diets · eating · sports nutrition

How to Get Lots of Vegan Protein

tofu scrambleAfter following Go Kaleo for a while and now reading her new book, Taking up Space: A Guide to Escaping the Diet Maze,  I’m 100% convinced that I need to make more of an effort to get more protein if I have any ambitions in the strength/body composition department.

Yes, I still want to follow the intuitive eating approach. And yes, I still reject the idea that fitness is about achieving a certain aesthetic. I think both of these beliefs are compatible with aiming to get more protein into my daily pattern of eating.

Intuitive eating doesn’t mean paying no attention to what I eat. In fact, the last principle is “Honor your health with gentle nutrition.” Ironically, now that I’ve lifted the restrictions, I have pretty much no strong food cravings.  This makes it much easier for me regularly to make choices that have good nutritional value. I find myself attracted to whole foods in any case.  But I need to think more consciously about where I’m getting my protein.

Aiming for a leaner body that has a different lean mass to fat ratio than what I have now doesn’t need to be about looking a certain way. For me, it’s more about feeling strong and energetic. That in turn helps me enjoy my chosen activities more and feel as if I am experiencing positive gains from them.

I’m vegan. That means I avoid any animal products to the best of my ability.  I’ve chosen it for ethical, not health, reasons. As far as what I eat is concerned, that means no meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, or honey. I’m okay with these omissions and do not miss anything on the list of non-vegan choices. But I am finding that my strength training program and the concomitant increase in lean mass just is feeling stalled.

It could be because I’m almost fifty (that’s no secret!), so any changes are going to come more slowly. But more likely it’s because I’m not getting sufficient protein to fuel the fire. If Go Kaleo is correct, then we all should be getting one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.  For me, that means more than 125 grams of protein daily.  The way I’m eating at present makes that a stretch on most days.

This is not to say a vegan diet does not offer ample sources of good quality protein. It just means that it requires some attention.  It’s not as simple as just grilling a chicken breast or eating a can of tuna (neither of which I can even imagine myself doing anymore).

My first goal is to get to about 100 grams of protein per day. To do this I need to make sure I’m getting good protein at every meal and every snack.  What does this mean in real food terms? I’ve done a bit of research and here’s what I have come up with.

At breakfast, I’m already getting a good 23-25 grams of protein by not changing anything. I put peanut butter on my toast or english muffin and soy milk in my morning smoothie, made also with a couple of scoops of pumpkin seed protein powder.  A cup of oatmeal with a cup of soymilk has close to 20 grams of protein. On more leisurely mornings, a tofu scramble is a fantastic start.

At lunch, I often eat soup or salad. The commitment to protein means making sure I add legumes or seeds (1/2 cup of kidney beans has 20 grams) to my salads and eat tofu (1/4 cup has 10 grams) or tempeh on regular basis.  Brown rice has protein (2.5 grams per half cup). The same portion of quinoa has twice as much.

For dinner, there are lots of different things to do. When I have pasta, I can make a blush sauce by adding some silken tofu to my tomato sauce and boost it even more with chickpeas or kidney beans.  Falafel is a pretty good choice. So are veggie burgers or veggie sausage, at least some of the time.  And I’ve already developed the habit of adding some beans to my tofu stir-fries. And I have a really tasty balsamic vinagrette recipe that uses cashews as a base instead of olive oil.

For snacks, I can dip my sliced apples in peanut butter or almond butter, have some hummus with crackers or veggies, or steam up some edamame.  If I want apple sauce, I stir in a few sliced almonds or soy nuts. Occasionally, clif bars or clif’s builder bars can ramp up the day’s protein intake, with 10 grams in a regular clif bar and 20 grams in the builder bars.  They’re very much like candy bars in other respects, so they’re not something I want to rely on daily.

There are also some surprises when I start looking at the protein in foods. It’s possible, for example, to find pretty good amounts of it in the pita bread and english muffins that I already enjoy eating.  I don’t want to use bread as my major source of protein, but it’s good to know that it factors into the protein equation.

Sadly, at least for the next little while, I’m going to need to track. I’ve been quite public in announcing that I am no fan of tracking — it is oppressive and represents to me all that is wrong with dieting (the monitoring, weighing, measuring, and counting).

But I plan to keep track for the next few days just to get an idea of what is actually required for me to reach 100 grams of protein in a day.  Using the strategies outlined above, which don’t really deviate from what I like to eat already but do require me to make conscious choices that include protein, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be to hit 100 grams in a day.  But in order to see whether I’m making it, I’m going to track my food this week.  I am pretty sure that I won’t need to track for much longer than that.

The biggest challenge is dining out at restaurants that have don’t cater to vegans. Lots of places will come up with something, but it frequently lacks protein. Today, for example, I had lunch at an Italian restaurant and had a spinach salad and the grilled veggie panini. They were both delicious but aside from the five or six glazed pecans in the salad, neither had much quality protein. The panini bread had more than any other ingredient. That’s okay once in awhile, but if I’m trying to hit 100 g a day, I can’t have too many lunches like that.

I’m also going to track my body composition at the start of this protein experiment. Tomorrow I have an appointment at the bod pod, and I will check in again after six months of making a conscious effort to get more protein.

Right now, I’m going to go steam up some edamame (9 grams) for my afternoon snack, and throw together a salad that includes tempeh bacon (6 grams for 3.5 slices), hummus (1-2 grams per tablespoon, depending), and sliced almonds (6 grams per 1/4 cup) thrown in with the mixed greens, avocado, sliced tomato and black olives.

I’m curious to see whether this focus on protein will make a difference in the results I see in my resistance training program.  If you have any more suggestions for protein-rich vegan options, please share them in the comments.

Meanwhile, bon appetit!

Resources:

High Protein Vegan Recipes from Vegangela.

6 High Protein Vegan Recipes from Shape magazine.

Protein Rich Vegan Recipes from about.com.

16 thoughts on “How to Get Lots of Vegan Protein

  1. It is difficult for anyone – if you’re vegan even more so – to get the protein you need to build muscle, without drinking protein shakes. The protein shakes are 25 grams of protein and if you mix them with just water, they are only about 100 calories. So for only 200 calories a day, you’re getting an extra 50 grams of protein. Maybe one an hour or so before the workout, and one immediately following. And just guzzle them – and get it done with – they’re not milkshakes or rewards. Taking creatine will also help your muscles to heal, and therefore to build strength. Creatine is safe, legal and it works.

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  2. I would only add clif bars as a last resort…meaning only a less than 5-6 times annually. Not for a sit down meal. Only for times of desperation on a 100 km. bike ride.

    I personally find eating beans and nuts often makes me full and feel abit unwell. So I reserve the stuff only a couple times per year.

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  3. I’m not vegan, but I eat very little animal foods, and most days an onlooker would assume I am vegan. I supplement to meet my protein needs when I’m eating less animal foods. I like the Garden of Life Raw Protein for quality. 🙂

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  4. From a nutrition perspective, eating a combination of nuts, seeds and legumes (putting 2 of these groups together in a meal) ensures you are getting a complete protein source as well (providing all the amino acids your body needs for growth and repair). Quinoa is also an excellent source of vegan protein too and quicker to cook than brown rice.

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  5. I must be a lucky vegan. I get 50%+ of my calories from fruit (banans and dates primarily). I eat plant based whole foods, no protein powder, low sodium, high carb and gluten-free. I’ve never had a problem building strength when my programming is right. Look at a baby, less then 6% of it’s calories are protein it’s all carbs and fat. Human breast milk has less then 2% protein. Protein is important if you are malnourished like they have found in 3rd world countries where they do hard labor with deficient diets and by adding protein to their diet it improved their health. But that doesn’t apply when more then enough food is available. I say just eat a whole food plant based diet where you feel good as a whole for the long term.

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  6. I’m happy to find your blog because my husband and I, who are avid CrossFitters, have recently begun a weekday vegetarian experiment and he’s very worried about getting enough protein to fuel intense workouts. Your tips are quite helpful. Thanks!

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    1. Happy to help out! Once you get into a routine it becomes easier. But depending how much you need, it’s hard to do without a protein supplement. On the positive side, there are good, natural vegan protein sources that they make supplements out of. I have a smoothie every day with pumpkin seed protein powder in it and when I make it with soy milk I get 26 grams of protein from it. Add a piece of toast with peanut butter and I’m well over 30g of protein for breakfast and feel well fed. Good luck with your experiment.

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  7. I’ve added some pulse-based vegetarian soups to my blog, as it’s nearly winter and soup is great. It would be easy to make them vegan by replacing the butter in some of them with oil. I have more delicious recipes for various lentil soups which I will post when I can be arsed.

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