How Can Vegans Get Adequate Protein?

by Lourdes Castro on Mar 14, 2013

Ask the RD

Answer: The importance of protein in our diet cannot be understated, especially when we are engaged in an exercise regimen. Luckily, we can obtain protein from a variety of animal and plant sources.

Unfortunately, all proteins are not created equal. Proteins are made up of a variety of amino acids, which link up to form the proteins. There are 21 amino acids that can be mixed and matched to form proteins. The human body can make 11 amino acids on its own, but we must obtain the other nine from our diet. The nine we must ingest are called essential amino acids. A food that contains all nine essential amino acids is called a complete protein and is considered a high-value food. Animal proteins are complete proteins, as are a few plant foods, such as soy products and quinoa.

If you are vegan and therefore choose to avoid all animal products, it is important to eat a variety of foods that will supply your protein needs. All plant foods (except fruit) contain proteins and a variety of amino acids, but these are generally not complete proteins—they may be low in one or more essential amino acids. The essential amino acid missing from the plant food is referred to as the limiting amino acid. The trick is to combine your foods so that you create a complete protein. For example, lysine is the limiting amino acid in grains, while methionine and tryptophan are limiting in legumes. When a grain and a legume are eaten together (e.g. rice and beans), the limiting amino acids are offset, and a complete protein is created.

If you feel you want to supplement your protein intake with a protein shake, keep in mind that many protein powders are not vegan. Many are made with whey, which is a dairy derivative. Vegan protein powders do exist, but you need to search them out.

IDEA Food and Nutrition Tips, Volume 2, Issue 2

© 2013 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Lourdes Castro

Lourdes Castro IDEA Author/Presenter

As a Registered Dietician, Lourdes is an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s department of Nutrition, Food Studies & Public Health and holds a Masters degree in nutrition from Columbia Univer...


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  • Paula Billig

    I'd love to Pin your article for future reference, especially with the Pin It button you generously provide, but somehow there are NO freestanding images on this page! Not even the IDEA logo works. Bad form.
    Commented Apr 03, 2013
  • Lourdes Castro

    @ Deni & Julie Apologies if I created any confusion. If you chose to follow a vegan diet with absolutely no animal products you must make sure to eat a variety of high quality plant based proteins throughout the day. Dr Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who advocates a plant-based diet also recommends that vegans diets must contain a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables to meet their protein needs. This does not have to occur at every meal, but through the course of the day. My intention in discussing protein complementation was not to scare anyone into eating animal products but to bring awareness to vegans that ingredient variety throughout the day is important. There are lots of people (including myself) that tend to fall into food ruts where the same healthy foods are eaten day after day. Ultimately, changing up your menu and food choices is a good idea to ensure adequate protein and all around nutrient intake.
    Commented Mar 25, 2013
  • Lourdes Castro

    @ Bradford Catura You are correct to say that vegans are not the only ones with special protein needs but the question asked was specific to a vegan's need. As many people are adopting a vegan or primarily plant based diet, the questions seemed valid. And I can understand the desire of someone to properly understand how best to manage their protein intake to ensure they are getting proper nutrition. In terms of protein needs and celiac disease, if that person is not a vegan protein needs are easily met. If that person is a vegan with multiply food allergies, then careful attention must be given to construct a diet that is appropriate. I'm happy to discuss specific food options, and dedicate a column to it, if it is of interest to you.
    Commented Mar 25, 2013
  • Lourdes Castro

    Thank you for all your comments. Tackling the topic of protein needs in a short column was a challenge so I'm happy to help clarify some confusion. I'll post individual responses to your questions to keep the answers clear and concise. In terms of how many total amino acids exist, technically there are 22 amino acids found in food, although only 20 can be used by humans to fulfill needs (these are referred to as standard amino acids). So that was a typo on my part. What is important to grasp is that 11 of the amino acids are nonessential or dispensable because they can be made by the human body. The remaining 9 must be consumed in the diet and are considered essential.
    Commented Mar 25, 2013
  • Julie Prochnow

    This is old news. Food combining is unnecessary. Read the china study and dr Neil Bernard and others with the latest information. We need to stop scaring people into eating animal products. We will survive just as or more healthy without animal products clogging up or amazing human machine.
    Commented Mar 21, 2013
  • Deni Carruth

    I'm currently working with a client who is very frustrated by conflicting information about the need to combine foods to create complete proteins in her diet. The beat goes on. What do we tell clients when the information we get, as fitness professional is also conflicting?
    Commented Mar 21, 2013
  • Bradford Catura

    Sad to say that this article could have been better! Vegans are not the only ones who have special needs when it gomes to protein. So do suffers of Celiac disease and others who are gluten intolerant as well as allergic soy and nuts. For a person with a Master's in Dietary Science, this article could hasve been much more comprehensive!
    Commented Mar 20, 2013
  • Phil Michaels

    Hi, Thank you for the post. Very informative. I am a little confused though, you state that there are 21 amino acids, 11 that we make on our own and 9 that are essential. That is a total of 20. Where does the other one go?
    Commented Mar 20, 2013

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