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How Much Protein Do I Need?

The following article originally appeared on PETA Prime.

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “But where do you get your protein?” I might have enough money to buy a lifetime supply of tofu.

It’s easy to get all the proteins that your body needs while also enjoying many of your favorite vegan foods. Ironically, what people often don’t realize is that in developed countries, the problem isn’t that people aren’t getting enough protein, it’s that they’re getting too much! Eating excessive amounts of animal protein has been linked to the development of endometrial, pancreatic, and prostate cancers. By replacing animal protein with plant protein, you can improve your health while enjoying a wide variety of delicious foods-and you won’t have to worry about taking protein supplements.

Nutrition experts estimate that most of us need between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per day for every kilogram of body weight. That works out to 55 grams of protein per day for someone who weighs 150 pounds or approximately 10 percent of normal caloric intake (people in endurance training and pregnant women might require a bit more, of course). If a vegan eats a reasonably varied diet and consumes a sufficient amount of calories, he or she will undoubtedly get enough protein. And, unlike animal protein, plant-based protein sources contain healthy fiber and complex carbohydrates.

Our bodies are made up mostly of different kinds of protein that consist of varying combinations of 20 amino acids. Only half of these amino acids can be manufactured by the human body. The other half, which are known as “essential amino acids,” can easily be obtained by eating a balanced vegan diet.

While virtually all vegan foods contain some amount of protein, soybeans are protein powerhouses. Soybeans contain all the essential amino acids and surpass all other plant foods in the amount of protein that they can deliver to humans. Other rich sources of non-animal protein include legumes, nuts, seeds, food yeasts, and freshwater algae.

The following is a partial list of vegan foods and their percentage of total calories from protein (value per 100 grams edible portion), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, 2009:

Almonds15%
Barley14%
Broccoli (raw)33%
Buckwheat15%
Hard red wheat15%
Kidney beans (raw)58%
Lentils (raw)34%
Mushrooms (raw)56%
Mustard greens (raw)41%
Peanuts18%
Pumpkin seeds            18%
Soybeans (raw)           35%
Spinach (raw)              50%
Tomatoes                     19%
Wild rice                     16%
Watercress (raw)         84%

A note on combining proteins: This practice was once put forth as the only way for vegans to ensure that they were getting enough protein. It was thought that it was necessary for vegans to plan meals in such a way as to always complement a food low in protein with one high in protein, but this theory has pretty much been debunked. Even the original advocate of combining proteins, Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for Small Planet, eventually recanted her theory and concluded that acquiring protein from a plant-based diet was “much easier” than she had thought.

Today, with such a wide range of vegan products available, there is likely to be something out there to satisfy everyone’s taste.  Tofu and tempeh can be used as meat substitutes in recipes, and prepackaged faux meats made from soy or wheat protein-such as veggie hot dogs, veggie burgers, mock ribs, and faux jerky-can be found in many grocery stores. Alternatives to dairy products, such as vegan cheese and nondairy ice cream, are also widely available. Getting all the protein that you need through a vegan diet is not only easy but also delicious!

What’s your favorite vegan protein-packed food?

This guest post was written by Joe Taksel. Joe has been vegan and active in animal rights for 20 years with a brief “hiatus” in cat rescue. He has been a media writer for PETA since 2001, and his mother went vegetarian at age 78.

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  • Amanda says:

    B12 is not actually naturally in animal products it’s usually always supplemented to the animals through their food. Therefore, vegans just have to take a B12 supplement everyday which is seriously not hard at all, and if anything is easier for the body to absorb since the vitamins contain far over the recommended amount. Since its water soluble you will pee out whatever you don’t need. I actually buy a b complex pill which has biotin, niacin, b12, b6, folate, etc. I find that taking these vitamins improves my mood, energy, brain functioning, and memory. Way better than getting it from any animal product that’s for sure!

  • Marie says:

    What if you are trying to lose weight? Do I count the amount of protein I need at my current weight or at the weight I want to be? Thanks!

  • Barb says:

    To those who think it’s too expensive to be vegan/vegetarian: I felt the same way until you compare the prices of a bag of fresh apples to a bag of potato chips. Same price – apples go a lot further and obviously much better for you. One steak can buy me about 2 boxes of prepared vegan “burgers” which is EIGHT meals !!!!!
    It’s a matter of training the brain to re-think your food purchases.

  • Gary says:

    Protein shakes are not vegan if they contain milk or whey protein.

  • John says:

    Is it okay to drink protein shakes or does it contain meat?

  • Karla says:

    Quinoa is an ancient grain that is high in protien. It is very tasty…either as a sweeter breakfast dish with fruit, or savoury with herbs and veggies. I also count sprouted grain breads as a protien source.

  • rui says:

    to MILL: i do not know if it is possible for you to be vegan but you can definitely be vegetarian. soy, peanuts, and beans are all legumes, which is only one group from which we can get large amounts of vegetable protein. the amino acids in nuts and dairy can still provide you with the building blocks for a complete protein. also eggs are a complete protein source (just make sure you get them from a farmer you know and trust!) or if you don’t want to eat dairy you could try combining grains and veggies besides legumes, though i would keep a close eye on my protein levels if i did that. best of luck!

  • Bluezinnia says:

    If only vegan/vegitarian foods weren’t so expensive…more of us would go that route! I’m retired, and love fresh fruit salads, etc…but can’t afford to buy the fruit…everything is so expensive…but that won’t stop me from trying when I can afford it!

  • Tom says:

    This article does concern me as there is no mention of the lack of vitamin B12 (cobalamin) found in a vegan diet. Vegetarians will have no concerns with B12 deficiencies because of dairy products. Eggs contain high levels of B12 but they also contain a factor that blocks absorption. Fortified cereals, soy products and energy bars is a great way for vegans to gain a sufficient intake of B12.

  • niki says:

    QUINOA (keen-wa)!!!! need i say more :) amaaazingly easy to cook with/plan meals around and a complete protein too!!

  • KAGRady108 says:

    Pine nuts are genius!!! Shake em on my salad, pizza, pasta, eat em plain. I love me some pine-nutty goodness!

  • adrimarie says:

    Quinoa!!!!

  • Kristin says:

    Hemp or rice protein powder, mixed into almond/soy/coconut milk, with a whopping teaspoon of cinnamon (make sure it’s real cinn.!) and ginger, three tablespoons milled flax seed (for those omega-3’s), and a tablespoon of spirulina. If you want to drink it without plugging your nose, add some frozen fruit :) Before I drink my shake, I take a tablespoon of psyllium powder in a glass of water; between that and the shake, I have tons of energy to start my day, and it carries me well past lunch.

  • K says:

    As usual, I was just asked on Thanksgiving, “So, do you make sure to monitor your protein then?” Ughhhhh.
    Anyway. I love a lot of these foods, especially nuts.

  • Annie says:

    Even protein rich grains like Quinoa, Amaranth, oats, buckwheat are very high in Protein. These grains have even more protein than soy. Personally, i dont recommend soy as great source of protein, or a great health food for that matter. Most soy products use soy protein, which IS high in protein but is not very good for your health. Nuts, seeds and wholegrains are a much healthier option.

  • Mona says:

    To Mill: If you aren’t allergic to tree nuts and seeds you can eat them. Also, most good breads, like you find in the health food section at Kroger, have lots of protein. Another choice is the rice-based protein drinks. The one I drink has rice, soy and pea and I don’t know if it would be easy to find one with rice only.

  • Custom Essay Writing Review says:

    A lack of protein can lower all the functions of the body, but if you overload with protein it can put a strain on the body causing a high level of acidity. Our bodies then use calcium from our bones and teeth to stop the acids breaking down our body tissues. This is why you should use our calculator above to find out how much protein you need per day.

  • nancy says:

    Lori,
    If you buy organic soy, it is not genetically modified.

  • richard says:

    I GET ALL THE PROTEIN I NEED TO RECOVER FROM WORKING OUT FROM LENTILS NUTS AND SOYMILK I RIDE 100 MILES PER WEEK ON MY BIKE AND I WEIGHT TRAIN ITS STUPID TO THINK U HAVE TO EAT ANIMALS TO BE HEALTHY I AM 6 FEET AND WEIGHT 155 POUNDS I AM 45 WITH ABS AND SINCE I AM A TOTAL VEGAN I WILL BE KICK’ASS WHEN I AM 100 YEARS OLD

  • Ed says:

    @mill-you can still get plenty of protein from fruits and veggies. I NEVER worry about protein anymore since every fruit and veggie has enough for the human body. (i dont eat soy and peanuts either)

  • Ali says:

    I agree with the person who stated that all this hype about the lack of protein in a vegan diet is ridiculous. Even whole wheat pasta and many vegetables have protein, so there really is no reason to not meet your daily protein needs if you’re eating healthful meals – which you should be aiming to do whether you’re vegan or not. If there is a day where my husband and I haven’t eaten as well as we should, I’ll throw a handful of frozen berries into a blender with a big scoop of chocolate soy ice cream, a scoop of protein powder (vegan, of course), and fill with plain almond milk to cover. Then, blitz, adding more almond milk if you need to thin it out so that it will blend properly, and voila, you have a really delicious shake that satisfies any sweet tooth without bogging you down with fat and calories. I also think that new vegans can “over-soy” themselves a bit. Rice milk is great on cereal, and is a way to vary your diet a bit while reducing your intake of soy. We’re big lentil, chickpea, bean, brown rice, and quinoa eaters at our house, so we don’t have difficulty getting protein. Off to eat some pumpkin walnut soup I made yesterday!

  • John W Beck says:

    Your protein needs are probably even lower than this article indicates. When we are babies, our protein needs are the highest. Even feeding a baby who needs lots of protein to grow a big, strong body, Nature/Biology feeds us mostly fats and carbohydrates, with protein coming in a distant third. I’ve been vegan for the past 20 years, am very healthy, strong, and I do not go out of my way to eat a lot of protein.

    If you’re allergic to soy & legumes (I assume this also means peanut butter – too bad for you) try to find Quinoa (very good quality protein – not quite as much as soy, but a better balance of amino acids than soy) and hemp seed also has a “complete” protein, and a very good, nutritious oil as well.

  • Mrs. Hitchcock says:

    Re: hemp seeds – these contain more protein than Sarah mentioned. Two tablespoons of shelled hemp seeds contain closer to 11g of protein. Hemp seeds are also great for stabilizing blood sugar, which leaves you feeling fuller longer :) Also a great source of EFAs.

  • Mrs. Hitchcock says:

    @ Mill: are you allergic to ALL nuts AND seeds? Most people are not allergic to both, so may still be plenty of options there. Lentils are another option. Also some of the vegetables and grains mentioned in this post may be suitable for you (buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, barley) as well as brown rice.

  • Lori says:

    I thought that almost all north american soy beans were genetically modified?!

  • Sherry says:

    Remember the soy & almond milks. The low fat chocolate almond milk is delicious & a good alternative for folks who don’t care for soy milk.

  • Ashley-P says:

    Hi Mill! There are plenty of protein-packed foods listed in th article that do not fall into the soy/bean/nut category. Why not try: Barley, Broccoli, Buckwheat, Hard red wheat, Lentils, Mushrooms, Mustard greens, Pumpkin seeds, Spinach, Tomatoes, Wild rice, Watercress? Good luck!

  • PROF SEKAR says:

    GREAT ARTICLE..VERY INFORMATIVE…

  • abercrombie says:

    where I can get my protein, it’s a intresting problem.

  • Animeidee says:

    I hate getting this question! “i’d be veg*n but i need protien too much”… UGH! Thanks for the info broken down.

  • George says:

    hi this article very interesting, I think that with the information they have given me try to start a vegetarian life as the flesh is not the only source of protein and no one has the right to take the life of another living being for our benefit ….

  • nancy says:

    I know vegans usually don’t need to take a protein powder, but I like to take brown rice protein powder because it’s so easy. I use a brand that is raw, fermented brown rice. Also, I enjoy eating dishes with legumes and leafy greens. Both of those foods have good protein levels.

  • L. Miller-Smith says:

    I’ve never had a problem getting sufficient protein with a vegetarian diet, or even a vegan one. Word of warning: for many people soy products can triffer migraines.

  • Temily88 says:

    MorningStar Sausage patties are the best thing to happen to me!! haha It’s great =D

  • Sarah says:

    I have a wicked addiction to shelled hemp seeds, I put them on salads, oatmeal you name it, high protein totally yummy!! 2 tablespoons equals 2g of protein!

  • mill says:

    I AM ALLERGIC TO ALL SOY, PEANUTS, AND BEANS. SO WHAT SHALL I DO…

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