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April 27, 2020 10 min read

One of the most common misconceptions about diet is that a serious athlete can’t be vegan and still amp their bodies up to maximum strength. A better question to ask is, “How much protein does the vegan athlete need?”

The first thing you should know is your source of protein actually doesn’t affect your body’s potential for muscle growth. What’s important is the amount of protein. While it’s not as easy to quickly load up on animal protein sources as easily as animal proteins, it’s still very possible and you can achieve it with some guided planning and some nitty-gritty details of what protein really is, what it does for your body, and how much you need. 

Protein, Explained

We all know that protein makes us stronger, but how exactly does it do that? Protein is an enzyme within your body that makes a lot of the important chemical reactions happen. It powers the hemoglobin that powers oxygen in your blood. Protein is a macronutrient, which means that it’s made up of many smaller organisms. These are called amino acids, and there are over 10,000 of them that create protein. 

You definitely don’t worry about all 10,000 amino acids, but there are nine essential amino acids that make up a complete protein. Those are the ones that you have to look for and make sure you include in your diet if you want to build up some serious muscle. Here are the nine essential amino acids:

  • histidine
  • isoleucine
  • leucine
  • lysine
  • methionine
  • phenylalanine
  • threonine
  • tryptophan
  • valine

When it comes to sources of complete proteins, the main meatless options are buckwheat, soy, and quinoa. While many vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and other meatless products contain some of the essential amino acids, most of them don’t contain all the essentials. The best strategy is to keep these three complete protein sources as a staple in your home. 

But don’t underestimate the value of the many other natural protein sources available to you. As with many diet regulations, a healthy balance is the safest way to go. Be sure to include a variety of vegetables, leafy greens, beans, seeds, nuts, and all other sources of protein in your diet. It takes a little more preparation, but the health benefits far exceed limiting yourself to just a few options. 

If you're worried about running low on your protein intake, you can always make a great breakfast protein shake or a post-workout smoothie made of protein powder. 

Asparagus on a wooden cutting board with lemon.

Top Vegan Protein Sources and Their Quantities of Protein

To get an idea of the wealth of protein options that are available to you in the vegan diet, we’ve included a list of some of the best sources of plant-based protein and how much protein a serving of each one contains. 

Beans:  We’re going to include all beans in one category here. While black beans do have the highest amounts of protein, all types of beans are relatively similar in quantity. These will give you 7-8 grams of protein for half a cup! That’s a big chunk of your protein amount for one meal right there. Eating half a cup of beans is pretty uncommon. Most people can easily eat one full cup, especially if they’ve just finished an intense workout. So in one meal, you can gain 14 or more grams of protein just in one ingredient. 

Edamame:  You probably know these the best as your regular appetizer before your sushi comes out. They are very commonly served in Japanese restaurants but you can actually prepare them yourself. Edamame is basically just soybeans that are not quite matured. You can boil them and sprinkle them with salt, and you can eat them right from the comfort of your own home. 

One cup of edamame has 17 grams of protein, so you should always keep some on hand. Any time you feel your body lagging from not getting enough protein, you can quickly prepare an edamame snack for a pick-me-up and you’ll be good to go. 

Alfalfa sprouts:  One cup of alfalfa sprouts contains 1.3 grams of protein. Alfalfa sprouts are a fantastic go-to protein vegetable source to have on hand for toppings. They are great with sandwiches, salads, and even stir frys. 

Spinach:  One cup of spinach contains .9 grams of protein. While that may not seem like much, think about how much spinach you generally use in one serving. A big bowl of salad will easily meet two cups of spinach. Top that with some beans, alfalfa sprouts, avocado, and other leafy greens, and you’ll have easily reached enough protein. 

Many people make it a regular habit to toss a cup of spinach in their pre-workout smoothie for extra power.

Bok choy:  One cup of shredded bok choy holds one gram of protein. Also known as Chinese cabbage, bok choy is commonly used to make stir fry, kimchi, and spring rolls. It’s also a great source of antioxidants and Vitamin C. 

Asparagus:  This delicious vegetable will take your protein a bit further, at 2.9 grams of protein per cup. Asparagus can be eaten in many versatile ways. They can be sauteed with white wine or baked in the oven with lemon and garlic. They usually accompany brown rice very nicely. Roasted chickpeas with mustard seeds or greens will bring your meal to perfection. 

Mustard greens:  Speaking of mustard greens, these are also a great source of protein. One cup of this will give you 1.5 grams of protein. If you’re not familiar with them, they resemble the texture of kale but have a distinct mustard flavor. Many people actually like them more than kale because the typical bitter taste associated with kale is replaced by the mustard flavor of these greens. 

Kale:  One cup of kale contains three grams of protein. If the bitter taste bothers you, try steaming your kale very lightly before adding it to your salad. With just the tiniest steaming or boiling (we’re talking one minute here), you still get the unique crunch offered by kale, while taking away that small unpleasant part. 

Roasted kale is also a special treat. You can buy it at most grocery stores, and it usually comes with some kind of interesting seasoning. It can be expensive to buy it at the store though, so making it yourself is easy and much cheaper. 

Some people complain that when they roast kale, it becomes too dry and crunchy too quickly, and is hard to prevent from burning. The trick to a perfectly roasted kale is to be sure to add some olive oil. Roast it on a much lower heat than you would roast other vegetables. Other veggies tend to be roasted at around 450 degrees, but kale should be done at 350. Remember that it always gets done very quickly, so keep a close eye on it to be sure you catch it in time! 

Adding nutritional yeast to your roasted kale is an excellent way to add a cheesy flavoring, that also contains its own protein content. 

Nutritional yeast:  Two tablespoons of nutritional yeast contains about nine grams of protein, which is a pretty high content. Many people use it as a cheese replacement. 

What is nutritional yeast? It’s deactivated yeast. That means you can’t try to use it to raise your bread dough, because you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, the deactivation provides a flavor that resembles cheese. Because of that, many vegans use it to make macaroni and cheese, flavor their popcorn, sprinkle over roasted vegetables, or even to make vegan cheese. 

Soy milk:  At seven grams per cup of soy milk, you’ll be happy to hear that your morning latte contains a healthy dose of protein. If you want to avoid sugar, you can always plain or original cartons of soy milk at the grocery store, but if you like to add some flavor to your coffee or even to have a nice afternoon treat, you can chocolate soy milk, vanilla soy milk, or many other different flavors. 

When it comes to chocolate soy milk, some of them are not entirely vegan, so make sure you always check the ingredients label to be sure that you won’t find milk products other than cacao or dark chocolate. Some brands will specifically place in big writing on their container, “Dairy-free,” so those are certainly the best options! 

Tofu:  If you’re ever in need of a quick protein boost, go for tofu! Tofu is a complete protein and one cup of it has ten grams of protein. It’s a great meatless alternative to animal products because it offers a great texture as a base for seasonings and that chewy substance you’re used to in things like tacos, rice bowls, and vegetable dishes. 

Seitan:  This is most meat-like of all substances. Many people make seitan steaks, serve it up in chunks in any recipe that calls for meat. It is even grilled, roasted, baked, and prepared in many versatile ways. It does have 24 grams of protein per 3.5 ounces, but it is not a complete protein. It does not have lysine, one of the essential amino acids that comprise a complete protein. If you choose this regularly, make sure to include something else that does offer enough protein, like quinoa. 

Quinoa:  Quinoa should also be dietary go-to for the vegan athlete. This is one of the oldest natural sources of plant protein on earth and has been eaten for many years by indigenous tribes in South and North America. One half of a cup of cooked quinoa contains five grams of protein. It is a better source than brown rice, because of its many other nutrients and vitamins that it contains. 

Brown rice:  You’ll find five grams of protein in one cup of cooked brown rice. Brown rice is a classic and goes well with red beans, red onions, and kale or mustard greens. It’s usually a great side dish for southern cooking. 

After looking at this list, you'll see it's very easy to meet your protein needs with these plant foods every day. Even if you're running low, you can always add some peanut butter or other nuts and protein foods to your carbs to optimize muscle building.

Peanut butter in a jar.

How Much Protein Do Vegetarian Athletes Need Every Day?

You can do a very simple calculation to find out how much protein you should be getting gin your system every day. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that every adult should be getting 7 grams of protein per 20 pounds of body weight daily. Whether you’re an athlete or a sedentary adult actually doesn’t matter, since your body weight will adjust as you gain or lose weight. 

Here’s a general bouncing board for where your protein meter should hit:

If you weigh 150 pounds, you should be eating about 55 grams of protein every day. If you weigh 200 pounds, you should be getting about 70 grams of protein per day. 

Now you might be asking, “What happens if I build muscle but lose body fat and my overall weight goes down?” Many people wonder how to adjust their protein and caloric intake to make room for these changes. 

For someone who is seeking to improve their general fitness is starting out with a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI), the amount of overall weight you lose will not be as great as someone who is setting out to lose a lot of weight. Keep in mind that muscle is heavier than fat. Many people are disappointed when they first start building muscle because they don’t see any weight loss progress. 

However, many personal trainers are now recommending their clients to measure their body in inches rather than weight. While it’s tempting to hop on the scale after putting in so much work, you may be disappointed by your results if you’re just counting on weight loss alone (unless your goal is to gain weight and that’s a different story!). 

No matter what, remember that each weight loss journey is different than the guy standing next to you. For many people, it’s fine to listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs if you’re paying attention to it. If you’re lifting weights and doing all the right moves but aren’t noticing the progress in your strength building that you were hoping for, that may be a sign you’re not consuming enough protein. In that case, add 10 more grams to your diet and see if you notice a difference. 

If you’re looking to make some major body changes due to health, or intense fitness goals, consider seeing a personal trainer or a dietitian to discuss your daily nutrition needs. Many people choose to see a coach or trainer for the first month of their lifestyle changes and then wean themselves off to become more independent with their workouts. 

The more you work out and the more you work on your diet, the more in tune with your body you’re going to get, and the more able to judge what’s too much and what’s too little. 

Is it Possible to Eat Too Much Protein?

Eating too much protein in one sitting can eventually lead to heart disease, especially if that protein comes with a lot of saturated fats. It can also stress out your kidneys, which causes dehydration and eventually kidney failure. 

Most health experts recommend that you stay relatively close to the general 7 grams per 20 pounds of body weight, but athletes or bodybuilders who do high impact sports and training can go a little higher than that. 

What it really comes down to is where is your source of protein coming from? We all know that consistently eating hamburgers isn’t good for your health, but some people don’t realize why that’s an unhealthy lifestyle. Hamburgers have a lot of protein in one sitting, but they are also connected with a lot of cholesterol that comes from saturated fats. 

It’s much better to fuel your body with whole grains and a complete protein like quinoa or lentils and to incorporate healthy fats like olives or avocado. These will meet your protein needs and meet other health requirements for building muscle mass and keeping up general health. 

Just like muscle groups in the body, no food is isolated within its own group. You may get a lot of protein from mustard greens, but you’re also going to get a lot of other vitamins and nutrients along with it. 

Even if you’re a meat-eater, you may get a lot of protein through pork, but if it’s slathered in BBQ sauce and sandwiched between a white, bleached-flour bun, that’s going to come along with lots of sugar, bleached flour, and other processed ingredients that are not good for many other aspects of your health. 

When you’re serious about your health and your muscle building or weight loss, you’ll always be looking out for the option that’s going to get you where you need to be faster.