First I want to say that I eat soy as an occasional component of my diet, and I’m not advocating an all-or-nothing approach unless you have a legit soy allergy or sensitivity.
Let’s bust the myth that you have to eat soy to get enough protein when you remove animal products from your diet. Since discussions of vegan protein always seem to revolve around soy and the products made from it, I thought this post was in order.
I want to remind you that before the grocery stores were stocked with an incredible array of processed convenience plant foods, vegans were thriving. And what were they eating?
WHOLE FOODS. (At least the healthy vegans were.) So let’s get back down to basics.
I keep hearing that a lean protein should be eaten at every meal. Can you advise how you incorporate protein in your diet? I found beans to be my main source but do get concerned that I might be too carb heavy. I am looking to strike a good balance. – Paula
How much protein should you eat?
The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein in the U.S. is 46 grams for women and 56 g for men – about 10% protein by calories. (Source) This is supported by many doctors and research scientists that are on the cutting edge of plant-based nutrition, and some even call this a conservative estimate. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and Dr. John McDougall come to mind.
46 grams of protein is an easy number to reach unless all you eat are “accidentally vegan” oreos and potato chips! Even eating low fat raw vegan where I got my calories primarily from fruit, I was meeting that.
Protein functions in the body to promote growth. This works well for kids and body builders, but what about regular Joes and Janes?
If you’re eating whole foods and following sound nutritional advice like that from Ginny Messina or Jack Norris, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Nutritionists say that protein deficiency is most often a due to a calorie deficiency.
But I want to build muscle!
A little higher percent for you then. If you’re just doing it for personal strength and body image (and not to compete), 15%-20% calories from protein will be sufficient (that’s my current target) and is totally doable without soy.
I also follow established trainer wisdom and drink a protein shake within half hour of working out to help my muscles rebuild and recover. Vega and Sunwarrior are my current favorites – they are both soy-free and clean, high quality sources of plant protein.
Prioritize Whole Plant Foods
Here’s a fun fact: 100 calories of boiled broccoli (12.6 oz) has 11 grams protein while 100 calories of broiled lean steak (1.2 oz) has 8 grams protein. And it will fill you up and be a lot more satisfying! (Source)
Dark leafy greens like kale also have a high percentage of protein. And you can fit a few cups into your morning green smoothie, camouflaging it with deliciously sweet fruit.
Let’s not forget legumes such as chickpeas, black beans, and pinto beans. Beans are the gold standard of plant protein, especially for the amino acid lysine.
I aim to eat lentils regularly – they are particularly high in protein while being slightly lower in calories and easier on digestion than beans. The big bonus is that you don’t have to soak them and they cook up in 20 minutes or less! I included Lentil-topped Eggplant Steaks as one of the cooked whole foods dinners in my Quick and Clean Cookbook to help you take advantage of this.
Even pseudograins such as amaranth are good protein sources at 14% of calories.
How to get 10 Grams of Whole Plant Protein
- 4 1/2 cups raw Kale (150 calories)
- 3 Tbsp Hemp Seeds (170)
- 7 Peaches (410)
- 2 medium Cantaloupes (375)
- 1 1/2 Tbsp Chlorella powder (45)
- 2 cups cooked Broccoli (86 calories)
- 1/2 cup Lentils (115)
- 1 rounded cup Quinoa (240)
- 3 tbsp Nutritional Yeast (90)
- 3 large Sweet Potatoes (486)
Why avoid soy?
It’s your own decision whether or not you eat soy (though I recommend you get organic non-GMO).
I don’t eat soy very much because soy foods are harder to digest. And this will manifest in my skin and acne which isn’t worth it to me. On the occasion that I make soy for myself at home, it will usually be tempeh which is fermented so easier to digest.
That being said, I know a lot of people who eat soy every day, and they seem to do just fine on it.
What about seitan?
Seitan is basically pure wheat gluten so it’s even harder on the digestion than soy. I avoid gluten in everyday life so seitan is pretty rare in my diet. It’s also technically processed (extracting the gluten from wheat) so not a whole food.
Yet seitan is the plant-based world’s equivalent to meat’s high protein low carb ratio, and it’s utilized by many athletes and also by restaurants making “fake meat”.
Don’t I need “complete protein”?
Yes, you do need a certain amount of all 9 essential amino acids every day. But, contrary to the myth of complimentary proteins which said you had to pair beans and rice at every meal, you can get these throughout the day with a varied diet.
Vegans Eat Carbs
Plant foods are higher in carbs, and that’s the way it is.
Unless you eat lots of soy or seitan and rely on protein powders, your protein sources are going to come with carbs attached.
That’s because whole plant foods are balanced, providing the needs for everyday life. And yes, this includes carbs.
Whereas meat is comprised primarily of fat and protein and has zero fiber and carbs, there isn’t a single whole plant food that comes anywhere close to that.
Accept a different standard.
You can be just as healthy and athletic on higher carb plant foods. Perhaps even more so.
Vegan bodybuilders know to eat 50% carbs/ 30% protein /20% fat. They don’t even try to match the mainstream trainer advice of 30/40/30. Because it’s not gonna happen.
And it’s okay. They still win competitions and build some serious plant-powered muscle.
Breaking the protein myth is going to take awhile, but hopefully this article provided one piece in the greater puzzle.
Now your turn. What’s your favorite soy-free and gluten-free plant protein? How much protein do you eat in a day?
P.S. My new cookbook has macro-nutrient breakdowns for every meal so you will know exactly what percentage protein and carbs you are getting. 🙂