15 Easy Tips to Help You Get More Protein on a Plant Based Diet

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Getting enough protein on a plant-based diet is a piece of cake if you’re simply looking for general health and longevity. We don’t actually need that much! But if you have fitness goals, are eating in a calorie deficit, are over the age of 50, or are an athlete, your protein needs are higher than for the average person.

Eating a higher protein, vegan diet may seem like an impossible task, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of ways for vegans to get their much-needed, muscle-building, recovery-inducing protein. The best part? They taste delicious!

With this article, I’ll give you my favorite tips and tricks to get all the protein you need every day, regardless of your personal goals.

15 Tips to Get More Protein on a Plant Based Diet Summary

Just want the tips without reading all of the reasoning? Here you go!

  1. Eat enough calories to support your goal
  2. Consciously think about your protein source when creating each meal
  3. Add nuts and seeds to salads, grains, and smoothies
  4. Smoothies!
  5. Eat real food
  6. Eat your beans
  7. Eat whole grains
  8. Add mock meats
  9. Soy foods are your friend
  10. Plant-based protein powders are conventient
  11. Nut butters are calorie dense and delicious, and are complimentary proteins to grains
  12. TVP is high in protein and can help recreate some of your favorite non-vegan dishes
  13. Protein-rich, non-protein foods are super convenient
  14. Protein bars for when you’re in a rush
  15. Soy milk is loaded with protein and simple to use with smoothies, shakes, and oatmea.

All right, let’s get specific!

Table of Contents

What Is a Vegan Diet

Because a vegan diet excludes all animal products, many people think they won’t be able to get all the protein they need. But there’s protein in everything! Truly, as long as you are meeting your calorie needs every day, you’ll also be eating enough protein to keep you healthy.

But certain populations need more protein than the average person and may benefit from paying particular attention to this macronutrient.

So, who are these special populations, and why do they need more protein?

People That May Benefit From a Higher Than Average Protein Intake

If you are eating in a calorie deficit, protein can help you maintain lean muscle mass while you lose weight. More muscle means a higher metabolism. So you definitely don’t want to lose muscle while you’re losing weight, or you can actually slow down your metabolism. This will make it harder to keep your weight off once you reach your goals.

As we age we run the risk of losing muscle mass over time. Age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) is one of the number one reasons people lose their freedom over time. If you lose the ability to go up or downstairs on your own, get groceries out of your car and into your house, vacuum, you may become reliant on your loved ones more and more. A higher protein intake can help you keep your muscle and prevent age-related muscle loss.

If you have fitness or athletic goals, protein is important. Your workouts are going to break down muscle tissue. Eating protein helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which helps build and repair muscle tissue that was damaged due to your workout.

To learn exactly how much protein each of these populations should eat every day, read How Much Protein Do You Really Need.

How Much Protein Do We Really Need?

The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For an average person of 80kg this makes 64.0g of protein per day. This is the minimum level to get by, not get sick, and stay fit enough to do some exercise.

Recent analysis has moved that figure a bit higher. Studies suggest that athletes and active people require more protein than this. They should shoot for between 1.2 to 1.7g/kg of body weight. This is the range I recommend for everyone! I’ll explain more later.

How Much Protein Do People Eat on Average?

Science shows that most of us already get more protein than we need.

A 2013 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics compared the nutrient intake of more than 71,000 non-vegetarians, vegetarians, and vegans. This was the largest to date. The researchers found that vegetarians and vegans obtain 70 percent more protein than they require each day. Non-vegetarians obtain even more than that!

Without even trying, you are most likely getting more protein than you need. As long as you are meeting your calorie needs, you’re likely covered. In fact, there is not one single study, ever, of a person being protein deficient, that was meeting their personal calorie needs. Never!

Vegan athletes can easily get enough protein on a whole-food, plant-based diet. Even without eating protein bars and drinking protein shakes! Athletes do require more protein than the average person, but they require more of everything. And there is no evidence that their percentage of calories from protein needs to be any higher than everyone else. They just need to eat more calories.

The Complete Protein Myth

Rice and Beans

Plant sources of protein were long viewed as lower in quality than animal sources due to a lack of one or more of the essential amino acids. there are 9 essential amino acids that humans get from food. These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Turns out, all plants contain all 9 essential amino acids! Most plants are simply limited in one or more of the essential amino acids. They are there, just in a small quantity.

You only need to eat a diet containing all 9 essential amino acids over the course of a day or two, not every meal. In fact, most whole plant foods contain all nine, and simply get an amino acid boost from the incomplete proteins in other plants.

The most common example is beans and rice. The rice provides enough tryptophan and methionine, while the bean provides a higher amount of lysine. This combination makes it a very complete protein that contains all 9 essential amino acids in abundance.

Other examples include potatoes and green peas, and whole wheat bread and peanut butter! For a complete list of complementary proteins, see my article Powerful Protein Combinations.

Rather than labeling these as “incomplete” or “complete” proteins, complementary proteins seems a more appropriate term.

Is Animal Protein Better Than Plant Protein?

We’ve shown that vegans get enough protein, but do meat and dairy sources provide “better” protein than plant-based diets? Certainly not.

It’s true that animal foods are more efficient in terms of calories produced per gram of protein consumed. The protein found in meat, eggs, and dairy is utilized by the body more swiftly than plant-based protein. But there are drawbacks to this efficiency! While it may be more effective at increasing muscle and tissue growth, it is also more effective at tumor cell growth. Plant protein, on the other hand, is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.

Meat, dairy, and eggs are high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and arachidonic acid. These cause inflammation. Dietary cholesterol is also associated with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease!

Animal proteins also lack fiber. This is a double whammy for future diabetes. The fats from these animal sources cause insulin resistance at the cellular level, and then lack of fiber causes a large insulin reaction. The proteins found in plants are bound to fiber, and plant fats don’t cause insulin resistance inside the cell.

High dairy intake can raise IGF-1, which is associated with cancer growth.

A vegan diet has been shown to decrease your risk for diabetes, and lower and your risk of prostate cancer by 35 percent.

Pretty compelling reasons to ditch the meat and focus on plant sources of protein.

Why Getting Enough Protein on a Vegan Diet is Important

So you want protein, and you need it to fuel your fitness goals, but you want to avoid animal proteins. Easy! You’re plant-based!

Eating enough calories every day will ensure you get enough protein for health and longevity. As long as you are eating a variety of foods! Not a ton of different foods, but if you eat only bananas every day for weeks on end, you’re not going to get all the amino acids you need (or any other lacking nutrients for that matter!).

But you have goals! And you want to get protein to fuel those goals, not just be healthy. You want better than just healthy.

I get that. Me too! Here’s a list of my favorite ways to make sure I’m hitting higher levels of complementary proteins to keep me active and chasing my dreams.

15 Ways to Get More Protein on a Vegan Diet

Here they are! Simple ways to boost your protein intake.

1. Eat enough calories for your metabolic rate, daily activity level, and daily exercise requirements

Calories

Use this calculator and this table to figure out how many calories you burn on any given day. I don’t use this table to figure out things like vacuuming and gardening. Just figure out your daily calories, and use the table for exercise, such as running, playing soccer, weightlifting, etc.

2. Think about protein at every meal

Plant Proteins

What is your primary protein source for that meal, even if that protein source is a small one. I don’t usually worry about complementary proteins. I know I’m covered over the course of the day or every few days at least. Just think about what you’re eating at each meal.

What is my protein for breakfast? Tofu scramble, oatmeal, vegan yogurt, protein smoothie.

What is my protein at lunch? Vegan deli slices, peanut butter on my sandwich, nuts added to a salad.

What is my protein for dinner? Tofu, tempeh, black beans, chili, quinoa.

Each time you eat, think about what your protein source is. This will simply get you thinking about protein and may make you grab a handful of walnuts to go along with that banana. After a while, this just becomes a habit. You won’t think about it anymore. But it’s a great place to start.

3. Add nuts and seeds to salads, grains, and smoothies

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are loaded with healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, calories, and yes, protein. Not a ton of protein, which is why I don’t usually count on them to boost my protein intake, but enough that they are a great addition to your other meals. Chia seeds, flaxmeal, hemp hearts, and walnuts are daily essentials for vegans anyway because they provide ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), which your body will convert to omega-3 fatty acids.

Add walnuts to salads, hemp hearts to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, flaxmeal to oatmeal, or whip up a delicious chia seed pudding for dessert (spoiler, it’s dessert and it’s healthy!!!).

4. Smoothies!

Smoothies

Forget thinking about protein shakes. Smoothies are a great way to get a lot of protein at once. Load them up with nuts and seeds and dark green leafy vegetables as an added health bonus.

5. Eat real food

Eat Real Food

Okay, so anything that provides calories and is edible is real food, but we’re talking about whole foods that come from the Earth here. If your diet is made up of whole plant foods, fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, refined grains (yep), nuts, seeds, and legumes, you’ll be getting protein in each and every bite you take. Each of those foods may not be protein-packed, but four to five foods at a meal, each with some protein, add up.

6. Eat more beans!

Beans

Even hummus is a great snack when paired with hard vegetables like carrots, celery, and cucumbers. Beans pair great with grains to make complementary, protein-packed meals. Beans and rice, bean burritos, pita and hummus, or a hummus and sprouts sandwich are great examples of simple meals that pack a protein punch.

7. Don’t forget about your whole grains

Wholegrains

Refined grains are okay. Let me say that again. REFINED GRAINS ARE OKAY! They can really help if you struggle to eat enough calories because they are lower in fiber. But whole grains actually have quite a bit of protein, and some very specific amino acids (tryptophan and methionine) that you need and pair well with other plant proteins. This is why whole grains and beans are such a powerful combination!

8. Add mock meats

Mock Meats

Don’t base your diet on these, but they’re tasty, easy to whip up, help keep your diet varied, and provide a host of complementary proteins.

9. Soy is your friend

Tofu Tempeh and Edamame

Edamame, tofu, and tempeh are great sources of complete protein for vegans! Edamame is whole soybeans, so it’s completely unprocessed. Tofu is minimally processed (soybeans are blended into a liquid and formed into a solid block, and then fortified with vitamins and minerals like calcium and B12). And tempeh is made from fermented soybeans so it’s great for your friendly gut bugs

10. Vegan Protein Powders

Lean how much protein you actually need to eat to reach your goals

You absolutely do not have to add a plant based protein powder to meet your daily protein needs, even as an athlete. But they are convenient! talk to any non-vegan fitness buff, gym-goer, or athlete, and they likely drink a protein shake. We need protein to help recover from workouts, repair muscle tissue, and initiate protein synthesis. Protein powders are easily digested, and they are quick and easy to make up and drink.

11. Nut butter

Nut Butters

Who doesn’t love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? And now you know that peanut butter and whole-grain bread is a complementary protein! So load up! These make quick and easy lunches that are protein-packed on a vegan diet.

And I mean protein-packed! A single slice of whole-grain bread will usually have about 8 grams of protein. And a small serving of natural peanut butter is also 8 grams. So a sandwich will load you up with 24 grams of complete protein. And that’s just the sandwich! you’ll get a couple more grams from an apple, and maybe even some baby carrots and hummus. So easy to hit 30 grams of protein without every trying!

12. TVP

TVP

TVP is Textured Vegetable Protein, and it’s made from soy. So it kind of fits with number seven above. When most people think of soy they think of tofu and tempeh, but TVP is great. It has basically no flavor. It comes dehydrated and you simply add water and heat. It puffs up and has a ground meat-type texture. I love to add this to chili or marinara sauce to raise the protein content and mimic foods that I used to love as a non-vegetarian.

13. Protein-Rich Non-Protein Foods

When you think of pasta do you normally think of protein? I don’t. I think of good complex carbs and deliciousness. But there are high-protein pastas on the market, available pretty much everywhere, and they don’t cost more than their non-protein cousins. Barilla makes a great high-protein pasta that you would never know was any different than the original. It weighs in at 10 grams of protein per 1/4 cup dry noodles! And no one only eats 1/4 cup dry. You’re going to eat at least 1/2 cup, and most people unknowingly eat a lot more than that. That’s 20 grams of protein that you weren’t counting on.

Add some plant-based veggie balls and Newman’s Own Vegan Marinara and you’ve got a high protein, complete meal. There are a ton of other high-protein pastas on the market today. Most of them aren’t fortified with powders or isolates, they are made using things like beans and quinoa. I’ve had chickpea pasta (definitely not my favorite, but Costco keeps carrying it so people must like it), red lentil pasta, quinoa pasta, and beetroot kale pasta. Companies are getting creative! Red lentil quinoa is my favorite, along with the Barilla high-protein pasta. They’re inexpensive and loaded with protein!

14. Protein Bars

Protein Bars

You don’t need powders and bars to get all the protein you need. But why are they so available, everywhere?! Because they’re simple and cheap. for $2 or less you can get 20 grams of protein and 200 calories. That’s a great snack for anyone, but especially for those of use on the run.

Think about your week. How often do you end up running in the morning or after work from one place to the next? How often do you get home and are starving because you didn’t pack all the food you need for work or a meeting ran long? Having these around, at least in emergency situations, is key. I keep a box of my favorites in my desk drawer. In a pinch, I know I’m covered.

15. Soy Milk

Soy Milk

Soy milk, or other high-protein milk alternatives, is an easy way to add a bit of protein to your day. One cup of soy milk has 8 grams of complete protein. Its consistency is similar to milk, and it’s often fortified with other vital vitamins and minerals like vitamin D, calcium, and B12. Use it when you make oatmeal, chia seed pudding, or in protein shakes and smoothies. You can even it to coffee in place of a creamer! Or, if you were used to drinking milk in your non-vegetarian days, have a glass with breakfast or dinner.

Watch Me Put Some of These Tips Into Action

15 Tips to Get More Protein on a Plant Based Diet Conclusion

Many people get protein on a vegan diet by adding nuts, seeds, beans, and soy to their diets. You can get more protein in your meals by including these foods in dishes that are already high in protein content such as grains or vegetables. Protein powders also provide an easy way to get enough of this vital nutrient without having to rely solely on plant-based sources like tofu and beans all day long.

If you’re looking for even more ways to get the optimal amount of proteins while sticking with a vegan lifestyle, contact me! I’m here to help!

Which of these tips has helped you get more protein? Let me know in the comments below!

Until next time,

Matt
Plant-Based, Plant Built

*Author's Note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It's always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet, or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

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AUTHOR
Matt Walter, CHN, M.A.T
I studied Food Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the WSU football team. I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and former personal trainer and competitive CrossFit athlete. My mission is to make embracing and adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle simple and fun!