Vegetarian Protein: What’s Enough and How To Get it?

Hi Steph,

I recently saw you on 60 minutes or some other program like that, and I just saw an ad where you endorsed a vegan diet. I’ve tried to go vegetarian several times but cannot make it past a few weeks. I start getting nauseous. I always suspect I’m not getting enough protein. I don’t want to intrude too much into your busy schedule, but do you have a quick second to offer me some suggestions for good protein sources (other than tofu—I just don’t like that much at all).

Thanks much. An admirer,

Hi Kenneth,
Thanks for writing! A lot of people say to me that they “need” animal protein, and I’ve also had a lot of people tell me that veganism doesn’t work for men because of their higher protein and caloric needs, or that it doesn’t work for athletes who are extremely active. Scott Jurek, the vegan ultrarunner, is someone I admire very much, and a great example that veganism is not gender or activity exclusive.

I really like a website called NoMeatAthlete by another ultrarunner named Matt Frazier. He is extremely knowledgeable and thorough, and I learned a lot from reading his posts about protein.

Check out this guest post about protein on his site, this guide to vegetarian protein, and also this post about recognizing protein deficiency. You’ll find many more informative posts if you keep clicking on the links as you read.

In a nutshell, Matt explains much more thoroughly than I can that it’s definitely possible to become protein deficient as a vegetarian, but also that you need a lot less protein than people commonly assume. There are links to great online calculators to see exactly what the numbers are for you (for me, it’s 40-60 grams/day). There are a LOT of links to all sorts of good information from many outside sources.

A quick rundown of high protein foods from one of his posts:
Lentils (red are my favorites), 18 grams of protein per cup
Chickpeas, 12 grams/cup
Tempeh, 41 grams per cup
Black beans, 15 grams per cup
Nuts and nut butters (I eat a good mix, usually without peanuts), varied
Tofu, 11 grams per 4 ounces
Quinoa, 9 grams per cup
Other legumes, varied
Grains, varied

You’ll see by reading the posts on the site that protein is present in all sorts of foods that might surprise you: brown rice, spinach, and broccoli, for example. One very simple switch is to start eating a lot more quinoa. Quinoa is very easy to cook, much faster than brown rice, and has a lot of protein. You can use it in place of rice, or you can eat it for breakfast instead of oats, so it is really versatile. You can also make cold salads with it, by adding some black beans and tomatoes, and some chopped vegetables with cilantro, oil and vinegar, and keep it in the fridge for snacking or to take along with you for lunch.

Here’s another link from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine with some quick and simple tips for switching your meals to eliminate meat.

The main thing I know about becoming vegetarian or vegan is that for many people it takes a lifestyle change, not just eating the same foods as normal minus meat and dairy. Many people are not accustomed to eating a big variety of whole grains and legumes, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. A lot of people have told me they’ve fallen into the trap of eating a lot of white flour and white sugar or similarly bleached out, processed food items when first turning vegetarian, because they just weren’t used to eating whole foods before and feel a little confused at first. After a while, they discover an entirely new way of eating, and most people I know who’ve become vegan or vegetarian, myself included, love the huge variety of healthy foods they eat, and never feel deprived or hungry without animal products. In fact, for a lot of people, going vegetarian is what starts them on a much more healthy eating style. I think my diet would be similar to what it is now even if I did eat meat–I’d still be eating a variety of things like brown rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts and tons of vegetables. I also save a lot of money by not eating animal products or packaged food, even though I eat a lot of organic foods. In the grocery store, it’s always the meat and cheese products or pre-made, packaged foods that seem to be the most expensive.

I can definitely understand not liking certain foods! But I’m wondering if you’ve tried sauteeing tofu in a pan with some soy sauce or Bragg’s liquid aminos added at the end? I find it so delicious! 🙂 I usually use a non-stick pan with a little grapeseed oil, and I make the effort to flip the tofu cubes or slices so all the sides get browned. At the very end, I squirt some Bragg’s over the cubes and let it sear into them. I sometimes eat these like snacks because I can’t resist, but I’m supposed to be putting them on salad.
Good luck!

  • Adriana

    I every time I imagine how enourmous animals like giraffes and elephants get to grow so big and strong by eating mainly leaves, I begin to suspect that the idea of an “adequate amount of protein ingestion” is human invention to keep us buying certain foods that profit well in the industry.
    The biggest example: animal protein. An excess of plant protein too! The time I ate legumes 3 times to supply a supposedly protein defficiency I gained weight, however my my energy level stayed the same.
    If I’d get a buck for every time someone tells me .. Where do you get all of your protein from? I’d have a nice bank account.
    We already produce 11 aminoacids for ourselves . If we eat a balanced plant-based diet he remaining 9-10 aa sure aren’t difficult to obtain.
    When I started a vegan diet I was scared to percieve so many changes in my metabolism and energy, I started to think these changes where not for good. I had to let go off my thoughts, hang on a bit in there to feel the boost of energy. Now that I look back upon it, I know it was ok that my body took some time to readapt because I was changing the type of fuel.
    I hope that the starting warriors don’t give up so fast!
    You sure have nice advice going around in your website Steph! I’m loving the baking recipes.

  • Thanks Adriana! I might have to start trying to collect those dollars too 😉

  • Amy

    Steph – What are your thoughts regarding hemp protein powder?

  • AKHappyGirl

    I support all ways of life and admire the dedication of true vegans who chose it to be healthy and not because it’s in vogue. I do have to say for some of us who chose to live unconventional lives, I eat meat or go hungry. Living in Interior Alaska where the nearest town is 100+ miles away via dog team or snow machine, if we didn’t kill a caribou or moose we would literally starve. We honor the animals who provide for our well being. We eat some canned vegetables but are very healthy. Peace. =o)

  • Thanks for writing from Alaska: I really admire your lifestyle.

  • I have tried it, but never quite loved it. Have you been liking it?

  • Amy Anderson

    I haven’t tried it yet. How do you feel about protein powders in general? Do you use any?

  • alexandra burns

    Thank you for this post! I’ve posted the protein foods list on my wall as a constant reminder for my food shopping and cooking 🙂

  • Gary

    I’ve become a vegan over the past 18 months, am quite active, and have never felt better (I’ll be 60 soon and this is the best I have physically felt in my life thus far). Your site has been a helpful resource in this endeavor.

    One of the things I learned as I researched eating plants-only is that we get ample protein from plants. Although I found it hard to believe at first, the science shows we don’t need meat, milk, cheese, eggs or fish at all. The typical Western diet provides too much protein, so much that scientists and informed physicians now realize that much of modern illness like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are promoted (if not caused) by animal protein sources.

    One person I have come to respect is John McDougall, MD. He is a very strong advocate of plant-based eating. He’s written a lot on animal protein. I found these articles very informative and backed by science. Others might find them helpful as well:

  • What I do with it is use about 1/2 the amount recommended—I have this weird hang-up about fruit drinks being green in color, so I think that’s the problem I have with hemp powder. When I make smoothies, I also add almond butter.

  • 🙂 I have a sign that says “drink” taped over my sink–sometimes it helps being told what to do!

  • Thanks Gary!

  • cattz

    Very interesting…. I’m a 132lb athlete and I need about 90g of protein per day on average day–and 2/3 of it has to be animal source. I arrived to these numbers after a life time of experimentation, including near-vegan diet (and having read many medical school texbooks). Most of my life I ate low-protein diet….and had many health problems and very poor athletic recovery….which disappeared after I settled into my current high-protein (and high animal protein) diet which I had been eating for years. I had not had one cold or flu ever since–pretty good, considering I almost died from failed lungs and bronchi earlier. My muscle growth and strength exploded, my mood and energy level reached state they never been near before. I’m female (another proof that this has nothing to do with “men need meat” thing)….It is just all individual and also depends on activity. Ultra-runner’s (endurance athlete, small muscle) food requirements will be drastically different from powerlifter, gymnast, or cross-fit athlete (these guys prefer paleo, often).

    I believe if a person’s body, due to individual specifics, needs vegan or vegetarian diet…person will know it and feel this message. Coyote doesn’t need to read a book to know “what to eat”….and average wild animal is healthier and tougher than ANY human… human can sense their food needs too, it’s just all the fake American food industry had been messing up these natural brain-feedback mechanisms in people, by providing addictive fats and carbs for easy consumption. After one had switched to raw and organic foods mostly and limits calories, they start to “hear” their body correctly. The thing is there’s not *one* answer to the question “what to eat and how much protein”. It’s all individual.

    Since non-stick pan was mentioned….I really hope the newer white, ceramic type was meant, and not more regular teflon-based non-stick or alike, as these release toxins and cancerogens when heated and are horribly bad for you. Even regular, white-enamel cookware is all one needs to cook really, since one can sautee anything, in water with a dash of oil in it just fine.

  • cattz

    These “enormous animals” have completely different digestive system and overall physiology compared humans. Humans can’t be even be fully compared to apes on this either, as humans underwent further evolution and digestive specialization based on their environments (examples: Japanese people are found to produce special enzyme to digest seaweed; while European members of expeditions would develop vitamin deficiencies and die… native Eskimos were just fine, on their fish and seal meat and fat diet of mostly fat and protein; lactose intolerance is nearly NIL among Swedes, while very high among Asian nations….etc, etc).

    The reason while you gained fat while eating legumes for protein is that legumes are high in carbs as well and are fattening food, simply. Pea-based protein powder would have completely different effect on body fat, if one wants legume source.


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