Best Vegan and Vegetarian Protein Sources & How To Incorporate Them Daily

By Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN
Professor, Super Nutrition Academy
As hard as we try, we can never escape the flood of conflicting and misleading information regarding protein.
Unfortunately, the notion that we need to consume tons of protein has been propagated, almost exclusively, by supplement companies.
After all, if we need more protein, then we’d need to consume more of their protein powders, right?
The funny thing is that we actually don’t need as much protein as is commonly believed.
Even if your goal is to build muscle!
In fact, the World Health Organization has stated that 95% of the world’s population can do just fine with as little as 5% protein intake.
To put that into perspective…
If your daily intake consists of 2500 calories, 5% protein intake would equate to 125 calories or just 31 grams of protein per day.
Now, if you’re an active individual (strength training or exercising intensely 2-5 times per week), your protein needs will obviously be higher.
But how much higher?
The good news is that it’s not as high as you think. In fact, it’s probably much lower than you might think.
After researching this topic extensively and interviewing some of the leading experts in this field, here’s the bottom line…
We only need 70-120 grams of protein per day OR about 0.8g/kg of bodyweight.[1]
Any more than that has little effect on your ability to build muscle.
And chronically high intakes (above that level) can have undesirable health consequences (ie. acidosis, high uric acid levels, gout, etc…).
To give you some perspective here…
Let’s take the happy medium of 100 grams of protein per day.
Since 1 gram of protein yields 4 calories, 100 grams would provide 400 calories.
On a 2500 calorie/day diet, that’s just 16% protein intake – which falls right in line with what most nutrition organizations recommend.
Most people don’t know that one of the by-products of protein metabolism is uric acid, a dangerous compound that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, acidosis-related health conditions, and painful joint problems like gout.
I’m not here to bash protein, but I do want you to realize that too much of it, especially when not counter-balanced by lots of alkalizing veggies, can have damaging effects on your body.
Yes, protein is an essential component of our diet but, as with anything we ingest, too much can be literally be a problem.

Protein for Vegans and Vegetarians

I’ve often said that you can get all the protein you need from plant sources. And this is true…if you eat the right kinds of plant foods.
A lot of vegans and vegetarians that I’ve worked with don’t necessarily eat healthy.
They might not eat animal products but their plant‐based diets are based on refined carbs like pastas, breads, and cereals. That’s not healthy…not by a long shot.
Since it’s pretty conclusive that eating more plant-based foods is a surefire way to improve your health, is it really possible to get enough protein without eating animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy?
The answer is yes.
We learned earlier that we’re looking to get about 0.8g protein/kg of bodyweight.
So let’s use the example of me – who weighs 75kg (165 lbs). In my case, I would need an average of only 60 grams of protein per day.
That’s slightly less than our 70–120 grams of protein per day range but close enough.
Let’s see how this plays out in the real world with real plant foods.
But first, why don’t we have a look at the best food sources of protein (according to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17):

Food

Protein (per 100g serving)

Spirulina (1 cup) 60g
Soybeans (edamame) 40g
Cheese 28-42g
Beef 34g
Pumpkin Seeds 33g
Lean Meats (chicken, lamb, pork) 30-33g
Yellowfin Tuna 30g
Lentils, raw 26g (9g, cooked)
Peanuts 24g
Egg (whole) 6g
Kale, cooked 2.5g
Alfalfa Sprouts 4g
Parsley/Spinach, raw 3g
Banana (one) 1.3g
Apple 0.3g
As you can see, spirulina (which is a blue-green algae) is the highest source of protein of all foods on the planet at a whopping 60g/100g serving.
However, in order to get 60 grams of protein from spirulina you would have to eat about one entire cup of it – not realistic for most of us.
By comparison, 2-3 ounces of beef would give that same 60 grams of protein – much easier for any meat eater. But what do you do if you don’t eat animal products?

Best Plant Sources of Protein

From the chart above, we can see that lentils are an amazing source of protein (and fiber and healthy carbs) providing up to 26 grams of protein per 100 g serving – a very realistic serving size.
Soybeans are the highest source of protein found in the plant kingdom (other than spirulina). But unless you can find organic, unprocessed soybeans you’re better off avoiding them.
Another “under the radar” super protein food is pumpkin seeds. Per 100g serving they provide a tremendous 33 g of protein. They are also one of the highest sources of zinc – a highly deficient mineral in the western diet.
But that’s not at all.
In the following chart, I want to point out 3 more amazing seeds that are packed not only with high amounts of protein (which can be realistic consumed) but also with incredible amounts of other omega-3 fats and other vital nutrients.
Hemp seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds.

Food

Protein (per 100g serving)

Hemp Seeds 31g
Chia Seeds 20g
Flax Seeds 18g
Cottage Cheese 16g
Walnuts 14g
Quinoa 14g
Rye Bread (4 slices) 10g
White Bagel (half) 10g
Milk (½ cup) 3.5g
Papaya (⅓ fruit) 0.7g
Walnuts are also a great source of protein at 14g/100g serving, as are almonds (not shown in table). However, since these nuts are also higher in fat and total calories, you’ll want to consume them in moderation – about half a handful per day is all you need.
For pure amusement, also notice the difference between milk and a white bagel.
It’s funny that we’ve been led to believe that milk is an important source of protein, yet half a white bagel provides almost three times as much protein!
I’m not saying that either bread or bagels are healthy to eat on a regular basis but I just wanted to point out the common myth that eggs and dairy are excellent sources of protein. In reality, seeds, nuts, legumes and grains are actually better sources.
(If you're wondering about a bagel being an "incomplete protein", you should know that this isn't an issue.[2] Since the body has its own endogenous reserve of amino acids (mainly in the liver), complete proteins can be made at any point – assuming one is getting enough protein over the course of several days. So if the food you eat is lacking in a particular amino acid, your body can add that amino acid to others to create the complete proteins that it requires.)
If you're concerned that you're not getting enough protein, use a free web-service (such as caloriecount.com) to see how much protein you're consuming on a daily basis.
If you're afraid that it is a little low (if it is below 50 grams, it might be), then try one of the following three combinations for adding more protein (and nutrition) to your daily routine:
Try adding one tablespoon of spirulina to your breakfast, 14 walnut halves to your lunch and a half cup of lentils to your dinner, you'd add 17.3 grams of protein to your day as well as half your day's supply of folate and 88% of your daily recommended allowance for manganese.
Try one teaspoon spirulina, one ounce hemp seeds and one cup raw peas for 17.4 grams of protein, more than half your daily recommended allowance for zinc, and 70% of your magnesium.
Include one ounce of chia seeds in your breakfast smoothie, two tablespoons of flaxseed in your salad dressing for lunch and two cups of quinoa with your veggies at dinner time. These three additions will together provide 23.5 grams of protein as well as your full daily supply magnesium and manganese. You'll also get 8.6 grams of Omega-3, 5.9 mg of zinc and 277.5 mg of calcium.
By Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN
[1] Chittenden RH. Physiologic economy in nutrition. New York: Heinemann, 1905
[2] Maurer, Donna. 2002. Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 1-56639-936-X p.37

17 Comment(s)

  1. I have asked this question 3 times now–I am not sure why it keeps getting erased and not answered?  I really appreciate the article, and  I am just curious what the authors credentials (BPHE, CK) stand for?  
    Thank you!

    Betty | Reply

  2. Hi Betty,

    I'm not sure what happened to the comments either. I think it was a glitch.

    I asked Yuri what they stood for and he replied:

    Bachelors of Physical Education and Health

    Certified Kinesiologist
    Registered Holistic Nutritionist

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  3. I'm curious about the what causes a 65% drop in protein when lentils are cooked - 26g (9g, cooked) . I am not sure how raw lentils would be incorporated into a diet. Can you shed some light on this?
    Thanks in advance!

    Ron | Reply

  4. From years of trying different diets, and mostly failing, I am having positive results by limiting the amount of carbs and am unable to eat gluten products. I enjoyed reading the article but there was no mention of the amount of carbohydrate in some of the protein options listed. Also, some of us are not fans of soya products so this limits food choices also. I recently transitions from a vegetarian / vegan diet back to incorporating eggs, butter, cream and some meats and have also notice that the volume of food eaten each day is much less. By incorporating some fat into the diet I no longer feel hungry or have cravings leading to binging.  

    Ian | Reply

  5. The WHO RDA for protein is 0.8g /kg/day.  Note that the RDA is 2 standard deviations above the Estimated Average Requirements which meets OR exceeds the requirements of 97.8% of people.
    16% – 19% protein diet is the average USA diet.
    A little bit of mathematics will show that 8%-10% of energy from protein will adequately meet the needs of the majority of people.  100-120g of protein is way too much for most.
     

    Richard Harding | Reply

  6. Hi Ron. You can include raw lentils by sprouting them. My husband eats raw lentil sprouts daily, and if I recall correctly, Yuri does too. The protein drops because the amino acids (being called proteins) are ruptured by heat. Various amino acids have different heat resistance levels.

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  7. Thanks for the observation Richard. Many cultures and individuals consume as little as 30 grams of protein per day and are still muscular, active and healthy. Most individuals will have no problem consuming 50 to 60 grams of protein per day without trying to get extra. However, some may find it challenging if they're doing an apple-juice fast or something of that nature, to keep their intake of protein above minimum requirements. If doing a juice fast for more than four days, I recommend plenty of fresh vegetable juice which will have 12% to 40% of its calories from protein (whereas apples only get 3% of their calories from protein).

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  8. Hi Ian. Congrats on moving towards a gluten-free diet. As long as you keep away from wheat and refined sweeteners, you’ll find that natural carbohydrates from fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and vegetables will not be an issue. The only exception to that may be white potatoes which do aggravate some conditions.

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  9. I have the same questions as Ron:
    what causes a 65% drop in protein when lentils are cooked - 26g (9g, cooked)?
    How can raw lentils  be incorporated into a diet?

    Leontine | Reply

  10. Leontine, please read my response to Ron above.

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  11. When I originally commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify
    me when new comments are added- checkbox and
    from now on every time a comment is added I recieve four emails with
    the exact same comment. There has to be a means you can remove me from that service?
    Thank you!

    Grow XL Reviews | Reply

  12. I’m quite sure that the e-mail that gives the notification has an “unsubscribe” button at the bottom.

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  13. Ron and Leotine
    I'm not certain this is the reason, but it makes sense to me to think about how when lentils cook they absorb water. So maybe this is why the percentage of protein changes in relation to their total weight.

    Cath King | Reply

  14. Lentils lose protein during cooking because the amino acids break down and form structures that can't be used as protein.

    Raederle Phoenix | Reply

  15. I was just watching this on PBS today. They discussed the same things you wrote about.

    14ty.me | Reply

  16. It’s not a protein drop its 100g of raw dried lenils compared to cooked after water has been absorbed, therefore more weight for less food = less protein

    Brad | Reply

  17. Since 1 gram of protein yields 4 calories, 100 grams would provide 400 calories.
    On a 2500 calorie/day diet, that’s just 16% protein intake – which falls right in line with what most nutrition organizations recommend. These three additions will together provide 23.5 grams of protein as well as your full daily supply magnesium and manganese. You’ll also get 8.6 grams of Omega-3, 5.9 mg of zinc and 277.5 mg of calcium. I read your blog frequently and I just thought I’d say keep up the amazing work

    Linda Peters | Reply

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