milk made with almonds, nuts, dates, and quinoa (cooked). After the super shake is done, I add a table spoon of chia. Powerful breakfast!
Bárbara, this combination sounds lovely! Could you share a rough estimate of your recipe?
Hi Kris –
I have your Crazy Sexy Cookbook and had the great pleasure of seeing you at I Can Do It – Pasadena, CA! 🙂
Thanks for this protein info. I don’t eat meat and am minimizing (hopefully eliminating) eggs and dairy. I’m always hoping I get enough protein, so this really helps.
I think it’s hard enough traveling or going to restaurants when you’re a vegetarian. It seems nearly impossible when you’re vegan. What do you do (in addition to bringing green smoothies 🙂 when you travel?
As a 12 year breast cancer survivor, I am amazed and inspired by you. Thanks for all you do!
“Notre Sante” – To our health!
Michelle I can totally relate. When I went vegan a year and a half ago I had no idea how I was going to travel or go to restaurants. Turns out it’s pretty easy! Especially at Mexican restaurants, where there’s always beans and rice. I found out a lot of restaurants are very willing to customize something from the menu, removing cheese from the dish or even meat! I have ordered pasta dishes and asked them to hold the chicken. Also, if you know ahead of time what cities or restaurants you’ll be visiting you can check out their menu online and plan what you’ll have. That always makes me feel better, going in with a plan.
And Michelle, congratulations on your cancer survival! What an inspiration!
Thank you so much, Jess! Inspiring and being inspired is my passion in life and Kris is one awe-inspiring person!
Yes, I am finding more restaurants will create vegetarian or vegan meals, thankfully.
Download the Happy Cow apps for veg friendly restaurants in your area! It’s been a lifesaver after 2 years vegetarian and now 1+ vegan. It’s like anything else in life, it becomes habit and you become exposed to plant food you would have probably never heard of our tried when you were eating animal products at most of your meals. Good luck and happy exploring! You won’t be disappointed.
Oh – just saw your Tips for Travel. Now that was perfect for ask and receive. 🙂
What a great info and design, Kris!!!
I sprinkle hempseed on everything! Salads, fruit, smoothies, cereal, etc.!
I have a vaping (electronic cigarette) lounge in West Palm Bch Fl and I am currently working on a project to include an organic juice bar as well as organic ejuice for vaping. My purpose is to help people quit their unhealthy smoking habits and transition them to eventually becoming non smokers also by including the organic juice and organic snacks I will give people healthier alternatives to munch on throughout the day. I just want you to know that you are my role model, you changed my life, and gave me a better healthier way to live my life! Keep up the good work!
is tempeh safe? Any particulr brands are good? I would go for organic and non gmo only but what about the estrogens in soy.
I think even greek yogurt and spirulina are good sources.
Hi Sia, Do a quick search on my blog. There are a few great soy articles. xo
Love your thoughtful menu plan on protein intake. Thanks.
This info is so helpful to me. My school-age son won’t eat meat (just never liked it) and I’ve always worried about getting enough protein in him. I tend to overload him on milk and cheese since he is allergic to all nuts and peanuts. This gives me some new options and a guide for how much to offer him. Thank you!!
Thank you Kris for this wonderful article. Simple to read and understand!!!
Oh my!!! Thank you so much for this! I am vegan and eat gluten free, and raise three kiddos largely this way. Everyone who sees us wants to do what we do, but man, I can never get through the protein conversation with the pediatrician! My two girls have their yearly check up tomorrow, so now I know what to say! We feel so amazing, and I have become a fabulous chef, but explaining the facts still trips me up. So grateful 🙂
What a great post, Kris. It’s terrific that you are getting the word out about the importance of essential amino acids instead of “protein.” When you think about it, it just makes so much more sense that all the food we eat gets broken down and releases the individual amino acids into our bodies, which can then draw on the whole pool of amino acids to construct whatever it needs – that it can snap them together into the string of amino acids we call “protein.”
Eating chicken or meat or fish doesn’t give us a hunk of “protein,” it gives us a bunch of amino acids that get added to the ones we get from everything else. And whichever of the 9 amino acids are missing in spinach exist in beets, or corn, or kale. And we don’t have to keep track of them because they are all so plentiful – juice certainly removes any concerns (especially “kitchen sink” juice :). I love that you pointed out the amount of protein we actually need – it makes me so sad to see people knocking themselves out to get the high levels of protein they think they need, when so much is actually soooo bad for us.
I’m so excited to see you put all this info out there because you reach a lot of people! Yayyy!
You rock and are a great educator and motivator and source of love.
Thank you for the info!
I started to pump iron to prove it to the skeptics that as a vegan I can thrive and look better than ever. So far I am doing great and stay lean while building muscle.
For those of you looking for a little protein splurge after workout here are a few simple recipes:
Banana oatmeal soft cookie:
2 mashed bananas
3/4 c old fashioned oatmeal
1/2 c hemp seeds (or hemp protein powder if you are okay with processed stuff)
1/2 c chia seeds
Scoop it on a parchment covered baking sheet using an icecream scoop and flatten them a little. Bake for 10 minutes on 350.
Home made protein bar:
2 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup raw seed of your choice (hemp for high protein)
1/2 cup dried fruit (i like cherries)
2/3 cups peanut or almond butter
1/2 cup agave nectar or honey (may substitute half a banana if you don’t want sweetness)
Mix it well (I use stand mixer) and roll it out to a protein bar thickness between two plastic wraps. Let it rest in the fridge for 4 hours before cutting it up. This recipe can be modified to your taste (add hemp powder, chia seeds …)
Love you Kris! F… cancer!