Protein

Where do vegetarians and vegans get their protein?

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard the question: “where do vegetarians get their protein,” then I would have enough money to buy a life supply of beans. You might believe that getting enough protein from plants is impossible. But in reality, getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet is a piece of vegan cake.

You might also believe that vegetarians lose their hair or nails. Or you might say meat is higher quality protein, or that plant proteins are inferior to animal proteins, or that you need to combine certain foods to get enough protein. Don’t worry. None of those myths are true.

In this article, I provide answers to frequently asked protein questions and practical suggestions for meeting your protein needs, all backed up with quotes from registered dietitians. All the information in quotes comes from the American Dietetic Association’s position paper about vegetarianism, or from an article written by registered dietitian Jack Norris.

1. How much protein do I need?

If you are under thirteen, you need about 0.95 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.43 grams of protein per pound. This equals about two beans per pound of body weight a day.

If you are in between ages thirteen and eighteen, you need about 0.85 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.39 grams of protein per pound. This amounts to about 1.5 beans per pound of body weight a day.

If you are over eighteen, you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.36 grams per pound.  This amounts to about one bean per pound of body weight a day.

So, what does this add up to?  A 120 pound sixteen year old will need approximately 47 grams of protein a day.

However, since getting enough protein is easy, look at questions five and six below to see suggestions about reaching this requirement.

2. Is it possible to get enough protein on a vegetarian or vegan diet? 

As you can get every nutrient on a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can get enough protein. According to the American Dietetic Association, “A [total] vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients [protein, n-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D and B-12]” The Association also says that “plant protein can meet [nutritional] requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met.”

3. Are animals a better source of protein than plants?

No, there is no proof that animal protein is more nutritious than plant protein.

4. Do I need to combine certain foods to get enough protein?

No, you do not need need to combine foods to reach your protein needs. According the American Dietetic Association, “[C]omplementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal.” According to registered dietitian Jack Norris, “it is now well known that our livers store the various essential amino acids and so it’s not critical to combine different protein sources at each meal.”

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins are made up of twenty different types of amino acids, but only nine of these amino acids are essential. Essential amino acids are not produced by the body, so you must eat them throughout the day.

Complete proteins have high amounts of nine essential amino acids. Meat, milk, eggs are all complete proteins. Plant foods such as soy and quinoa are also complete proteins, yet most plant foods are incomplete.

However, incomplete proteins, such as beans, still contain every essential amino acid! They earn the label “incomplete” because they contain slightly lower amounts of one amino acid. But, they still contain every essential amino acid. Therefore, it is unnecessary to combine plant proteins. Just make sure to eat a variety of foods throughout the day, and you will meet your protein needs.

5. How can I make sure to get enough protein?  

To receive enough protein, eat at least three servings of high-protein foods per day.

6. Where do I get my protein?

Here are some foods to get you started. Note that this is not a complete list of high-protein foods.


Disclaimer: Do not take this information as medical advice.  I am not an expert in nutrition, but I cite many credentialed doctors and registered dietitians.  Please see a qualified healthcare professional for advice.

Craig, Winston J., PhD, MPH, RD, and Ann R. Mangels, PhD, RD, LDN, FADA. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109.7 (2009): 1266-282. Print.

Norris, Jack, RD. “Protein.” Protein. Vegan Outreach, Dec. 2010. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/protein>