If you decide to make the switch to a completely plant-based diet you’ll need to pay close attention to certain aspects of your diet to make sure you’re getting the nutrition you need to stay healthy. Protein is one such area, because as a general rule omnivores tend to get the bulk of their protein from meat and dairy foods.
Getting all the protein you need from a vegan diet is eminently achievable, even if you have the high protein demands that come with an athletic lifestyle. You just have to know what to eat, and to make things a little easier we’ve listed a whole load of vegan sources of protein below and ranked them by protein content per serving size where possible. Need inspiration to make those protein sources into tasty meals? Check out these recipes from The Vegan Athlete’s Cookbook by Anita Bean.
For more general advice on getting enough protein in a vegan diet, we spoke to Heather Russell, dietitian at The Vegan Society.
What are the best sources of protein for vegans, particularly if they train frequently?
The quality of all sources of protein varies, and a good way to work out what the best vegan sources is to look at the amount of lysine, which is an amino acid. Good sources include beans, lentils, peas, soya, peanut butter, quinoa, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds. Soya in particular is a great source of plant protein – the quality of the plant protein in soya is similar to meat and dairy, so that can be particularly valuable especially for people who have higher protein needs like athletes. If you’re a vegan who trains regularly, it’s a good idea to eat regular meals containing protein-rich foods, including a bedtime snack.
What about vegan meat substitutes?
I wouldn’t encourage them as everyday sources of protein because they contain quite variable amounts of salt. There’s a variety of soya mince which comes dry. You rehydrate it and use it like normal mince, and that tends to have no added salt. That can be handy as a healthy everyday protein source that replaces meat.
I would certainly encourage people to eat things like lentils, beans, chickpeas and tofu rather than using meat replacement products, because it’s best to eat minimally processed foods most of the time. There are good reasons to eat certain foods that are more processed, but if you want to make the most of a vegan diet I’d suggest going for those other less processed sources of protein.
What’s the best type of vegan milk for protein?
Using fortified soya milk is useful because the soya variety contains much more protein than other plant milks. If you’re athletic you need a bit more protein so that’s a good choice.
Should vegans be concerned with “complete” proteins?
I think this may come from an outdated concept of protein combining. People used to talk about having to eat certain plant proteins in the same meal to get the complete mix of amino acids, but the reality is that as long as you’re having good-quality sources of plant protein across the day you don’t need to worry about combining specific foods. It’s more about choosing good sources of protein.
There are three points. You need to have enough calories overall; you need to get enough protein for your requirements in terms of grams per day; and the protein sources you’re eating across the day need to be of good quality. As long as you tick those off then you don’t need to worry too much.
- The Vegan Diet: What You Need To Know
- 3 Successful Sporting Vegans
- A Plant-Based Protein Shake Recipe that Works for Vegans
- The Best Vegan Protein Powders To Help Your Body Recover After A Workout
Can vegan protein supplements be useful?
I always say it’s better to obtain protein from food, because foods are a whole package of nutrients – it’s not just the protein you get from them. The only situation where I would suggest that someone uses a protein supplement is if they’ve tried their best to hit their protein target across the day but for some reason they’re struggling to do that, and they find that using a supplement enables them to do that.
People focus a lot on protein but really you need to look at the overall eating pattern and the quality of the food you’re eating, and if you’re eating lots of processed food and nutrients by themselves you’re not going to be getting the benefit of all the other things that come with a good source of plant protein like vitamins, minerals and fibre.
The Best Vegan Protein Sources
- Seitan: 25g per 100g
- Tempeh: 20g per 100g
- Tofu: 12g per 100g
- Soya beans: 11g per 80g serving
- Quorn mince: 11g per 75g serving
- Red kidney beans: 9.7g per 120g serving (½ can)
- Edamame beans: 9.4g per 80g serving
- Chickpeas: 9.2g per 120g serving (½ can)
- Peanuts (roasted and salted): 9.1g per 30g serving
- Almonds: 8.7g per 30g serving
- Black beans: 8.4g per 120g serving (½ can)
- Green lentils: 8.1g per 120g serving (½ can)
- Cashew nuts: 6g per 30g serving
- Quinoa: 5.9g per 130g serving
- Peanut butter: 5.3g per tbsp
- Peas: 4.6g per 80g serving
- Oats: 4.1g per 40g serving
- Pumpkin seeds: 3.5g per 10g serving
- Hemp seeds: 3.4g per 10g serving
- Chia seeds: 3.3g per 15g serving
- Ground linseed: 2g per 10g serving
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.