Burrito

How to Get Lots of Protein as a Vegan

October  1, 2015

And no, it doesn't involve eating a daily block of tofu. 

At some point or another, every vegan will be asked what he or she does for protein. It’s a fact of life, as inevitable as daylight savings or taxes. It doesn’t tend to be a popular question among vegans, mostly because we get tired of answering and also because the question is often laced with a touch of incredulity and concern, as if at any moment we might begin wasting in front of the inquirer’s uneasy eyes. 

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I’ve handled the question with varying degrees of elegance. Back when I first went vegan, I handled it defensively. “Protein is a really overstated nutrient,” I’d allege; or, “protein deficiency has never been reported in this country”; or “broccoli actually has much more protein than chicken.” (That last bit is totally untrue.) 

Nowadays, I actually enjoy getting asked “the protein question” because it gives me a chance to talk about nutrition (which I love) and because I can admit that it’s a perfectly reasonable question. Most of us grew up with the standard protein/starch/vegetable trio on our plates. And most of the time—unless your mom or dad was a vegetarian—that protein was of the animal variety. It’s not too outrageous to wonder what vegans do instead.

The fact of the matter is that yes, it’s relatively easy to get the protein you need if you’re eating a well-rounded, calorically adequate plant-based diet. And no, protein deficiency isn’t common in the Western world.

That said, it’s plenty easy to skimp on protein—not enough to court a deficiency, per se, but enough to leave you feeling dissatisfied or hungry after mealtimes. New vegans who don’t give any thought to protein at all (or dismiss thinking about protein as unnecessary) might find themselves doing what I did in my very early days, which was to be a pasta-tarian and salad-tarian—nary a bean in sight. 

Oftentimes the temptation as a vegan is to try to replicate that classic protein/starch/vegetable template with the substitution of tofu or tempeh in place of chicken, fish, meat, or foul. That’s fine, because tofu and tempeh are awesome, but it can be limited in terms of creativity. The world of vegan protein stretches far beyond tofu and tempeh, and it’s a wise idea, both nutritionally and culinarily, to sample different combinations of protein sources. Being vegan has taught me to regard a high protein meal as something integrated and complex (a split pea stew, for instance, or a hearty grain salad of quinoa, legumes, and seeds), rather than looking for a single block of concentrated protein on my plate. 

Here are some surprisingly protein-rich vegan ingredients, all of which can be paired together effortlessly to create protein dense meals:

  • Quinoa, 1 cup, cooked: 8 grams
  • Buckwheat, 1 cup, cooked: 5 grams
  • Oat bran, 1 cup, cooked: 7 grams
  • Rolled oats, 1/2 cup, cooked or raw: 5 grams
  • Sprouted grain bread, 2 slices: 8 grams
  • Tempeh, 3 ounces: 17 grams
  • Tofu, 4 ounces: 12 grams
  • Edamame, 1/2 cup, shelled and steamed: 9 grams
  • Almonds, 1 ounce (about 1/4 cup), raw: 6 grams
  • Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons: 7 grams
  • Hemp hearts (shelled hemp seeds), 3 tablespoons: 10 grams
  • Nutritional yeast, 2 tablespoons: 8 grams
  • Lentils, 1/2 cup, cooked: 9 grams
  • Chickpeas, 1/2 cup, cooked: 7 grams
  • Black beans, 1/2 cup, cooked: 8 grams
  • Seitan (wheat protein), 1/3 cup, cooked: 21 grams
  • Broccoli, 1 cup, steamed: 3 grams
  • Kale, 1 cup, steamed: 3 grams
  • Collard greens, 1 cup, steamed: 5 grams
  • Hummus, 1/4 cup: 5 grams

Combining these foods makes it easy to create meals that are plenty high in protein, not to mention delicious and wholesome. One of my favorite winter breakfasts is a warm porridge of quinoa, almond milk, and shelled hemp seeds, served with fresh or stewed fruit. It’s a delight to eat, and it contains about 15 grams of protein—which is actually more than two eggs (just sayin’).

The following burrito recipe is a perfect example of a meal that’s effortlessly protein rich—and there’s no obligatory slab of tofu at the center of the plate. It’s a simple pairing of pinto beans and rice, served up in a whole grain wrap with plenty of fixings. Once upon a time, beans and rice were thought to be an ideal protein for vegetarians and vegans because together they comprise what’s known as a “complete protein”—one that contains all of the amino acids we need to source from food.

Current nutrition wisdom is that we don’t actually have to seek out complete proteins with every meal, because our bodies can assemble them efficiently when given an array of amino acids building blocks from a well-rounded diet. Still, it doesn’t hurt to seek out some of the most well-known, plant-based complete proteins, including soy foods, quinoa, and the time-honored rice and beans combo. And when rice and beans taste this flavorful, it’s easy to make them your new favorite protein source.

This burrito tastes great as it is, and the individual components can be saved and eaten in different ways (if you have pinto beans leftover, try them spread on two corn tortillas for an easy tostada breakfast; leftover rice can be tossed into a lunch salad). Cooking the beans from scratch will result in perfect beans and a feeling of DIY pride, but it’s totally fine to use canned pinto beans in a pinch.

Fully Loaded Vegan Burritos

Serves 4 to 6

For the beans and vegetables:

1 cup dry pinto beans, picked over (or 2 cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained of liquid)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large white onion, thinly sliced
1 poblano or jalapeño chili, stem and seeds removed, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
Dash red pepper flakes
Four to six 9- or 10-inch flour or corn tortillas
Optional fixings: sliced avocado, salsa, chopped green onions, cashew cream or cashew queso, hot sauce, guacamole, etc.

For the rice:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 white or yellow onion, diced
1 cup white or brown basmati or long-grain rice, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth or water
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/4 cup tightly packed, chopped cilantro

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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17 Comments

jph September 18, 2016
Just a question: I notice on the web address for this article that Tasting Table is part of it: https://food52.com/blog/14291-how-to-get-lots-of-protein-as-a-vegan?utm_source=tastingtable.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=pubexchange_module<br /><br />but I didn't see the actual Tasting Table source referenced or linked? Or did I miss it.
 
virginia D. March 1, 2016
looks good , will try, but i am just one person, so there is a problem with amounts, and not wanting to eat the same food three days…
 
Ola A. October 7, 2015
One thing to maybe mention in the article is how much protein is recommended as daily intake. Without that number the numbers how much protein there is in the different alterantive has no relationship. There is no way to know if it is a lot or a little. <br /><br />The RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) for Protein is 50g. From this article. <br /><br />https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reference_Daily_Intake
 
oliver November 4, 2015
Ola - we make our own proteins - so it doesn't matter what the RDI is. Which is why no one can tell anyone exactly how much to take. Proteins from another organic entity don't/can't work in our bodies - in any way the ones we synthesize naturally and organically do.
 
Kelli September 23, 2016
Well Ola, I'll just go ahead and preface this by saying I have a PhD in Nutrition. We in fact do need protein, while we can make some of the amino acids (building blocks of protein) we actually can't synthesize all of them, so we call them "essential." The general recommendation is that we need .8 gm of protein for every kilogram of your body weight. so if you weigh 150 lbs, which equals approximately 68 kg, you need ~54 grams of protein a day. And proteins we eat are broken down in our digestive tract to amino acids which are the building blocks of all the proteins in our bodies. They are one of the basic building blocks of life. Now our bodies do recycle a lot of these amino acids when we take apart say enzymes that no longer work and replace them, There is a lot of turnover happening constantly in our body, which is why it's often hard to pinpoint how much you need on a day to day basis.
 
Ionut B. October 7, 2015
hey, more meat for me.
 
Lari October 12, 2015
There's always one ...
 
Carly L. October 3, 2015
"One cup cooked" is not the same as "one cup, cooked". I think most of the protein counts above are off because of a single comma!
 
Nada P. October 2, 2015
I never tought that protein is missing in vegan diet. On the other hand I wonder how vegans get enough iron and calcium. And also what vegans think about substitutes for cream cheese, mozzarella, mago etc. How often do you use these substitutes?
 
Lari October 12, 2015
Hi Nada. Most vegans don't use substitutes at all. Being vegan means that you don't eat animal products, so those products simply don't exist in your world. There is no need to substitute anything because there are tonnes of great options for spreads etc that can be made using vegan ingredients. Mayonnaise, in any case, can be made without eggs or dairy, and there are commercial options for this available in stores. As far as the iron / calcum thing goes, it's really not a problem. Head over to these links for more info:<br /><br />http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.php<br />http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/iron.php<br /><br />Hope that helps :)
 
Shawn A. October 1, 2015
Whats the burrito garnish in the red liquid? Pickled onions?
 
Alaina C. October 1, 2015
This was very helpful, thank you :)
 
drbabs October 1, 2015
Gena, why did you specify that the almonds have to be raw?
 
Author Comment
Gena H. October 1, 2015
Hi Dr Babs--they don't have to be! What I should have specified is whole almonds, rather than slivered or sliced (because then it's a different weight). Sorry to confuse.
 
drbabs October 1, 2015
Thanks for clarifying.
 
susan G. October 1, 2015
Beans and grains, nuts and seeds. That was my basic meal plan as a new vegetarian (in the 'complimentary' days) and still is. Add vegetables and fruit and you're all set.
 
boulangere October 1, 2015
I'm right there with you, Susan G. I have serious nut and soy allergies, so I'm always looking to protein-rich combinations such as beans and rice and beans and corn.