How much protein do I need, and how do I get it from plants?
The information available on protein is overwhelming (and, often, contradictory!) Add veganism into the mix, and we have a recipe for information overload and confusion.
Luckily, we're here to set things straight using peer-reviewed, empirical research -- not the beliefs of the gym bro who thinks you'll become protein deficient on a vegan diet.
The above protein calculator is based on recommendations by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. We used journal articles these organizations jointly published in 2009 and 2016.
How to use the protein calculator
Start by entering your weight. If you're currently working on losing overall body weight, enter the weight you're aiming for, rather than your current weight. If there's a big difference between your current weight and the one you're aiming for (e.g. 40 pounds or more), enter a bodyweight that's between your current and goal weights.
Next, indicate whether you're vegan or vegetarian. Folks eating plant-based diets need a little extra protein to ensure we're getting our essential amino acids in appropriate amounts.
Then indicate whether you're currently in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn in a day) for weight loss. If yes, you'll need a little extra protein to ensure you maintain muscle mass while you lose fat.
Lastly, enter your training intensity. You'll see a description of each intensity level as you slide the slider from "none" upward.
"Where do you get your protein?!"
Everyone who’s been vegan for more than 4 minutes has heard, “But…where do you get your protein?” High-level vegan strength athletes need between 1.8 and 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or between 0.8 and 1.14 gram of protein per pound of body weight). Folks who train less intensely won’t need that much. Most of my strength training clients aim to get about 20% of their calories from protein.
So, the first piece of the protein puzzle is that you might not need as much protein as you think. The second and third pieces are protein density and variety.
If you strength train, you do need to make sure you’re eating protein-dense foods like seitan, tofu, tempeh, high-protein pastas (e.g. red lentil, chickpea, edamame, black bean), and textured vegetable protein (a.k.a. TVP). Feel free to supplement with a plant-based protein powder, but do keep variety in mind. To ensure you’re getting all the amino acids you need, in the correct proportions, eat a wide variety of protein-rich foods, rather than relying on only two or three main sources.
You may have come across a protein recommendation of 0.8 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day. According to this calculation, if you weigh 160 pounds, you need about 58 grams of protein per day. There are two important things to keep in mind here:
1. This is a minimum requirement to stave off health problems, not an optimal amount.
2. This recommendation is for sedentary people, not those who exercise (and especially not for those who strength train).
Here are a few situations in which your protein needs will increase:
You strength train and want to build muscle.
You're in a calorie deficit. (A higher protein intake will prevent muscle loss along with fat loss.)
Some research suggests that we may need more protein as we age because our rate of absorption decreases.
High-protein vegan foods:
High-protein pastas (e.g. edamame, red lentil, chickpea, black bean)
Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
Sample high-protein plant-based meals to fuel strength training:
This tofu scramble packs in 26 grams of protein for only 256 total calories.
High-protein pasta is a super simple meal option. Add pasta sauce, and amp up the protein content even further by adding nutritional yeast, tofu, or plant-based meats.
Make your own seitan -- it's easier than you think! Almost 70% of the calories in my homemade seitan come from protein.
Further reading + resources
How to get plant protein without a crap ton of sodium (article)
Your guide to calculating calories and macros on a vegan diet (e-book)
About the author
Vegan since 2003, Karina Inkster is a fitness and nutrition coach, author of four books, and magazine writer. She holds a Masters degree in Gerontology, specializing in health and aging. Karina hosts the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast, busting myths and providing evidence-based advice to kick butt with your health and fitness – on a vegan diet. Her award-winning online coaching programs help vegans worldwide live their healthiest, most plant-strong lives.
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