Eating a plant-based diet is becoming more and more common and popular these days. Despite what many think, getting enough nutrients, like protein, is very possible on a mostly plant-based diet. This means that those with strength training goals like building muscle can achieve their fitness goals without needing any animal protein in their diet. It just might require a little more work, like tracking your macros, to make sure that you're getting enough protein to obtain muscle-building goals, but also to keep your body functioning at optimal levels!
Whether you're following a vegetarian or a vegan diet, we're going to help you meet your daily protein requirements by giving you tips and a list of the best plant protein sources!
How can gym-goers and athletes get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
What tends to happen when someone begins newly plant-based is they start their diets with way too many vegan substitutes. These substitutes are often highly processed and nutrient-poor which can leave you feeling fatigued because you're not going to be getting sufficient protein from these types of foods. Vegan substitutes aren't necessarily bad, they're okay in moderation, but everyone's (fitness goals or not) main priority should always be whole foods!
Lifters, gym-goers, and athletes should focus on prioritizing the right foods that are natural and protein-rich to ensure their meeting their protein intake and other important nutrient needs. Aside from focusing on the right foods, consider calculating your macronutrients and tracking them! The U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 per pound. But if you're consistently training at a high intensity then the amount of protein you need is slightly higher than the average person in order to repair muscle tissue. That's why we suggest using a macro calculator to calculate your protein needs! Like our Fit With Iulia Macro Calculator takes into account your activity level, body type, body fat, fitness goals, and other factors that play an important role in how many nutrients you should be consuming for your goals. Once you calculate your macros, you'll be able to know how many grams of protein your body needs to achieve your goals, along with how many carbohydrates, fats, and calories.
Do you need to track macros?
Not necessarily, but it can help you figure out whether your current diet is providing you with enough protein. And if it's not, you can start making the changes needed to make sure that you're meeting your daily protein needs.
Bottom line is, active people that follow a plant-based or vegetarian diet can get adequate amounts of protein in their diet by prioritizing high-protein whole foods and calculating and tracking their protein intake!
Best sources of protein for vegans
You want to optimize your meals and snacks to have as much protein as possible, but you also want to make sure you're getting good high-quality protein. Animal protein sources like meat, poultry, and seafood are considered to be complete proteins, meaning they contain all essential amino acids. For those who don't know, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 in total, 11 are non-essential and 9 are considered to be essential. The reason essential amino acids are so important is because our body doesn't produce them. So, for vegans, it's especially important to seek alternatives to animal sources that are either complete proteins or at least rich in essential amino acids. Below are the best sources of protein for anyone following a plant-based or vegetarian diet!
Edamame is an immature soybean that makes for a delicious plant protein source! Shelled edamame can contain up to 9 grams of protein per 1/2 cup. That's a good amount of protein that you can add to your salads, veggie stir-frys, or even just steam them and sprinkle some pink salt on top for a tasty protein-rich snack! On top of that, edamame is rich in folate, vitamin K and fiber, and contain a good amount of iron and calcium.
However, there is one downside... Edamame is considered to be unfermented soy. Other unfermented soy products (some are on this list) include soy milk, meat substitutes, tofu, and soy protein powder. Overconsuming unfermented soy can create certain health problems. For example, eating too much of it can cause digestive issues and can even keep your body from absorbing important minerals and protein. To avoid the risks of unfermented soy, make sure not to consume more than 35 grams a day!
Legumes are a powerhouse when it comes to plant protein! Legumes are known for having a high protein content, containing a variety of amino acids, and is an excellent source of fiber, iron, potassium, and several other beneficial nutrients. Three nutrient-rich legumes to include in your diet are...
- Black beans: 14 grams per cup
- Chickpeas: 11 grams per cup
- Lentils: 18 grams per cup
Kidney beans and pinto beans are also good options! The downside is that legumes aren't considered a complete protein because they are low in methionine, but fortunately, rice is high in methionine. Combining the two will allow you to get enough of each essential amino acid! So, combine your favorite beans with a cup of white or brown rice, topped with guacamole or your favorite veggies! You can also make lentil soups, or use it as a taco filling, or add chickpeas into your salads or make tasty hummus out of it! There are a variety of ways to include legumes into your meals and snacks, so get creative!
Nutritional yeast is an inactive yeast that looks like yellow powder or flakes. What's so great about it is a 1/4 cup servicing contains 8 grams of complete protein. It's also an excellent source of B vitamins, specifically vitamin B12. This is actually quite important because most food sources of vitamin B12 come from animal products, so to get enough vitamin B12 and sprinkle some protein into your meals and snacks, add nutritional yeast to your pantry!
Nutritional yeast is not a commonly eaten food. It has a unique, cheesy, umami-like flavor that can add flavor to various vegan dishes and snacks! Sprinkle it on top of some popcorn, salads, mix it in eggs, mashed potatoes, or even make a cheesy-like pasta sauce out of it!
Meat substitutes are often made from soybeans, nuts, or legumes making them a good source of protein. Some substitutes, like a Beyond Burger Patty, packs 20 grams of plant-based protein and claims to have no GMOs, soy, or gluten! However, these plant-based substitutes are often filled with other additives that can make them higher in sodium and saturated fats than meat. So, be mindful about how much you consume in your diet, as with any processed food, moderation is best.
There are a variety of plant-based meat substitutes to choose from, there are burger patties, sausages, ground meat, chicken, deli meats, and so much more. You can incorporate a plant-based substitute in one of your meals to really drive your protein intake up!
Also known as wheat meat, seitan is a soy-free product that resembles the look and texture of meat. It's derived from gluten, the main protein found in wheat. 100 grams of seitan contains a whopping 25 grams of protein, making it one of the richest plant protein sources!
You can make seitan yourself by purchasing vital wheat gluten and pan-fry it, grill or sautee and top it with your favorite sauces. Seitan pairs well with barbeque sauces, tamari, soy sauce, or coconut aminos. You can also find it in the refrigerated section next to the tofu in the grocery store! In fact, it's the base for many popular vegetarian products like Tofurky deli slices and vegetarian bacon.
Note: Seitan is derived from gluten, so if you have a gluten sensitivity, allergy, or are following a gluten-free diet for health reasons then avoid this product!
You might not be able to eat this on its own, but adding spirulina to your meals or snacks can help boost your protein and nutrient intake! Spirulina is a blue-green algae that is a popular supplement used by those following vegan or vegetarian diets. It's commonly found in a powdered form, but it can also be purchased as tablets and taken as a supplement. Vegans and vegetarians love this supplement because one tablespoon of dried spirulina provides 4 grams of complete protein. Plus, it's rich in antioxidants and a good source of a variety of B vitamins, copper, and iron.
The best way to incorporate spirulina to boost your protein intake is by sprinkling it on your soups, salads, green juices, and fruit smoothies. Add two tablespoons to your snack and meal and you just added 8 grams of protein - every little bit counts!
Swap out your regular whole grain or white bread for sprouted grain bread, also known as Ezekial bread! Why? Because this baked good contains 4-5 grams of protein per slice, slightly more than the average bread. In addition, sporting grains increase the amount of healthy nutrients they contain, including their amino acid content! It specifically increases lysine and most sources of plants are low in this amino acid, so adding sprouted bread can help boost the overall protein quality in your plant-based diet. It's also high in soluble fiber, folate, vitamin C, and vitamin E!
We don't really need to tell you how to include bread into your diet, but we will anyway! Use sprouted bread for avocado toasts, or top it with hummus, make a hearty vegan sandwich using vegan sandwich meat, or get really creative and make a tasty vegan french toast or breakfast strata!
Tofu is an extremely popular food in the vegan world and for good reason. Just 3 ounces of it contains around 8 grams of protein, but also 15% of the Daily Value of calcium - which is great for those following a vegan or dairy-free diet! It's made from coagulated soy milk and pressed into white blocks that is essentially flavorless and takes on the flavor of the foods with which it's cooked.
To add flavor to your tofu-based meals add some spices like turmeric, black pepper, garlic, or sauces like tamari or coconut aminos. You can create a hefty veggie stir with other protein-rich foods like brown rice or chickpeas. Or create an egg scramble and add some nutritional yeast, spinach, mushrooms, and other veggies!
Tempeh is another soy-based food that is similar to tofu. It's made from fermented soybeans but they are often combined with seeds and grains to give it a dense texture and nutty flavor. Tempeh contains slightly more protein than tofu, containing up to 11 grams per serving, in addition to containing a good amount of fiber, iron, potassium, and calcium.
You can prepare tempeh the same way as you would tofu! Marinate it in your favorite spices and sauces and create a delicious protein-rich meal out of it.
Although whole grains are considered to be mainly a carbohydrate source, choosing the right ones can sneak a good amount of protein into your diet. There are four whole grains that you should include in your diet...
- Quinoa: Quinoa is an ancient grain that is considered a complete protein and contains more magnesium, iron, fiber, and zinc than other common grains. Just one cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein. You can simmer it in a pan with plant-based milk for a sweet breakfast porridge, use it in place of rice, or add it to your salads for an extra crunch!
- Wild rice: Try something new and swap your brown rice for wild rice! Wild rice contains almost 1.5x more protein than other long-grain varieties. One cup of cooked wild rice contains around 7 grams of protein along with a good amount of fiber, B vitamins, copper, magnesium, and other important nutrients. Pair it with black beans, chickpeas, veggies, or other whole foods for a nutrient-dense meal!
- Oats: Start your morning with a cup of oatmeal! Just half a cup of dry oats can provide you with 6 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and other important nutrients. Although they aren't a complete protein, they are considered to be a higher-quality protein than other popular grains and they're versatile! Make oatmeal for breakfast, or bake with it and make a protein-rich snack like oatmeal bars.
- Buckwheat: Buckwheat is considered to be a complete protein with one cup containing approximately 6 grams of protein. It's not as common as other grains, but you can cook it similarly to oatmeal! You can bake with it, or buy a pack of soba noodles (they're made from buckwheat) and make a vegan Asian-inspired dish!
Vegan protein powder
Whole foods from natural sources should always be your go-to, but sometimes you might need a little more help from a supplement like vegan protein powder! Fortunately, there are various plant-based protein powders in the supplement market for vegans to choose from. They are derived from high-protein plant sources like hemp seeds, brown rice, split peas, soy, and even pumpkin seeds.
There are different types of protein powder to choose from, but for a quality vegan protein powder, we suggest either a brown rice protein or pea protein. Brown rice protein powders are inexpensive and have similar muscle-building effects as whey protein powder. Pea protein is made from yellow split peas which are very high in protein and branched-chain amino acids (BCAA's) leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAA's are essential for minimizing muscle protein breakdown and enhancing recovery for better muscle-building results.
In summary, it's very possible to get enough protein following a plant-based diet. In fact, lifters and gym-goers are still able to attain muscle-building and weight loss goals as long as they're making sure to get sufficient protein in their diet. So, calculate how much protein you need to consume, start tracking, and start incorporating these high-protein plant-based foods into your diet!