I’m not one of those vegans who is very concerned with my protein intake. I’m not a bodybuilder, but I do workout and I am concerned with maintaining the muscle mass that I do have. None of us in the developed world need to concern ourselves with protein so long as we eat a varied vegan diet with sufficient calories.
A lack of protein intake causes a disease called kwashiorkor which we’ve only ever come to know through the sad and painful images that we’ve seen of African famines. Kwashiorkor is a disease of lack. And generally it is either a lack of sufficient calories or caloric variety.
In fact, for most of us in the developed world our problem is not a lack of protein but of too much protein. Too much protein has its own problems including early onset of puberty and other problems. Additionally, many studies are suggesting the best proteins are those obtained from plants due to the overall healthy package that the protein comes in as compared to animal based proteins.
In any event, let’s take a look at the different vegan food groups and find the top 5 foods high in protein for vegans and vegetarians in each group. These foods are grouped from the top to the bottom in order of the greatest percentage of calories from protein.
|Legumes*||% calories from protein||Grains||% calories from protein||Nuts & Seeds||% calories from protein|
|Lentils||29%||Wild Rice||16%||Sunflower Seeds||17%|
|Split Peas||28%||Buckwheat||15%||Black Walnuts||13%|
|Kidney Beans||26%||Oatmeal||15%||Sesame Seeds||13%|
|Vegetables||Percentage calories from protein||Fruits||Percentage calories from protein|
What should be apparent from these tables is that eating a variety of vegan foods will give you more than sufficient protein. I like to measure protein as shown above i.e. percentage of calories as protein, because if you eat sufficient calories and a variety of vegan whole foods, you will obtain more than enough calories.
The question then becomes, well, what percentage of my calories should be made up of protein. A good rule of thumb is 10% or so, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine.
So, unless you aren’t eating enough calories or you’re only eating fruit, you are likely getting sufficient protein. If you are concerned, eat more beans and grains and nuts and seeds from these top 5 protein foods for vegans. As you can see, veggies really kick it when it comes to protein, however, they are very light in calories. For example, to eat 2,000 calories of spinach, you’d need to eat 285 cups of raw spinach or 50 cups of cooked, boiled spinach.
Conversely, you could get those same 2,000 calories from either 8.5 cups of cooked lentils, 12 cups of oats cooked with water or 2.3 cups of roasted peanuts.
If you want to figure out grams of protein you need, you can take the number of calories you need each day and work backwards. So, taking 2,000 as the amount of calories Vera the vegan needs and assuming she wants to eat 20% of her calories as protein then 20% of 2,000 calories is 400 calories. A gram of protein, just like a gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories. So, Vera can get her 400 calories from protein with 100 grams of protein.
* Sprouting legumes increases their protein content. For example, soybeans cooked have 35% of their calories as protein. Soybean sprouts have 54% of their calories as protein.