Protein is one of three macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fat, that make up a crucial part of our diet. Both animal and plant food sources can provide protein, but as a vegan or plant-based eater, animal sources are off the table, both literally and figuratively.

Research has indicated that eating more plant-based protein versus animal protein may be beneficial for your health. One 2020 article published in Nutrients states that plant proteins can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease risks since it is low in saturated fat compared to their animal counterparts. They may also decrease the risk of diabetes and potentially certain cancers. Outside of our personal health, choosing plant-based protein is also great for environmental sustainability and improved treatment of animals.

Keep reading to learn more about why it's important to get enough protein, how much protein you really need, and the best vegan food sources that have all the protein your body requires.

Why is protein important?

All of the cells in our body contain protein, so eating enough is important to repair the cells and make new ones. The structure of the protein (which varies from source to source) is made up of a chain of amino acids. According to a 2018 article, there are 20 different amino acids that can be found in protein with nine being essential. This means our body isn’t able to create them from other amino acids, so they need to be supplied by food sources.

The nine amino acids are:

  • Leucine
  • Valine
  • Isoleucine
  • Histidine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Phenylalanine

Animal proteins such as meat, eggs, and milk contain all nine of the essential amino acids, but only a few plant proteins do. The plant sources that do contain all nine include quinoa, buckwheat, and soy. This doesn’t necessarily make animal sources a superior protein. Combining certain plant proteins, or eating a variety throughout the day, will help fill any gaps.

Beyond being important for muscle and cell building, amino acids also play a role in the production of certain hormones and neurotransmitters.

How much protein do vegans need?

Eating protein every day is crucial because it isn’t stored like its macronutrient counterparts. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults under the age of 65 is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Make note that this is the minimum amount to aim for, with some experts stating that plant-based eaters should opt for about 0.9 to 1 g/kg of body weight. If you’re an avid exerciser, bump it up closer to 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg of body weight. A general rule of thumb is to aim to have 10 percent to 35 percent of your daily calorie intake come from protein.

If you’re over the age of 65, studies have indicated that you likely need more protein to offset the reduced muscle protein synthesis that occurs. A 2019 article published in Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism states that the recommended intake is closer to 1.0 g/kg of body weight each day.

Signs of protein deficiency

Protein deficiencies aren’t common, but that doesn’t mean they are impossible. In developed countries, like the U.S., individuals who don’t have a balanced diet or those hospitalized may be at risk of protein deficiency. Some studies have found that about 50 percent of home-bound, elderly individuals don’t have an adequate intake of amino acids.

When protein intake is low, adults may see a loss of lean body mass which can lead to increased risk of disease, infections, and other health problems. You may also notice thinning hair and brittle nails.

Best sources of non-meat, vegan protein

While there are several plant-based protein options, the following provides a variety of amino acids and can help you easily reach your daily protein requirements as a vegan.

Bowl of green bean & radish salad in orange juice
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Not only are vegetables full of essential vitamins and minerals, but they also contain protein. While you likely aren’t meeting your daily protein needs with one salad, different vegetables contain around 1 to 4 grams of protein per cup.

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Whether you enjoy lentils, beans, or peas, you’re getting in a good amount of protein, fiber, and iron. They are also relatively low in fat and don’t contain cholesterol compared to their meat protein counterparts.

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Different varieties of nuts are a great on-the-go protein snack, plus they come with heart-healthy fats. Unfortunately, nuts also contain high amounts of calories, therefore the American Heart Association only recommends eating about four servings of unsalted nuts each week. One serving equals about 1.5 ounces (or a small handful).

Pumpkin soup
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These little seeds pack a powerful protein punch (say that three times fast), which is great when you want to amp up your protein intake without needing to eat large quantities of food. For example, 3 tablespoons of hemp seeds can provide a whopping 9.5 grams of protein and can be easily added to a smoothie or salad.

Protein supplements to help you stay on track

While it’s ideal to meet your protein needs from whole foods, in some circumstances you may have to turn to protein supplements to help you reach your daily requirement. This may be the case if you’re ill and don’t have much of an appetite or heavily training for a marathon. Sometimes in a time crunch, when you can’t prepare a full meal, protein supplements are also very handy. Thankfully, there are many vegan options on the market.

When shopping for vegan protein powder, look for the protein source to come from options such as:

  • Soy
  • Hemp
  • Brown rice
  • Pea
  • Pumpkin

Bottom Line: You can get all the protein you need on a vegan diet

Anyone who wants to try eating plant-based or vegan can get the protein they need from legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains, and achieve a healthy diet with a little planning and understanding that all 9 essential amino acids can be gotten from plants.

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