How can I get plant protein without eating soy?

Before I answer, I’d like to make everyone aware of a page on protein at veganhealth.org/articles/protein. It is a technical article and definitely not necessary to read in order to eat a healthy vegan diet. But, if someone out there is haranguing you about not getting enough protein, you might find it helpful. My one concern is that all the technical information might make it seem difficult to get the protein you need. The most important things to know are right here.

First of all, soy is an excellent source of protein for vegans and as long as you do not have an allergy or intolerance to soy, it should be safe to eat 2 to 3 servings of soyfoods per day. (See veganhealth.org/articles/soy for more info on soy safety.)

In addition to soy, the best whole food sources of plant proteins are legumes, followed by nuts.

Legumes include a wide variety of foods including:

Garbanzo beans — falafel, hummus, chana masala
Pinto beans – refried beans, burritos
Black beans – soup, burritos
Lentils – dal, soup
Split peas – soup
Peanuts – peanut butter
Chili beans
Green peas

Almond butter is high in protein and other nuts are also decent sources.

While most grains have only moderate amounts of protein, quinoa is the exception in having quite a bit (8 g per 1 cup cooked). I found quinoa to taste unusual at first, but I quickly grew to like it. Make sure you rinse it thoroughly before cooking.

In terms of total protein content, products made from wheat gluten, such as seitan, are some of the highest in protein. Like soy, it’s probably good to minimize the wheat gluten products to 2 to 3 servings a day.

Finally, there are both soy and non-soy vegan protein powders on the market, such as Naturade Soy Free Veg Protein Booster (an Internet search will provide many places from which to purchase them).

As a general rule, if you eat 3 servings of the above foods per day, your protein needs should be taken care of.

40 Responses to “How can I get plant protein without eating soy?”

  1. Christie Says:

    Thank you for this. My 7-year-old daughter loves tofu and other soy foods, but has a little tummy upset with large amounts. I’ve been looking for alternatives for her.

  2. Hugo Pottisch Says:

    When our dogs where born – we really wanted to make sure that they do not consume too much of their protein from soy products. (We human apes do not need as much protein as our dogs.) We went for the beans and lentils thingy as well, combined with some grains. Our dogs also get their extra B12, taurine etc but have never in their lives consumed D3 – only D2.

    It has worked out better than expected. After years of being life-long-vegans – we still have to meet an omnivorous dog with a better health record than our vegan pack. Blood tests confirm the obvious. (To be fair – given what is being fed to dogs these days – it is not surprising that ours appear younger and healthier.)

    PS: Our dogs still get some soy products as they are not allergic to them. We just try to keep the intake below 1/4 of all protein. Variety is never bad. But they sure like the taste.

    When we first brought them to puppy school – the “teacher” refused to work with us unless we used “proper” treats. Only cow cheese will do the trick nicely she insisted. This was utterly strange to us. Most dogs at the school were off mother’s milk and where developing their natural lactose intolerance. For them to suddenly consume cow’s milk did not make much sense to us.

    We offered a compromise to the teacher: we would bring soy cheese – she could bring cow cheese and we simply tested which of the two our dogs preferred. They went for the soy cheese.

  3. Vegan Protein | Vegan Bits Says:

    […] So what’s the first thing people ask you when you say you’ve gone vegan?  Where do you get your protein?    Jack Norris, co-founder and current president of Vegan Outreach, and Registered Dietician, is authoring a blog of his own…  JackNorris.com. Fittingly, his first (real) post talks about protein. […]

  4. Jaime Says:

    Thanks! Curious why gluten should be limited like soy. (I’ve actually read more stringent restrictions for soy – one or two servings a day.) Thanks!

  5. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Jaime,

    I’m taking my soy recommendations mainly from Virginia and Mark Messina’s article Is It Safe to Eat Soy?, which is the most research-based article that I’ve seen on the subject of soy intake for a large cross-section of various diseases.

    That’s a good question about wheat gluten. I will address it in a blog post as soon as I get a chance.

  6. Nick A Says:

    I’m surprised that quinoa wasn’t on your list.

    It’s a little more obscure, but I’ve read many positive descriptions of it as a protein source.

    Is its reputation justified?

  7. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Now that you mention it, even I’m surprised I didn’t have it on my list!

    Quinoa is a very good source of protein with 8 grams per 1 cup cooked. I will edit the above post to include it. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. Rick Says:

    Your info (How can I get plant protein without eating soy?) might
    lead someone to believe that they could obtain all their protein requirement
    from legumes and do so without eating soy. My understanding however is
    that, especially in the absence of eating soy, one needs to complement
    those proteins with grains, seeds or nuts.

    While I understand that thereis less emphasis on complementing proteins because they need not be eaten in the same meal, and one will likely easily accomplish this by eating a varied diet, should that not at least be stated? Would not someone get insufficient protein by relying solely on non soy legumes for their entire protein intake?

  9. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Rick,

    Except for soy, legumes are low in one amino acid: methionine. People are going to eat a lot more foods throughout the day than the non-soy legumes I listed in my sample diet above, and they will get the methionine from those other foods.

    Even if someone’s only significant source of protein were legumes, meeting the RDA for methionine would not be terribly difficult – they would only need to increase their intake by about 40%. For example, for a 140 lb person, it would take about 2.5 cups of cooked legumes to meet the RDA for most of the amino acids, while it would take 3.5 cups to meet the RDA for methionine. That should be doable unless someone is really filling up on non-legume foods that are very low in protein.

    You can see how much of a particular food it takes to meet the RDA for the essential amino acids in the charts at http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/protein.

  10. WebSpotlight: JackNorrisRD.com « Choose MOGO Says:

    […] That’s one reason I’m really excited that Jack Norris, Registered Dietician and President of Vegan Outreach (one of my all-time favorite non-profit groups) has started his own blog with “news for vegan advocates and those eating plant-based diets.” Vegan Outreach (VO) is well-known for working hard to ensure that their information is accurate and credible; many of their quotes and statistics come from industry sources. As part of VO, Jack has a website, VeganHealth.org, which provides great information for those interested in the health aspects of a vegan diet. Now Jack’s blog will provide more frequent health information, analyze recent research, and answer questions. His blog has just started, but already he has tackled a great question — one that many people have asked me: “How can I get plant protein without soy?” […]

  11. Hugo Pottisch Says:

    A simple Kiwi has a better amino acid score…
    http://www.nutritiondata.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1934/2

    …than some beef?
    http://www.nutritiondata.com/facts/beef-products/7491/2

    It’s just the amount we would have to eat… As apes – we would have to eat like apes in order to reach optimum health? Apes do not eat soy! But who would want optimum health? Nobody I know – not even those with severe diseases who could save themselves…! That is why we stick to beans, legumes and grains – the lazy man’s, second-best health diet 😉

  12. Jack Norris RD Says:

    There would be a couple problems with relying on kiwi for protein if you want optimal health. In order to meet your protein needs, you would have to consume a very large volume of kiwi which would probably have a negative effect on your digestion, as in diarrhea. You would also have to eat many more calories than you need (in the form of carbohydrate) in order to consume enough kiwi (or kiwi-like foods) to meet your protein needs.

  13. Kathryn Says:

    Hello,

    I have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and don’t seem to do well with gluten as well as kamut, spelt, oats, rye, etc. The only “grains” I have been able to tolerate are rice, quinoa, possibly amaranth and corn. I have serious problems digesting food and have bad problems with gas and bloating. I am wondering what low-gas producing sources of vegan protein there are. I already eat a lot of soy and I think it is helping cause problems. I definitely can’t have nuts. Do you think I should stick with peas, quinoa and maybe some lentils now and then?

  14. Jack Norris RD Says:

    I’m sorry to hear about all your digestive problems. Have you tried vegetarian digestive enzymes? Solgar makes a Vegetarian Digestive Aid. They might help reduce your gas, and possibly other issues. Naturade makes a soy-free protein powder.

    Other than that, I would suggest eating whatever you can tolerate. Good luck!

  15. Eric Says:

    Hi, Jack–Thanks for the great blog. In the spirit of helping vegans to eat more tasty food than anyone else I have this comment:

    I have always found quinoa–while not tasting bad–to be quite yawn-inducing. I think it’s the mouth feel more than anything else. We recently came across “red quinoa” at Whole Foods though which is much nuttier and appealing.

    The price is similar and the red quinoa appears to have slightly more protein, but hedonist that I am the real issue is that it’s just yummy.

    Mmmmmm…red quinoa. Now when do we get to talk about dessert? 🙂

  16. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Thanks for the tip, Eric!

    Personally, I think regular quinoa is pretty good – not dessert by any means, but I like it.

  17. Hugo Pottisch Says:

    Jack – I am a tad late and missed your reply. I did not mean to imply that we could live off kiwis only (not enough overall protein compared and too many carbs) or only beef (not enough carbs). Although I do believe that we do not need nearly as much protein as we assume. I’d be interested to see in the EPIC-Oxford study if there is a link between protein and fat intake and say cancer or other diseases? It would not surprise me. Both vegetarians and meat eaters consume lots of saturated fats and protein… etc.

    What I meant to point out is that meat-eaters have misconceptions regarding vegans. Everybody knows that if one wanted to survive as a meat-eater – one would still have to mix it with plant food.

    Yet when vegans bring their argument that for proper protein one has to mix plants with plants – many meat-eaters and vegetarians react as if it sounded “spooky” and “unhealthy”. What is going on here? This strange dynamic is what I what wanted to point out.

  18. Alison Prudence Says:

    Hi Jack – I’m very interested in your website and thanks for all the useful info.
    I have tried becoming a vegan several times in the past but find hunger and muscle weakness to be a problem in the longer term, despite careful protein combining and multivitamins. Any suggstions?

    The other point I wanted to mention about quinoa – although it is technically high in protein, I find one can’t really break the grains down by chewing as they are quite ‘springy’, and I’m finding they reappear undigested later on! This would obviously reduce their usefulness as a protein source. We can buy them here in the UK as a porridge, so this may help but of course then you don’t have any texture! Can’t win ’em all!

    Another item we can get here in the UK which you haven’t mentioned are dehulled hemp seeds which are quite useful for Omega 3 as well as protein. I believe they are imported from China – don’t know whether you would be able to find a source over there as well. A company here who make hemp cosmetic products and also produce hemp protein powder and dehulled seeds are Yaoh.co.uk – they may be able to assist you with further information.

    Cheers

  19. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Alison,

    Do you follow these recommendations? I would recommend reading Staying Healthy on Plant-Based Diets.

    Other questions are: Are you eating enough? Do you lose weight when you try to go vegan?

  20. Strix Says:

    Hey, what about leafy greens?!! Green smoothies are a great way to get lots without suffering :^)

  21. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Silvie,

    Thanks for all the tips and I’m sorry it took me so long to put your comments through.

    While broccoli and kale have a lot of protein per calorie they don’t provide a whole lot of protein per serving, and are not foods most people can rely on for meeting much of their protein needs. (I wonder if that sentence could have any more qualifiers!)

    It is rare in the U.S. to find someone who is suffering from a serious protein deficiency, especially if they are not living in extreme poverty or have a long-term illness. However, you cannot necessarily know by looking at someone whether they are suffering from mild protein deficiency or not. If someone gets less than their protein needs day after day for years on end, it will likely have long-term, negative effects, including loss of muscle mass, osteoporosis, lack of immunity, and other things. So while protein isn’t something you need to worry much about, it can happen and people should make sure they are getting some good sources of protein each day.

  22. Trevor Says:

    I love Quinoa. It actually works really well in a vegan burrito. I like to take Ezekiel 4:9 tortillas, add quinoa, pinto beans, onions, salsa, avocado slices and corn. Its delicious. Its a great way to enjoy a fantastic healthy grain.

  23. Nance Broderzen Says:

    Not so sure about this. I’ve been vegan for a year and not getting enough protein. I’m allergic to soy and gluten, but bought into the idea that other foods will supply, so finally got to go vegan. But if I do three servings of the above, say quinoa+lentils+almond butter, that’s only 25 grams and I need 45-65 (depending on which site I visit and how they calculate). So wouldn’t I need more like 6 servings? It would have been nice to know this a year ago. However, I don’t like to eat that much. I’m back in dilemma mode because my body has broken down. Yet get sick at the thought of going back to tortured animal foods. I am going to add more protein powder, but protein powder is such a processed food that I’m not happy about having to do it. I would prefer to eat unprocessed, whole foods. And I am going to have to start counting protein in food, which is annoying and takes time.

  24. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Nance,

    If you go to the link at the top of this article, to the Protein section of VeganHealth.org, it will show you how much protein is in various foods and you can see that you get protein from a lot of foods you eat to make up for the difference. The most important thing to do is make sure you eat some foods high in lysine, which happen to be legumes, quinoa, pistachios, and cashews.

    Hope that helps.

  25. Gan� Segovia Says:

    Hi, Jack–Thanks for the great blog. In the spirit of helping vegans to eat more tasty food than anyone else I have this comment:

    I have always found quinoa–while not tasting bad–to be quite yawn-inducing. I think it’s the mouth feel more than anything else. We recently came across “red quinoa” at Whole Foods though which is much nuttier and appealing.

    The price is similar and the red quinoa appears to have slightly more protein, but hedonist that I am the real issue is that it’s just yummy.

    Mmmmmm…red quinoa. Now when do we get to talk about dessert? 🙂

  26. CAB Says:

    I’m trying to get the profile on Red Star Nutritional Yeast. I had a gut feeling that Nutritional Yeast is high in Lysine, and apparently it is:

    This brand looks great:
    http://www.totalhealthsecrets.com/ENGLISH/catalog/Nutritional-Flakes_875.html

    Percent daily values based on 2,000 calorie diet:
    Vitamin B1 640%, Vitamin B2 565%, VitaminB3 280%, Vitamin B6 480%, Folic Acid 60%, Vitamin B12 150%, Iron 4%, Zinc 21%, Selenium 32%

    Amino Acid Profile Per Serving (from Protein Content):
    Alanine – 275mg, Arginine – 330mg, Aspartic Acid – 682mg, Cystine – 55mg, Glutamic Acid – 840mg, Glycine – 242mg, Histidine – 99mg, Isoleucine – 264mg, Leucine – 385mg, Lysine – 440mg, Methionine – 77mg, Phenylalanine – 242mg, Proline – 429mg, Serine – 308mg, Threonine – 253mg, Tryptophan – 66mg, Tyrosine – 165mg, Valine – 264mg.

    Contains NO: magnesium stearate (a toxic excipient), corn, milk, soy, salt, sugar, wheat, artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

    Only thing I could find on Red Star: http://www.truefoodsmarket.com/product_info.php/products_id/3936

    I emailed the company that makes Red Star to get a profile.

  27. Celia Says:

    I have kept the Vegan Outreach website in my “Favourites” since going vegan a while back and I have referred to it often when I would get questions about protein or general health issues from others. I am very happy to see the updated info on lycine intake. I am going to make more effort to introduce lycine rich foods into my day.

    I have been steadily losing weight over the past couple of years and although I am perfectly healthy, my last blood tests showed my iron was on the low range of the normal spectrum. I have been taking iron supplements and attempting to facilitate iron absorbtion by how I eat but I see now that in my efforts to keep calories low, I may have been restricting my intake of some legumes and even soy products every day. I am definately taking this information to heart and am making changes to incorporate more lycine rich foods and compensate with more exercise to facilitate my weight loss goals. Thanks so much!

  28. Jennifer Morrison Says:

    Mr. Norris-In the past-I have tried Lacto-Veg. Diet,and,besides gaining a lot of unwanted weight–also became so chemically sensitive–I could hardly stand anything with an “odor”-like perfume-tire stores-malls,etc
    At present-I stay out of public places for that reason.Tell me what is wrong–as in my heart-I truly want to be a “vegetarian”-Thanksalot-Jennifer

  29. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Jennifer,

    Do you eat more dairy or cheese when you try the lacto-ovo diet? Perhaps that could be a problem for you. Soy or gluten allergies are other possibilities.

    Some people do gain weight when they become vegetarian (and sometimes even vegan), and I’m not sure why that is, though fatty processed foods might be at play. When people become vegan, they tend to either maintain or lose weight. A whole foods vegan diet, whether low-fat or one that includes plenty of nuts (which are high in fat) tends to result in weight loss.

    And there is also a slim possibility that you are sensitive to soy’s effect on the thyroid, which could slow down your metabolis. If you increase your soy when you go lacto-veg then you should be making sure you get enough iodine.

  30. Jaime L Says:

    Thank you all for these great comments and questions! It’s so helpful to have a vegan community online to turn to.

    I was born lactose intolerant and have eaten vegetarian most of my life (I’m now only 25, but still..). I have had many gastro intestinal pains over the years. Over the last few years I complained a lot about depression, nerve pain, more than usual muscle aches not associated with working out alone, etc. I finally found out that I was calcium and vitamin D deficient. I now take a supplement and feel so so much better!

    Looking back it should have been a no brainer to take calcium with D because it’s hard to get enough without the ability to digest dairy. The majority of people, especially in the second half of their life need to get more calcium.

    I’m not trying to imply this is anyone else’s concern. I just wanted to share it though because doctors often miss the basic underlying cause of things. There’s so much information out there and things to self diagnose about and worry about. Sometimes there can be a simple fix like getting more sunshine.

    Good luck everyone and thanks for being vegan and making this a happier place for everyone!

  31. Christina Arasmo Beymer Says:

    Regarding intestinal issues and treating them.

    My mother was on chemo for 41 days and radiation for 30 days, she was also on Dexamethasone since the middle of February. Both chemo and steroids (Dexamethasone) can cause thrush, IBS (gut grinding glass in your gut like pain), nauseousness, and whole host of issues. Though it’s neither written in the annals of traditional medicine or recommended by the establishment, I’ve doused my mother with critical care probiotics (200 billion live strains), aloe vera juice, and digestive enzymes and the gut grinding, IBS, went away that afternoon. The thrush started when she started drinking dairy again (lots of sugar in that stuff) so I told her to lay off and started her on even more probiotics. In fact, by addressing the chemo and dexamethasone symptoms with high protein (Plant Fusion), glutamine (also good for your gut), and lots of curcumin and other botanicals, people are amazed at her lack of being bowled over by this experience. It’s been hard, she’s not lively (as the pharmaceuticals will see to that!) but she is nothing like those poor dragging souls we saw at the radiation place every day.

    These things: aloe (food grade), enzymes, and probiotics have helped many people with digestion issues and are extremely healing too.

  32. Veggy Says:

    Interesting article, Jack!

    Just one basic question. What do you mean, when you say “1 serving”? How much is it?

  33. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Veggy,

    1 serving is 1/2 cup of cooked beans, tempeh, or tofu; 2 tablespoons of peanut butter; 1 cup of soymilk.

  34. Lynda Says:

    That Naturade soy free protein powder is NOT soy-free. The ingredients list shows it has soy lecithin in it. I am allergic to nuts, soy, wheat, barley, etc, so it’s been difficult to get enough protein in my diet and keep my weight up. As a result, I have gone back to eating organic dairy – yogurt and a little cheese as a result (am allergic to eggs). Even with that, I’m still underweight and have a range of health challenges that just cropped up two years ago. It’s very difficult to do the vegan diet properly if you have a lot of food allergies.

  35. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Lynda,

    > That Naturade soy free protein powder is NOT soy-free. The ingredients list shows it has soy lecithin in it.

    I don’t see soy lecithin in the ingredients list:
    http://www.naturade.com/Naturade-SOY-FREE-VEG-Natural-32-oz-p82.html

  36. Christina Beymer Says:

    All of Vega and sproutliving.com proteins are soy free

  37. B.J. Garza Says:

    Hi all,
    When I started chemo treatments all the brochures said No Soy products as a warning. I am not to ever use a hormone replacement due to Soy, per all my Doctors. What do you think. I’m also trying to add more veg-protein to my diet, but on a very limited income.

  38. Jack Norris RD Says:

    B.J.,

    Was it chemo for breast cancer? You might be interested in this:

    http://jacknorrisrd.com/american-cancer-society-on-soy/

  39. Brent Says:

    Hi Jack, you say that:

    “Except for soy, legumes are low in one amino acid: methionine”

    Though looking at the data from “http://peacounter.com”

    Per 100g:

    black beans: protein = 8.86g, methionine = 0.133g, % = 1.50
    kidney beans: protein = 8.67g, methionine = 0.113g, % = 1.30
    lima beans: protein = 7.8g, methionine = 0.099g, % = 1.27
    brown rice: protein = 2.32g, methionine = 0.052g, % = 2.24%

    tofu: protein = 8.08g, methionine = 0.103g, % = 1.27
    soybeans boiled: protein = 16.64g, methionine = 0.224g, % = 1.34
    edamame: protein = 10.880g, methionine = 0.141g, % = 1.29

    As far as I can see Soy has the same relative amounts of methionine as other legumes.

  40. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Brent,

    I was going by the amount per serving, which I took from this table:

    http://veganhealth.org/articles/protein#table3

    Other than for peanuts, soy products tend to be higher.

    It’s questionable what an actual serving of peanuts is. I think the general thought is 1/4 cup like other nuts, which would put them lower than what they show in that table, which is 1/3 cup. However, I think there is a strong argument that 1/4 cup of peanuts isn’t big enough to be considered a serving. When you increase to 1/3 cup, they actually come out better than most soy products.

    Your point is well taken – I’m not 100% convinced that it should be figured on a per serving basis rather than per percentage of protein. Since people usually eat according to serving sizes rather than food weight (with some interaction, of course), I usually go by serving size.

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