Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet: How Do Vegans Get Protein?

December 12, 2018

Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet: How Do Vegans Get Protein?

What do you think of when you hear the word protein? If you’re anything like most people, you may find yourself picturing muscle bound athletes kicking back heavily processed dairy shakes and going to town on greasy hunks of meat. And there’d be a reason for this: It’s a well known fact that protein is an absolutely essential factor in muscle growth. In fact, it’s essential for any sort of cell growth or repair, being the basic building blocks of the body. And sure, those connections to dairy and meat are likewise understandable; animal products are generally very high in protein, so it’s not uncommon for those who want to increase their protein intake to look to non-vegetarian sources to make it happen.

But what about those of us who are committed to plant-based lifestyles? By cutting out animal products, are we depriving ourselves of the vital protein and amino acids we need to keep ourselves healthy?

In short, without animal products, how do vegans get protein?

Well, let’s take a look at the facts.

Plant-based eaters get plenty of protein

First, let’s take a second to point out a potential misconception. Yes, it’s true that some of the richest sources of protein are animal products — namely meat, eggs, and dairy. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the only rich sources of protein.

In reality, there are a number of plant-based foods that are chalk full of valuable protein for vegans, vegetarians, and whole-food plant-based dieters. Tofu, soy, peanuts, spinach, broccoli, and beans, beans, beans (did we mention beans?) are all amazingly rich in protein. As such, the question how do vegans get protein? could easily be turned around into how could vegans not be getting enough protein? There aren’t many vegan/whole-food plant-based diets that don’t liberally include the foods mentioned above, and that’s far from a complete list. It’s fairly difficult to be protein deficient. Even more, plant-based protein is considered much healthier than animal sources of protein.

RDA protein

For a clearer picture of the situation, let’s consider our protein intakes. While everyone's protein needs can vary, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for "OPTIMAL" protein intake is 0.8 kg/LEAN body mass.

What does that actually come out to, in grams? An easy way to calculate your RDA of protein is: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.36 = recommended protein intake (in grams). For example: If you weigh 145 lbs your protein requirement is 145 x 0.36 = 52.2 grams of protein a day.

On average, animal-product eaters get much more than that (just under 80 grams). That’s not too surprising, right? What might be surprising is that vegetarians and other plant-based dieters get roughly the same amount. Sure, meat eaters end up with a few more grams of protein per day, but the difference is negligible. Studies show that whether you’re eating meat or not, you’re probably still getting more than the daily recommended amount of protein.

So vegans and whole-food plant-based dieters are getting more than enough protein. But what about the protein itself? Isn’t it common knowledge that whole-food plant-based and vegan protein sources are inferior, because they don’t provide the full range of essential amino acids found in animal products? Well, it might be “common knowledge,” but it’s also a complete and total myth.

Plant eaters get the same amino acids

The idea that plant protein is incomplete or inferior originally came from Diet for a Small Planet, a book published in 1971 by Frances Moore Lappé, where she cautioned readers to combine various plant-based protein sources to ensure a “complete” amino acids protein profile. The book was a major success, and the “incomplete” plant protein became firmly affixed in the public psyche. Pretty straightforward, right?

plant-based complete protein

Except that a decade later, Frances Moore Lappé had reviewed her research and reevaluated her opinion. She admitted that in trying to dispel one myth (that meat is the only viable protein source), she inadvertabtly founded another myth (that vegetarian proteins lack essential amino acids). In a 1981 revised edition of her book, she removed references to incomplete proteins and protein complementation, and added a section clarifying her mistake. But the damage was done, and despite there being no reputable evidence to back up the theory, people still hold on to the mistaken idea that plant protein can’t measure up to animal protein.

The truth is that all protein comes from the same two sources: the sun and the soil. And whether where getting our protein from the plants that get it from the sun and the soil, or the animals that eat the plants that get it from the sun and the soil, the amino acids are the same.

Plant-based proteins are complete proteins. It’s as simple as that. Whole-food plant-based and vegan protein sources are looking better and better. Plants provide the protein without all of the artery clogging saturated fats. Oh, and certain processed red meats have been shown to be potentially cancer causing.

So, how much protein are we talking about?

If you’re eating a healthy range of plant-based foods, you’ll be giving your body the nutrients it needs. We can’t stress this enough. You don’t need to be combing through nutrition labels or planning recipes around specific nutrient intakes. The whole-food plant-based diet provides.

Still, it’s nice to know what you’re getting. So, if you’re interested in the specifics, here’s a quick reference for you detailing how many grams of protein a can be found in a variety of natural, protein-rich vegetarian foods:

Plant-based protein sources

These are only a few of the many sources of protein for vegans and those following a whole-food plant-based lifestyle. And as you can see, if you’re eating these (and similar) foods, you shouldn’t be having any trouble hitting your daily protein recommendations.

How do vegans get protein? Pretty easily, it turns out.  

We may primarily associate protein with animal sources, but the reality is that when it comes to the building blocks of the body, plants aren’t lacking at all. So go ahead and enjoy your favorite whole-food plant-based recipes, and don’t bother with the calculator. If you’re eating healthy, whole plant-based foods, then you’re giving your body everything it needs.


That’s how vegans get protein.