You may be considering a plant-based diet for health and/or ethical reasons, but you also know that protein intake is important and you worry that you won’t be able to get enough protein on a plant-based diet.
You can get enough protein on a plant-based diet if you plan ahead, combine plant-based sources of protein that provide you with a complete amino acid profile, and prioritize protein sources at each meal and snack.
If you’re new to plant-based protein, it can be hard to know which foods to eat together, and how you will achieve your overall daily protein intake, so I’ll walk you through it.
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- The amount of protein you need each day will vary depending on your activity level, your lean body mass, and your age.
- You can get enough protein to meet your needs when you combine nuts or seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
- Plant-based sources of protein tend to be high in carbohydrates, so you will need to balance your other food choices accordingly.
Importance Of Protein
Protein is arguably the most important macronutrient because the amino acids in protein are the building blocks of all of the lean tissue in your body, and they play an important role in hormone production.
There are 9 essential amino acids that your body does not produce on its own but that it needs to survive. These 9 essential amino acids must be consumed through protein foods.
Severe protein deficiency leads to a condition called kwashiorkor (protein malnutrition), which is characterized by skin rash, edema, weakness, nervous irritability, anemia, digestive disturbances such as diarrhea, and fatty infiltration of the liver.
Along with its role in keeping us alive, protein also increases satiety and muscle retention, and growth.
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient because it is able to suppress your hunger hormones better than any other nutrient. This makes protein helpful for achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight because it contributes to feelings of fullness, reducing the risk of overeating.
It is also vitally important for growing and maintaining lean muscle mass, which contributes to strength and a healthy metabolism.
How Much Protein Do You Need Per Day?
The amount of protein that you need each day is influenced by your activity level, current lean body mass, and your age.
Sedentary individuals have lower energy needs and protein requirements, with a recommendation of about 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. Sedentary means working a desk job that involves mostly sitting, and getting less than 30 minutes of activity per day most days (less than 150 minutes per week).
Active individuals have higher energy needs and a higher protein requirement to keep up with the demands of their activities. This can mean people with an active job that involves standing and walking, or desk workers who get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day (at least 150 minutes or more per week).
People with light activity levels (between being completely sedentary but also not getting 30 minutes of activity per day) can choose an intake in the middle, about 0.6 grams per pound of body weight.
Lean Body Mass
The more lean body mass a person has, the more protein is needed to maintain that lean body mass. This study recommended 1.0 – 1.4 grams per pound of lean body mass.
So, a person who weighs 150 lbs and has 10% body fat (15 lbs of fat) would have 135 lbs of lean body mass, and would require 135 x 1-1.4 = 135-189 grams of protein.
On the other hand, a person who weighs 150 lbs and has 30% body fat (45 lbs of fat) would have 105 lbs of lean body mass, and would require 105-147 grams of protein.
The body’s ability to make protein (protein synthesis) from protein consumed tends to diminish with age, so older adults need to consume more protein from their diet.
The recommendation for elderly adults (older than 65) is at least 0.9 grams per pound of body weight, the same as for active individuals.
Our general recommendation is approximately 0.8-1 gram(s) of protein per pound of body weight, which you can fine-tune based on your personal situation and goals.
- Related Articles: Is 1 Gram of Protein Per Pound Enough? (What Science Says)
Plant-Based Protein Considerations
Once you have a general guideline for your total daily protein requirements, when it comes to plant-based protein, you’ll also want to consider complete vs. incomplete proteins, and how to make sure that you have an overall balanced macronutrient profile.
Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins
“Complete” proteins are food sources of protein that contain all nine essential amino acids. Food sources of protein that are lacking one or more of the essential amino acids are called “incomplete” proteins.
Complete protein sources have everything the body requires from protein to function optimally, whereas incomplete sources do not.
Animal-based proteins are complete proteins, whereas plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins.
The exceptions to this are soy, buckwheat, quinoa, hemp seeds, and algae which are plant-based foods that are complete proteins. So, foods and products made from them provide a complete amino acid profile.
Incomplete protein sources can become complete if they are combined with other protein sources that contain the amino acids that they are missing.
- Nuts or seeds with whole grains (such as oatmeal with chopped walnuts or whole grain toast with almond butter)
- Whole grains with beans (such as hummus and pita bread or refried beans and whole grain tortillas)
- Beans with nuts or seeds
Plant-based protein sources tend to be naturally higher in carbohydrates than animal-based sources of protein, which contain nearly all protein with some added fat.
This means that most plant-based protein sources will also count toward your daily intake of carbohydrates, meaning you may want to adjust the number of carbs you’re getting from other sources to avoid overdoing it.
If you’re trying to lose weight, then you will need to adjust your carb intake accordingly when incorporating plant-based proteins.
If you’re trying to gain weight, then simply incorporating more plant-based proteins along with your regular carb sources will help to increase your carb and calorie intakes.
Since plant-based protein sources are high in carbohydrates, it can sometimes be challenging (or impossible) to achieve your protein target for the day without exceeding your carbohydrate target.
In this case, supplements like plant-based protein powders can come in handy. These supplements isolate the protein from the plant and strip away most of the carbohydrates.
- Related Article: Whey Protein vs Plant Protein For Fat Loss: Which Is Best?
5 Ways To Boost Your Protein Intake On A Plant-Based Diet
1. Plan Your Meals And Snacks Around Protein
Every time you eat, it is important to include a source of plant-based protein to achieve your daily target.
One strategy is to take your daily protein requirement and divide it across your meals and snacks.
Decide what plant-based protein source(s) will give you these amounts, and then plan the rest of your meal around that.
2. Use Plant-Based Protein Powder
Using a plant-based protein powder is very helpful for increasing your protein intake without drastically increasing your calorie and carb intake, so it’s ideal for those who are trying to lose or maintain weight.
Additionally, plant-based protein can be a great option for those who are always on the go and struggle to meet their protein requirements because they don’t have the time to sit down and have a meal. Protein powder is convenient and easy to drink while you’re on the move.
3. Increase Your Serving Size
Another strategy is to simply increase the serving sizes of plant-based protein sources that you’re already eating. If you’re able to eat larger servings of food without feeling uncomfortable, then this is a great way to increase your protein intake.
The only potential downside to increasing your serving size of certain plant-based foods is that it will also increase your carb intake, so you may need to factor that in depending on your goals..
4. Try Higher-Protein Substitutes
More and more food manufacturers are catching on to the fact that consumers want to eat more protein, so there are tons of higher protein alternatives on the market for just about everything.
A few higher protein swaps that I encourage my clients to make are:
- Flatout Protein Flatbread instead of regular wraps or tortillas,
- Legume-based pastas like Explore Cuisine or Chickapea instead of regular pasta,
- Flourish Plant-Based Protein Pancake Mix instead of regular pancakes
5. Consider Some Animal Sources
Depending on your reasons for choosing a plant-based diet, you may choose to occasionally incorporate some animal-based products.
Many of my clients reap the benefits of including more plants (fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed whole grains) in their diet without completely giving up animal products.
A plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean veganism, where followers completely avoid all animal products (which also extends to clothing like leather or wool and other products like honey because bees are involved in its production).
Your goals, beliefs, and principles can guide whether you choose to include animal sources of protein like milk, Greek yogurt, eggs, egg whites, or fish in your diet along with plant-based sources of protein.
Related Article: 30 Yogurt Brands With The Most Protein
7 Delicious & Easy Meals For A Plant-Based Diet
Here are 7 meal ideas that provide at least 25-30+ grams of plant-based protein. Each recipe makes a single serving, so multiply the recipe as needed for your desired number of servings.
1. “Green Machine” Protein Shake
- 1 cup (250 mL) unsweetened non-dairy milk (cashew milk or almond milk)
- 1 scoop (41 grams) vanilla vegan protein powder (I used Vega Sport Premium Vegan Protein Powder Vanilla)
- ½ cup (85 grams) frozen broccoli florets
- 2 tsp ( 6 grams) spirulina powder
- 1 medium banana (126 grams)
- Handful of ice cubes
- Combine all ingredients in the order listed in a high-speed blender and process until smooth.
- Enjoy immediately.
335 calories, 38 grams of protein, 39 grams of carbohydrates, and 5 grams of fat.
2. Tofu Scramble & Toast
- 4 oz (113 grams) Sunrise Extra Firm tofu
- ¼ cup (40 grams) fresh or frozen green peas
- ¼ tsp (1 gram) ground turmeric
- 1 small tomato, sliced (100 grams)
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- 2 slices (68 grams) Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain bread
- Heat a frying pan over medium heat and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
- Chop the tofu and mash with a fork to create small, crumbly pieces.
- Add the tofu and green peas to the hot pan and sprinkle with turmeric.
- Toss and flip with a spatula until heated through.
- Meanwhile, toast the bread and slice the tomato.
- Serve the tofu & pea scramble on the toast with tomato slices.
- Season with salt & pepper, to taste.
385 calories, 30 grams of protein, 42 grams of carbohydrates, and 12 grams of fat.
3. Edamame & Noodle Bowl
- 1 cup (114 grams) cooked soba noodles
- 1 cup (170 grams) steamed, shelled edamame
- 3 oz (85 grams) shredded or matchstick carrots
- 1 tbsp (15 grams) finely chopped fresh ginger
- 2 tbsp (30 mL) low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 package (5 grams) roasted seaweed
- Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
- Add the chopped ginger and cook for 1-2 minutes, until fragrant.
- Add the carrots and cook for another 3 minutes until starting to soften, then add the steamed edamame and cooked noodles.
- Pour on the soy sauce and stir to combine and coat evenly.
- Transfer to a bowl and top with crumbled roasted seaweed.
380 calories, 30 grams of protein, 50 grams of carbohydrates, and 10 grams of fat.
4. Fiesta Bowl
- 1 cup (250 mL) canned black beans, drained and rinsed
- ½ cup (125 mL) canned pinto beans, drained and rinsed
- ½ cup (125 mL or 82 grams) canned corn, drained and rinsed
- ¼ cup (60 mL) sugar-free salsa
- 2 tbsp (30 grams) canned green chile peppers
- ¼ cup (15 grams) nutritional yeast
- Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
- Add all ingredients except for the nutritional yeast and heat through.
- Stir in the nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor and a boost in B vitamins and protein.
380 calories, 30 grams of protein, 68 grams of carbohydrates, and 3 grams of fat.
5. Pasta Primavera With Mushrooms & Spinach
- 100 grams (dry weight) Chickapea pasta spirals
- 200 grams mushrooms, chopped
- 2 cups baby spinach, washed
- ½ cup (125 mL) primavera pasta sauce
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package directions.
- Meanwhile, heat a frying pan over medium heat and spray with nonstick cooking spray. Sauté the mushrooms until cooked through and exuding water. Add the baby spinach and stir until wilted. Pour in the pasta sauce and stir to combine and heat through.
- Drain and rinse the pasta. Transfer to a large bowl and top with the mushroom and spinach pasta sauce.
480 calories, 33 grams of protein, 83 grams of carbohydrates, and 6 grams of fat.
6. Vegan Pizza Party
- 2 Flatout Classic White Protein flatbreads
- ¼ cup (62 grams) pizza sauce
- 1-2 roasted red peppers (store-bought in a can or bottle)
- ½ cup (78 grams) canned mushrooms, drained and chopped
- 3 oz (85 grams) steamed broccoli
- 1 oz (30 grams) VioLife Vegan Mozzarella
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Spread flatbreads with 2 tbsp of pizza sauce on each.
- Split the chopped roasted peppers, mushrooms, and steamed broccoli between the two flatbreads. Top with the mozzarella shreds.
- Bake at 350 F for ~10 minutes until broccoli is crispy and cheese is melted.
400 calories, 26 grams of protein, 66 grams of carbohydrates, and 12 grams of fat.
7. TVP Chili (inspired by Vegan TVP Chili)
- ½ cup (125 mL) hot vegetable broth
- ½ cup textured vegetable protein (TVP) pieces
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 1 tsp chili powder
- ¼ tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- ½ cup (125 mL) canned kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- ½ cup (125 mL) canned crushed tomatoes
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- Make the vegetable broth by combining ½ cup boiling water with a dry vegetable bouillon cube, or heat ½ cup of store-bought vegetable stock. In a small bowl, pour the hot broth over the textured vegetable protein and let soak it to reconstitute.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Then add the spices and stir for 30 seconds.
- Add the kidney beans and crushed tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Stir the TVP to ensure the liquid is fully absorbed, then add to the chili pot.
- Turn the heat down to low and simmer until thickened to desired texture. Serve and season with salt & pepper, to taste.
440 calories, 35 grams of protein, 45 grams of carbohydrates, and 15 grams of fat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Get Enough Protein From A Plant-Based Diet?
Yes, with careful planning and preparation ahead of time, you can easily get enough protein from a plant-based diet to meet your needs, even if you are an extremely active person or an elite athlete.
Is It Possible To Eat Too Much Plant Protein?
Yes, it is possible to eat too much plant protein, especially if you are relying on plant-based protein powders for your protein intake. If you are consuming more than 35% of your total daily calories from protein, then you run the risk of crowding out important nutrients from foods that supply carbohydrates and fats.
What Plant Foods Are Highest In Protein?
Aside from plant-based protein powders, firm tofu and tempeh are two of the plant-based foods that are highest in protein. Legumes like lentils and chickpeas are also high in protein, as are pasta products made from them. Nutritional yeast is another good source of plant-based protein.
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.