How to increase protein intake on a plant-based diet

One of the most asked question about plant-based diets is how to get adequate protein intake. While getting enough protein to survive is simple, if you want to thrive on a plant-based diet as an athlete, you will benefit from a higher protein intake.
It might seem hard to reach above 20% protein on a plant-based diet, but you can easily get there with a few smart choices and tips that you will find in this article.

How much protein do you need?

People who start transitioning to vegan diet, or those new to their fitness journey often think they need to eat a lot of protein. This idea typically comes from the mainstream media, nutrition supplement companies, and misguided personal trainers. Unfortunately, many PTs don’t have time to keep learning about nutrition, and they are not familiar with the nuances of the plant-based diet.
If you are misguided, you might be pursuing a goal that is hard to reach and makes your life complicated.
For example trying to reach 30% of your calories from protein.
  • 30% protein on a 2000kcal is 150g of total protein, while
  • 30% protein on a 3000kcal diet is 225g!
Even for a 100kg guy, it makes 2.25g/kg, which is more than recommended upper limit 2g/kg for strength training athletes.
Instead of targeting macronutrient split,  look at your total protein intake. The lower your protein intake is, the higher quality it should be.

Nuancies of Plant Proteins

Plant proteins differ from animal proteins in two major ways.
  1. Their amino-acid profile.
  2. Macronutrient composition of protein rich plant and animal foods

Amino Acid Profile

Most plant sources are low in one or more essential amino acids (lysine and leucine), while animal sources of protein are high in all EAAs. This makes them better for stimulating MPS, at least on paper.
Legumes are high in lysine, an amino acid that’s in short supply when only eating plants.  Eat at least one cup of cooked legumes such as chickpeas, edamame, or tempeh a day.
Ideally, you should aim to get 50% of your protein from legumes, 25% from grains and 25% from seeds for the ideal amino-acid spectrum. (More in this podcast episode)
Protein Digestibility Amino Acid Score
Food Amino Acid Score PDCAAS True protein Digestibility (%)
Wheat Flour 0.47 0.43 92.3
Lentils 0.71 0.63 87.9
Lentil: Wheat (25:75 Blend) 0.78 0.71 91.0
seitan plate

Macronutrient composition

Protein containing whole foods that we can find in nature are typically not lean protein sources. They also contain carbohydrates and/or fats.
Plant protein sources such as pulses come with starch and fiber (carbohydrates). Seeds come with a load of fat.
Animal protein sources are bound with fat. Now I am not talking about chicken breasts only.
If you are focusing on getting all your protein from whole food sources such as beans, lentils, soy, nuts & seeds you will hit several obstacles:
  1. You will feel bloated due to all the extra fiber intake
  2. You will have trouble eating enough for your high energy demands
  3. You might be getting high protein, but still lack certain amino-acids to effectively build or maintain muscle mass.
If your plant-based diet is focused on whole food sources, you will inevitably have higher carbohydrate intake compared to omnivore diet. You should not try to mimic the macronutrient split you had on omnivore diet.

Increasing plant protein intake

Getting high protein intake on a vegan diet is challenging for some people, but with these simple tips it should be easy.

Make Pulses Staples of your diet

Chickpeas: They have relatively high protein and a favorable amino-acid profile. They are also higher in fat than most pulses.
Lentils: They contain generous amounts of protein, slow-digesting carbohydrates, and fiber. (Meal idea: Lentil loaf)
Beans:  Generally, beans are high in fiber and carbohydrates, and provide a moderate amount of protein. (Meal idea: Chilli sin carne)
Split peas: Those who have digestive issues with beans and legumes may find that split peas are less irritating. (Meal idea: Dhal)

Grains Higher in Protein

Don’t forget about grains. While they are rich sources of carbohydrate, making a few switches can help increase your protein intake.
For example if you switch white rice for buckwheat or quinoa, you get nearly two times more protein!
It does not mean you should only eat “high protein grains” but it can help you reach your goals.

High Protein Vegetables

Let’s not forget bout vegetables that are high in protein. Including some of these in your meals can boost your total protein intake but I would not replace leafy green vegetables that are nutrition powerhouses amd people already have problems eating enough of them.

Which vegetables are high in protein?

Broccoli, green peas, edamame beans, mushrooms (although not technically vegetables), spaghetti squash, corn, potatoes.

High Protein Seeds

Seeds are essential sources of fats on a plan-based diet. If you want to boost protein, choose hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and peanuts (although technically legume).

For better mineral absorption, grind the seeds before eating or grind and store in an air-tight container in a cold place for up to a week.

Other plant protein sources

Nutritional yest, vegetable burgers (read nutrition labels, some are high in fat and low protein), faux meat, spirulina. Plant protein powders can be your best friend as you can include them in cooking and baking!

Sample Meal plan with full Amino Acid Spectrum

Oatmeal with hemp seeds, plant milk and fruit
Split peas dhal + Rice
Hummus with vegetables
Whole-wheat bread with hummus
Bean goulash with sourdough bread
Vegetables salad with apples, legumes and quinoa
Tofu with greens and sweet potato
Whole-wheat pasta with tomato sauce and tempeh
Whole-wheat toasts with avocado and smoked tofu
Chia pudding with banana and peanuts
Whole-wheat burrito with legumes and vegetables
Oat cakes with raisins, peanuts, plant milk

High-protein Vegan Meal Plan

Get two days high-protein vegan meal plan with nutritional breakdown of foods, detailed recipes, shopping list and cooking tips.

How are you supposed to eat all these beans and legumes without digestive issues?

To increase your plant protein intake without excessive digestive issues and fighting full stomach, relying solely on whole foods is not the way. This is where processed food come handy.
Tofu, tempeh, vital wheat gluten, TVP (Texturized Vegetable Protein) and protein powders can easily add a lot of protein to your diet without much fiber.
Here are some additional tips that will help your digestion:
  • Eat slowly  – when we rush at a meal, we may activate our sympathetic nervous system, which induces the “fight or flight” response and can mess with digestion. By staying calm and eating slowly, we’re more likely to stay in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” state.
  • Add beans and legumes gradually and variety – your digestive track needs to get used to higher fiber intake. There are different strains of bacteria involved in processing different might find that chickpeas are OK but beans aren’t
  • Consider preparation – you may find out that beans and legumes prepared in certain way are better tolerated.  Rinse, soak, pressure cook for the best effect.
  • Digestive enzymes  Alpha-galactosidase is an enzyme that helps to break down the bloat-inducing starch in beans.
  • Include more processed sources of plant protein. It will ease digestion, reduce fiber, and bloating and gas.
  • Water – beans, lentils, and whole grains contain a lot of fiber. Fiber pulls in water and if you don’t drink enough, it will keep stuck in your digestive track.

Closing statement:

Don’t limit your foods to those you can find in this list. While they can provide a range of essential nutrients, you don’t need to stress about every single gram of protein. For example flax seeds are a great source of plant based ALA (Omega3) but they are not high in protein. By completely removing flax in favor of higher protein peanuts (high in Omega 6) you would potentially hinder your health.

Thrive on Plant-Based Diet

Becoming a plant-based eater might be challenging. If you are struggling with problems thriving on the plant-based diet, I will help you. Schedule a strategy session during which I will help you outline your next steps. Start by filling a quick application form below.