The Complete Protein Guide for Beginning Vegans

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Protein can be found in almost every food to some degree. In fact, the official unofficial answer to the common question asked to vegans of ‘where do you get your protein?’ is “everywhere”.

The only reason we have trouble understanding where vegans get protein is because we never learned that there’s protein in everything. Potatoes got filed under ‘carbs’ because they do contain carbs, but they also contain protein. Cauliflower is classified as a vegetable, but one medium cauliflower has 11 g of protein (which is why you often see vegans eating cauliflower ‘steaks’).

So rather than thinking about foods as carbs or vegetables, let’s just recognize them as the nutritious and sometimes high-protein source that they are. Afterall, a cashew is not just a nut; if you’ve been to the grocery store recently, you’ll see that a cashew is also a non-dairy milk, a cheese, and a yogurt. This is true for so many foods as well. So read through this introduction page if you’re new here, then investigate each of the protein food groups below to learn more about where vegans get their protein.

(This site just started, so there’s a lot more we have to add! If you need more help right now, post a message in our Forum area.)

The Vegan Protein Food Groups

Don’t worry; this list doesn’t look like much if you’re new to plant-based eating, but wow is it ever! It’s not just about eating a nut, it’s about everything that a nut (or seed or legume) can become. Pureeing cashews in a blender and adding a little lemon juice makes a delicious sour cream-like dish. Hang in there. The food will be delicious once you understand it.

If you’re a vegan beginner, be sure to read this whole page, then click on each of the food groups above to find a detailed list for each one that will provide the most important information for each, including various ways to eat them, recipes, warnings (if needed) and tips for buying the best kinds for your needs.

Here is a free printable checklist of various proteins for you to try: Woohoo Protein Checklist Printable. Keep in mind that there are a lot more options than what’s on this list as well though. For example, mushrooms only have about 3 g of protein per cup, however that value significantly increases when the mushrooms are dried because once the moisture is removed from them, it’s much easier to pack in a lot more mushrooms into a serving. For example, check out the Portobello Mushroom Jerky listed in our forage store which boasts 5 g of protein in just a 1/3 cup serving!

Protein Overview for New Vegans

The main concern for people new to the idea of plant-based eating is how to get enough protein. However, nature has a pleasant surprise that most of us don’t know: there is protein in just about everything! A single medium potato has 7 grams of protein – for my needs as a 5’4”” slightly overweight 30’s girl, that 7 grams is almost 20% of my 50 g daily protein recommendation! One potato! That’s a box of french fries!

Did you just breathe a sigh of relief? I did when I found that out. If nothing else, we’ve got fries! And pasta — 6 g of protein there for just plain old normal pasta. The list goes on — rice has protein, bread, oatmeal, avocados, even many vegetables all contain protein. There’s a reason vegans joke about being able to live off the side menu – there’s protein to be found almost everywhere! Of course, there are a variety of other protein sources as well that most of us don’t focus on or even know about as meat-eaters, particularly seeds.

In fact, when someone asks me where I get my protein, my first thought actually is seeds! (Don’t be scared – you do not have to eat seeds… but you’re probably going to want to because they’re delicious and so nutritious your body will quickly fall in love with them.) Seeds are absolutely packed with protein – so much that you don’t even need to eat a lot of them; who knew birds are actually on a high protein diet!?

First, let’s determine your own protein requirement so you can start understanding how easy it is to add up the protein for your own needs which will make you feel a whole lot more comfortable going forward.

Calculating Protein Requirement

The formula to calculate your protein requirement is:
0.8 g of protein per Kg body weight
As I mentioned earlier, I am slightly overweight (140 lbs).
therefore:
140 lbs = 63.5 kg
63.5 kg x 0.8 g protein = 50 g protein

To calculate your own requirement, here is a link here is a link to a LB to KG converter.

The only reason I’m telling you this is because when I first started out, this was what I wanted to know the most: how to meet my protein requirement. I would count things up every day and gauge my success based on whether or not I reached my goal. As time has gone on however, I’ve stopped counting. The important thing to remember is that this ‘magic number’ of how much protein you need is just a general helpful guideline to know. How much protein you actually need will depend on your body and lifestyle.

I realized that some days I was craving much more than my recommended amount and other days, much less. Protein needs are influenced by your level of activity, type of activity (muscle-building exercise vs. cardio vs. endurance, etc.) and so on. So in as much as you’ve now calculated your general recommended protein number, you can also now throw it out the window. I eat based on what I crave: if I’m craving protein, I eat more protein. If I’m craving greens, I eat more greens. It’s as simple as that, though of course I do generally design my meals to be well-balanced too.

It can be helpful when you’re first starting out though so that you can soothe that part of your mind that’s worried about getting enough. The psychological aspect of becoming vegan is the most difficult: re-learning what a nourishing and satisfying meal looks like. You’re probably going to want to add up the amount of protein you get in a meal at first just to be sure you’re getting enough. I was really surprised just how easy it is to quickly add up enough foods to meet my requirement. Yes, there are some higher protein foods you will likely want to incorporate into your diet regularly, however I was shocked to learn that a medium fry from Wendy’s contains 7 grams of protein.. almost 20% of my daily needs!

One slice of bread (every bread is different of course, but the bread I eat usually) contains 4 g of protein per slice, which means a sandwich has 8 g of protein just from the bread alone. A serving of broccoli contains 8 g of protein. And these are just normal foods we all consume regularly without realizing just how nourishing they are. Once you start adding in foods that are even more protein-rich as well, such as by putting a chickpea falafel (baked chickpea burger basically) in your sandwich or mixing some hemp seeds into your veggie medley, you’ll quickly see how easy it is to meet your requirement.

I try to let my body tell me what it wants as much as possible. Twice I have wanted an ice cream bar for breakfast, so that’s what I had. Chocolate is a good source of magnesium, my ice cream is made of coconut, so why not! Most days my body asks for chickpeas and a giant pile of vegetables. If it wants ice cream one day, I’m certainly not going to stand in its way because that’s not “traditionally” a breakfast food. Chickpeas and vegetables aren’t traditionally a breakfast food either but that’s what I look forward to in the mornings, that or a yogurt bowl.

That’s my goal with my eating now. Not to hit a specific number requirement for protein or whatever. Not to fulfill the lifelong conditioning of what a meal at a certain time of day is supposed to look like – just listen to what my body wants – and I believe that’s sound advice for all of us (unless you’re addicted to sugar or have a medical issue to consider).

Complete Proteins

There is an important aspect of protein that you need to understand though as it often comes up in conversation with non-vegans: whether a protein source is a “complete protein.” A complete protein is one which contains all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies can’t produce. Animal meat is a complete protein, as are eggs and dairy, which is why this is often discussed. Many vegan foods are complete proteins as well (potatoes are a complete protein, yay french fries again) and so are many others, but some are not. However, this really isn’t a massive cause for concern because as long as you’re eating a variety diet, you’re likely getting a complete protein meal in the end.

For example, chickpeas and tahini (ground sesame seed sauce) are not complete proteins, however I usually top my pan-cooked chickpeas with tahini (and ketchup, a mix I call “tahinichup”), and together, these two proteins do have all nine essential amino acids so therefore my signature breakfast is a complete protein meal. If you’d like to learn more about complete proteins and which foods tick all nine boxes, check out the Essential Amino Acids listing in the Nutrient section.

Protein Sources

The list at the top of page will take you further into the protein guide where you can learn about each group of foods, but we’ll post the link again here. Click on one of the groups that interests you to learn more and find a complete guide for each food and recipe suggestions for each one. (Again, we’re new, so this guide is still growing, but it’s growing fast, so check back often!)

High Protein Suggestions