Protein for vegans and those who eat a predominantly plant-based diet: should we be worried or is this all overblown? Those are questions I have been asking myself since starting to cook mostly plant-based food in 2013 and going vegan in 2015. The question is all the more important to me because I plan meals for hundreds of people, starting with my own family that includes two growing children and two athletic adults. I wouldn’t want anyone to see their health and vitality impeded by the meals I recommend and cook myself! Quite the opposite: I want as many people as possible to thrive on plants, so they can show up to live their best lives while make the world a better place.
How much protein should one consume to achieve that? Or is the question not even worth dedicating precious brain cycles to?
In this post, I will address the contentious topic of protein for vegans and other plant-based eaters. I will share a bit of context to help understand what the hoopla is all about and explain what general guidelines I follow with regards to protein for vegans and predominantly plant-based eaters. I hope it will help others see more clearly on this popular topic.
Notice: I am an educator, meal planner, and sociologist, not a medical professional. I am educated on the topic of nutrition and trained at critically assessing sources of information, including peer-reviewed publications. This article constitutes my opinion on the topic of protein for vegans. I encourage you to engage with other legitimate sources of information, including, but not limited to, those linked here. If you have health concerns, please consult with a plant-friendly medical professional or registered dietitian.
Why do I cringe whenever I hear about protein for vegans?
Every time I hear about protein for vegans, I cringe. I don’t mean when a non-vegan asks me “Where do you get your protein?” I consider that to be well-intentioned curiosity. What bothers me is listening to vegan and plant-based health influencers talk about protein, especially how we can get more, more, and more of it. I know I should just swipe away, but I can’t help but gape with disbelief as people who should know better amplify the general societal obsession about protein.
The number one hint indicating that there’s something off with common ideas about protein is that sticking the word “protein” to practically any food-like substance is an advertising tactic. As documented in the TABLE Report Primed for Power: A Short Cultural History of Protein, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Since its discovery as a separate macronutrient in the early 19th century, protein has been associated with health and wealth, contrary to the other macronutrients (fat and carbohydrates) which have both struggled with image issues due to their association with obesity (which isn’t always warranted, but that’s a different conversation).
We have to consider the social, economic, and historic context. For centuries, many people ate monotonous diets and were at the mercy of crop failure, especially in temperate and cold climates. In the late winter months, dwindling food stores were often a concern. Protein deficiency, though it didn’t have that name yet, was an actual problem, unlike today. Those who owned livestock rarely could afford to slaughter their animals, as they needed cows and chickens to convert grasses and grains inedible for humans into dairy and eggs. Having protein-dense meat to eat was an enviable marker of wealth. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, animal farming at an industrial scale, combined with refrigeration, allowed many more people to have access to meat and, for a time, thrive.
Today’s situation is different. Our grocery stores are filled with ample stocks of whole grains, legumes, and produce through the year. But maybe the trauma of thousands of years of recurrent famine suffered by our ancestors is haunting us. Marketers are using every trick in the book to push that button.
Still, protein matters. Why?
Protein is found practically everywhere in our bodies, not just muscle. The different amino acids are combined and contribute to the building of bones, blood cells, enzymes, hormones, and more. There are twenty different kinds of protein, called amino acids. Nine of those are called “essential” because the body can only get them from food sources, while the others can be metabolized. Humans are not different from other animals in that regard. Those who consume meat get to absorb a “pre-built” set of complete protein that is quite similar to what they would otherwise be metabolizing themselves.
Most plant foods have lots of different amino acids, including the nine essential ones. The exception is fruit, which comes short. Nuts such as almonds and walnuts are dense in protein in general, however they are short on one essential amino acid (lysine).
The idea that different plant foods need to be combined to create a “complete” protein pattern was an unfortunate mistake that Frances Moore Lappé inadvertently seeded in the public consciousness. To make a long story short, you don’t need to worry about it. As long as you eat some variety of plant foods over the course of your day and week, you’ll be giving your body all it needs for protein assembly.
How much protein should we get on a plant-based diet?
The recommended daily allowance of protein for most people is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of healthy body weight per day. Registered dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina, in their authoritative book Becoming Vegan, report that many experts suggest aiming a little higher (0.83 or even 0.9 g/kg). Some sources suggest that those eating a predominantly plant-based diet should consume a little more (closer to 1 g/kg). This is to ensure that they get 100% of all essential amino acids, especially since some of the protein from plants can be bound to fiber and pass straight through the digestive system without being absorbed.
The precise number has a reassuring aura of certainty, however we must recognize that the “healthy body weight” side of the equation is fuzzy. Based on BMI alone (an imperfect but useful instrument), a person’s “normal” weight can vary by as much as 12 kilos (25 pounds). Within that range, we can find many people with differing body compositions and nutritional needs: thin and perhaps even frail individuals who need to build their muscle mass, muscular athletes with very little body fat, sedentary people with a normal weight but too much abdominal fat, etc. A single calculation cannot define the “healthy” daily dose of protein for every body… but it does provide a range.
To roughly calculate your own range, multiply your healthy weight in kilos (ask your favorite search engine for a conversion as needed) by… 1. I love how simple this is! But what is your healthy weight? That’s a conversation for another day, but keep in mind that to maintain bone health, especially in women, a healthy mid-range BMI is preferable to a low one. (Read more about it here: Calcium for vegans.)
For a 5’6″ (168 cm) person at a healthy weight of roughly 132 lbs (60 kg), that would mean around 60 grams of protein per day, give or take a few grams.
How can we get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
Elephants, rhinos, and gorillas do it, and we can do it too. But we do need to put a modicum of care into our food choices.
Not every plant-based diet is equal. For example, people who eat only white rice (which unfortunately is a reality for some due to food insecurity) come short on overall protein. Indeed, according to Cronometer, even those meeting their daily energy needs (2,000 calories) with 10 cups of cooked white rice will get only 42 grams of protein and few other nutrients. Ten cups of boiled potatoes (with skins) bring roughly the same amount of calories and protein (but a lot more calcium, iron, and nutrients in general).
What about a more interesting plant food? As an onion lover, I am pleased to report that 22 cups of cooked onion would also bring not only the required 2,000 calories but also a whooping 63 grams of protein. This includes a full dose of most essential amino acids, plus plenty of calcium and some iron.
Obviously, I am not recommending that you eat 22 cups of cooked onion per day! But this absurd fact demonstrates that even the most modest plants have plenty of protein and other nutrients too.
A slightly more diverse (but still boring) daily diet consisting of 7 cups of cooked potatoes, 1.5 cups of black beans, 3 cups of broccoli, and 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds would bring 2,000 calories and 66 grams of protein. This eating pattern also meets the double or even triple of most targets for essential amino acids. Substituting brown rice for the potatoes would bring nearly identical amounts of each nutrient, but the potatoes remain a better choice than rice when it comes to iron and calcium.
If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can head over to Cronometer, create a free account, and keep a food diary for a day or three. Don’t pay attention to the default protein target, which is set too high for most people.
Do plant-based children need more protein?
Children are still “under construction” and their nutritional needs often reflect those of their next size up. Going back to the formula of roughly 1 gram per kilogram, we have to consider the child’s “future healthy weight.”
Infants, as they grow astonishingly fast, require twice as much protein as adults (calculated in grams per kilogram of body weight per day), according to Reshma Shah and Brenda Davis in their excellent book Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families. As they grow into toddlers, children, and teenagers, their protein needs progressively become closer to those of adults.
In practice, this is manageable when choosing whole plant foods, avoiding empty calories in favor of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some fruit. For those with smaller stomachs, Nourish authors Shah and Davis suggest that it may be a good idea to include small amounts of refined foods, such as pasta, because their protein may be more readily absorbable.
What about the protein needs of plant-based athletes?
There is a lot of serious scientific research, and a ton of more-or-less informed chatter, about the role of protein in athletic performance. In Becoming Vegan, Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina mention that some experts recommend targets as high as 1.3 to 1.5 g/kg/day for endurance athletes and 1.3 to 1.9 g/kg/day for strength athletes eating a plant-based diet. This seems far-fetched, but it is not uncommon for athletes to eat twice as much as non-athletes. If they eat twice as much, and choose nutrient-dense foods, they’ll automatically be getting about twice as much protein.
Those who are seeking to compete at elite and professional levels are already working with their coaching team to establish what works best for them.
As for myself, as someone who enjoys physical activity as a way to maintain and increase my physical and mental fitness, without making athleticism the center of my life, I follow two rules. First, I make sure to eat enough food. When I train, my energy needs increase. If I eat more food, I’ll get more protein… as long as I follow my second rule, which is to choose whole plant foods such as minimally refined grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some extra fruit to keep things sweet.
What about older adults?
If you ask a doctor or dietitian, you will probably hear that older adults, notably people over 65, need to consume more protein than average. The suggested target would be 1.1 grams per kilogram of healthy body weight. However, not everyone agrees, and the evidence supporting that recommendation is not entirely convincing.
Many older adults have lower activity levels and tend to lose muscle mass faster when inactive. A decrease in muscle mass leads to a decrease in energy (calorie) needs, and many seniors have decreased appetites. As a consequence, they eat less food, so they get less protein.
For those eating fewer calories (for any reason), every calorie has to “count” more and provide more nutritional value. Each bite should deliver essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamins of all types and, yes, protein. The 1.1 g/kg target is useful in that it emphasizes choosing nourishing foods as opposed to refined options and empty calories. (For example, brown rice has twice as much protein as white rice.)
What about those with complex medical situations?
If you are undergoing cancer treatment, recovering from an injury, or taking certain medication, you may be advised by your medical team to increase your protein intake to support healing and avoid losing muscle mass. I recommend consulting with a plant-friendly medical professional or registered dietitian in coordination with your professional health team.
Protein-aware meal planning for vegans and plant-based eaters
What are the practical take-aways when it comes to protein for vegans and plant-based eaters?
- Most people don’t need to worry about protein. If you eat enough (and not just one thing like white rice), you’ll get plenty of protein, including all essential amino acids.
- Include a diversity of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, and seeds in your weekly meals. Fruit is great too, but you can’t rely on it to meet your protein needs. For an example of a dinner plan, you can download my Planned & Plant-Based guide. For breakfast, my batch-cooking-friendly overnight oats and blender waffles are also excellent sources of many nutrients.
- Keep the proportions of the Canada Food Guide in mind: roughly half of your plate should be filled with vegetables, about a quarter with grains (preferably whole), and a quarter with protein-dense foods including legumes and some nuts. You can use one of my seasonal “fill-in-the-blanks” templates for inspiration.
- There’s nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying decadent treats made from refined flour and sugar, but in general it’s a good idea to choose nutrient-dense foods. This is true for those who feel ravenous because they have worked hard physically or are growing, as well as for those with a small appetite due to aging or medical conditions. Make every bite matter (most of the time).
- If you absolutely need reassurance, log your food for a day or two using a tool such as Cronometer. Keep in mind that the default protein target in the tool may not reflect your actual needs. Unless your doctor or registered dietitian advises differently, aim for approximately 1 gram of protein per kilogram of healthy body weight per day, give or take a few grams.