There are so many misconceptions and confusion around protein intake especially for plant based athletes & vegans facing the age old question “where do you get your protein?” 

I’ve written up everything you need to know if you’re going vegan and are worried about protein or if you’re struggling to understand what to do on your plant based diet to help your gym goals. 

No 1. When we digest and absorb protein it’s broken down into individual amino acids.

When we talk about getting enough protein, we’re actually talking about getting enough of each amino acid. There are 20 of these amino acids in total but we only need to get 9 of them from our diet – these are known as our essential amino acids. We can make up the other 11 ourselves.

No2, Protein does not necessarily  = animal products or meat.

Because DNA codes for these amino acids, most WHOLE foods contain at least a small amount of protein. Plant sources are usually where animals got their essential amino acids from in the first place.

No3. Quality of protein?

The difference between plants and animal based foods is that animal products contain all of the essential amino acids in higher quantities. Whereas plant foods, although they do contain all 9 essential amino acids, they do so in differing ratios. Meaning if you ate just one type of food all day, you likely wouldn’t get enough of all 9. For example if you ate rice all day you wouldn’t have enough of the amino acid lysine.

Most people however, would have a more balanced meal with maybe some tofu, some veggies, maybe some fruit, nuts and seeds and a generally variety of foods throughout the day…You would get enough lysine from other sources.

No. 4. what about athletes? 

If you’re a normally active person you wont need to worry about this so long as you have a varied diet. If you’re looking to build muscle maybe you’ll want to ensure you get all 9 at each meal. Which again, wont be hard if you’re consuming a varied diet. A quick google on vegan food combining for protein will give you an idea of which foods to include at each meal. Incorporation of food such as soya and quinoa – which actually do have enough of all the essential amino acids – could be useful. 

In weight loss, protein is also often emphasized as being important here too. This is because it plays a part in satiation. I.e. keeping you feeling full for a longer period of time. Which has benefits for weight loss. For those who do cutting and bulking its also suggested to help maintain muscle mass as you lose fat. Plant based proteins can do this just as well as animal proteins can & might even be more helpful as their fiber and lower general calorie density can be helpful to staying full and keeping up your calorie deficit for weight loss. 

No. 5. Whole foods will contain other macros in varying amounts.

Generally when we talk about protein as a food group, we mean foods higher in protein than others. They’ll usually have protein, carbohydrates and fats in some type of ratio.

Foods that contain just one macro are refined foods like oils, protein powders and sugar – we don’t tend to live solely off of these. Because of this we very rarely see protein deficiency unless not enough food is being consumed overall.

It’s important to eat a variation of plant foods, switch up your meals, add some nuts and seeds on top of dishes, switch out the type of bean or lentil you’d usually use in a recipe & try out new veggies. This is the best way to make sure you’re hitting all those targets on a plant based diet.

Tracking macros? 

I’m not a huge fan of tracking. I don’t think its helpful for everyone or a good long term solution. If you want to get an idea of how much you’re consuming it can be useful to track for a few days. Then, if you’d like to aim for higher, add in more protein rich plant foods (see below) & continue to track to see how your macros change. Give yourself an idea of what more protein looks vs less. Rather than militant “I must hit x g a day” thinking.

Or if you know you’re training hard and not seeing results, you don’t need to track, you can just up those foods consistently for a few weeks and see how you feel and how your progress changes. Same goes for a fat loss goal if you’re feeling hungry often.

Stress wont help with your goals. Adding a protein goal that is causing unnecessary stress with constant tracking wont always help with your goals. 


Plant based protein sources: 

Soya based options that are complete proteins (all essential amino acids): 

  • Tofu 
  • Tempeh 
  • Edamame 
  • Quinoa – also a complete protein. 

Other good high protein options but not complete:

  • Lentils 
  • Chickpeas 
  • Beans 
  • Nuts 
  • Seeds 
  • Nut butters 
  • Wholegrains
  • Dark leafy greens 

More processed options: 

  • Plant based protein powders 
  • Plant based meat alternatives – soya, pea or setain based, not the fruit or vegetable replacements such as jack fruit or mushrooms. 

*Some of these might be complete depending on the ingredients and processing. Useful for athletes who need to eat more or simply for ease, taste and texture. Protein powders can be useful to turn a smoothie into a more filling meal. 

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