Yes, you can follow a vegan diet while getting plenty of protein from plant protein sources.

By Nicole Clancy
December 29, 2020
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A vegan diet means eating only plant-based foods. In other words, no meat, dairy, or eggs; nothing that comes from an animal. Eating vegan boasts definite health benefits though. “A vegan diet is inherently low in calories and high in antioxidants," says Kristi Harter, RD. “It has also been shown to be beneficial in cardiovascular disease, helping to lower cholesterol and risk of a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack.”

A hot topic for vegans continues to revolve around protein, specifically whether those eating a vegan diet can consume enough protein. If you’re worried about getting enough protein, don’t. “Protein needs are notoriously overestimated and based on faulty calculations,” says Michelle Babb, RD, author of Mastering Mindful Eating ($21, Amazon). “Generally speaking, it’s not difficult for vegans to get enough protein if they’re eating a varied diet that includes lots of vegetables and plenty of legumes,” she continues. Babb emphasizes paying attention to how you feel. “Clues that you’re getting enough protein are feeling strong, energized, and healthy.” Babb identifies signs of protein deficiency as fatigue, muscle weakness, and hair loss.

6 Sources of Vegan Protein

To ensure you’re getting sufficient vegan protein for optimal health, be sure your diet includes some of these foods.

Broccoli, Spinach, Asparagus, and Peas

“Plants have a ton of protein,” says Harter. Broccoli has 4 grams of protein per cup, spinach boasts 3.5 grams of protein per cup, asparagus has 4 grams of protein per spear, and peas have 8 grams per cup. “Veggies are more nutritious the less they are cooked but can sometimes be harder to digest,” Harter adds. She offers a tip to lightly steam veggies then add the water to your dish to get the nutrients back.  

Credit: Peter Krumhardt

Lentils and Beans

Lentils are a legume, which means they are part of the bean and pea family (same as pinto beans and chickpeas, for example), which means they’re grown as a seed or pod. Lentils come in a variety of colors, with black lentils holding the most protein. “Not only are beans a good source of protein, yielding about 14 grams per cup, but they’re also a phenomenal source of fiber and prebiotics that help feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut” Babb says. Adding lentils to a veggie soup is an easy way to increase your vegan protein.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are a convenient source of vegan protein, whether you’re adding them to your entrée or enjoying as a portable snack. For example, check out pumpkin seeds which have a whopping 12 grams of protein per 1 cup. Babb also recommends using nut and seed butters, like peanut butter and almond butter, as a great way to bump up your plant-based protein.

Plant-Based Protein Powder

Using a plant-based protein powder is economical and convenient. “Most popular is pea protein-based protein powders and these can be a good way to boost protein levels for vegans who are more active and/or might be looking to build lean mass,” Babb says. Another popular question is about whey protein and vegans. “Whey protein is a powder that comes from animal milk (usually cow’s milk) and is not vegan," Harter clarifies. There are other protein powders such as hemp that are a good vegan alternative.” If you’re looking for a grab and go lunch or to fuel post-workout, try vegan protein powder.

Credit: Blaine Moats

Soy Foods

Edamame, tofu, and tempeh. All three of these plant-based protein foods originate from the soybean. Edamame has 17 grams of protein in 1 cup and comes from soybeans harvested straight from the pod. Tofu, yielding 10 grams of vegan protein in half a cup, is a bean curd pressed into solid blocks (that's amazing in all kinds of tofu recipes). Tempeh, offering 31 grams of protein in one cup, is made from a natural fermenting process that presses soybeans into a cake-like form. Try it in this tempeh bulgogi recipe. Babb says tempeh specifically works great as a ground meat substitute to crumble into tacos or chili.

Whole Grains

Whole grains, as opposed to refined grains or multigrain for example, contain every part of the grain kernel. Sprouted bread, which is also a whole grain that germinates before being ground, boasts 15 grams of protein per serving. Babb says, brown rice, red rice, millet, buckwheat, farro, and spelt are also great vegan protein sources either as a side dish or combined with legumes as a main dish. “Quinoa stands out as a powerhouse for protein because it contains all the amino acids, making it a complete protein,” says Babb. Quinoa has 8 grams of protein per one cup, and can easily be added to salads or a casserole.

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