Vegan Protein Needs: Updated

The reason I have not yet commented on the vitamin D news of yesterday is because I have been working for a couple weeks on updating the VeganHealth protein page. In the midst of doing that, Voracious Vegan became a voracious omnivore, which distracted me. But, it made the subject of protein even more relevant because I have a sneaking suspicion some vegans are not eating an ideal amount.

In particular:

  • Legumes, quinoa, and pistachios are the only plants foods high in the amino acid lysine. If you are not eating them every day, you might be falling short of lysine needs.
  • There is evidence that people over 60 should be eating well above the RDA for protein to prevent muscle and bone loss.

I encourage everyone to give it a read, at least through Lysine: The Limiting Amino Acid in Vegan Diets, and the next section, Protein Needs for People Over 60, if you happen to be over 60. The rest of the text is technical details that are not necessary for everyone to read, although if you are skeptical that vegans need as much protein as I’m suggesting, you might want to read the entire page.

Link

39 Responses to “Vegan Protein Needs: Updated”

  1. Miles Says:

    Hemp, flax, chia and pumpkin seeds are also quite high in lysine.

  2. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Miles,

    Let me give a run down of the foods you listed, from the USDA database.

    Hemp – There are no entries.

    Amaranth – The USDA does not not list the amino acid content.

    Chia seeds – 1 oz of dried has 260 mg of lysine; that’s a decent amount but I’m not sure what a serving size should be.

    Flax – 1 tablespoon of ground seeds contains 60 mg of lysine; that’s not very much.

    Buckwheat – 1 cup of roasted groats has 289 mg; that’s a good (though I wouldn’t say “high”) amount, but I’m not sure how many people would eat a cup of roasted buckwheat groats.

    Pumpkin Seeds – Bingo! Although there is a caveat. The USDA lists 444 mg of lysine for .5 cup of “Seeds, pumpkin and squash seeds, whole, roasted.” I am assuming they mean pumpkin seeds, but am not sure. I have updated my articles at VeganHealth to reflect that pumpkin seeds are good sources of lysine. I hope that’s accurate.

  3. Miles Says:

    I believe amaranth and buckwheat are too.

  4. kay Says:

    I found this part very interesting:

    “The reason why many raw foodists athletes appear to thrive on the diet while many non-athletes struggle with raw diets may be that the athletes are able to eat many more calories, thus meeting lysine needs with low lysine foods.”

    Then it’s possible that eating lower lysine foods would be ok if someone were more active. Is that true? Any idea how active?

  5. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Kay,

    When I was adding up the lysine content of various diets, I used the Harris Benedict Equation on this page:

    http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/harris-benedict-equation/. My estimate was that somewhere between “moderately active” and “very active” is where it became relatively easy to meet lysine needs without legumes. There were a lot of variables and I’m not a statistician, so it’s just a rough estimate and dependent on a diet relatively close to what I was plugging in (which I thought would be typical for the average vegan).

  6. thefruitpersuit (Sabine) Says:

    Soybeans and processed soy is listed as a complete protein, so wouldn’t it be sufficient in lysine as well?

  7. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Sabine,

    Soy is a legume. Yes, soyfoods like tempeh, tofu, and soy meats are the best sources of lysine.

  8. Michael Says:

    Hi Jack!

    Here in Germany we have a list for Amaranth i saw it recently and it was 850 mg of lysine per 100gr of Amaranth. Also what about Soy?
    I had a Soyprotein sheet and it showed about 700 – 900 mg of Lysine per 10 gr. of soyprotein (this was pure soyprotein). Sometimes these databases vary greatly from country to country.
    I think this is to alarming…even bananas have around 50 mg of lysinge per 100gr of fruit, so just getting enough calories from bananas would give us nearly 1.5 gr. of lysine.

    Best wishes
    Michael

  9. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Michael,

    As I mentioned to Sabine, soy is a legume. I should have probably listed it specifically in the post.

    How do people in Germany eat amaranth?

    Jack

  10. Elaine Says:

    Luckily, the legume category is large, plentiful, inexpensive, and tasty!

  11. Amy Says:

    Thanks Jack. Your website and blog are definitely informative for anyone wanting to be on a vegan diet and wondering what to look out for. I am impressed!

  12. Miles Says:

    Hey Jack! Here are my reasons for mentioning those foods-

    Hemp – I might have been wrong about this one. I mostly see information about the EAAs in hemp on hemp promoting web sites (such as http://www.hempseed.ca/hemp-seed/hempseed.html)

    This study says dehulled hemp seeds have a pcdaas of 63-66% and the first limiting amino acid is lysine.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20977230

    Amaranth – The USDA may not list the amino acid content but it has been studied quite a bit. It has a high lysine content – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3632220

    Popping it harms the lysine however – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2631086

    Fortunately it can be cooked in other ways.

    Chia seeds – If you’re making chia pudding, this recipe calls for 3/4 cup http://www.choosingraw.com/basic-chia-seed-pudding/
    That makes 3 servings though and I don’t know how many ounces of dry seed that would be (I would think an ounce or two though). In any case, as with flax, they are high in lysine as a percentage of their calories so I think they should be suggested as sources. Though I guess eating too much flax can be bad because of the cyanide. Still, two tablespoons a day is safe and that’s not a completely insignificant amount of lysine.

    Buckwheat – I’ve never had buckwheat so I guess I don’t know if a cup is an unreasonable amount to eat. This study describes the lysine content as “relatively high” though – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12657290

    Pumpkin Seeds – They have a great AA score on nutritiondata.com but maybe I was wrong here?
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10633538
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11312845

    Maybe it’s the limiting AA but is still high relative to other foods.

  13. Christina Arasmo Beymer Says:

    I have bunch of stuff about L-Lysine here:

    http://quasi-vegan.blogspot.com/2010/12/and-then-there-was-lysine-and-how-that.html

  14. Laura Says:

    Jack,
    The only amino acid I’m anywhere close to being short of is methionine.
    I’d heard different ideas about how much methionine or cystine one needs; I was using 13 mg/kg/day as the basic requirement for methionine.
    I thought the sulfur amino acids methionine/cystine were the ones vegan diets may be short of.
    But maybe vegans who eat grains get Met/Cys that way. I can’t eat grains.
    Also raw food vegans might get short of Met/Cys if they don’t eat grains.

  15. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Laura,

    You make a good point about people who don’t eat grains. You don’t even eat rice, quinoa, or corn?

    If you don’t think you can meet your Met/Cys needs with foods, then you might want to consider a protein powder.

  16. Lisa A. Says:

    Jack,

    Thank you for the update. On your page on Vegan Health there might be a typo. In this sentence: “It is very hard to design a vegan diet the (should be that?) meets lysine requirements for a person who does…”

    In regards to quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth. As I understand, all three of them have relatively high lysine content. It is just, we need to eat more servings of those products compared to legumes to get the same amount of lysine and protein. But lysine is not a limiting amino acid in their case. Is that correct?

  17. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Lisa,

    Thanks for catching that typo.

    “Limiting amino acid” means the amino acid for which a food has smallest percentage of the RDA. You’d have to calculate the percentages of the RDA of all the amino acids in these foods to figure out which amino acid is the limiting one. Feel free to do that and report back. 🙂

  18. Laura Says:

    Jack,
    I do get enough Met/Cys. But I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t eat a lot of quinoa and amaranth and never ate animal food. I can’t eat anything in the grass family. For my diet, Met has the smallest percentage of the RDA of all the essential amino acids.
    Quinoa and amaranth seem like plant foods that have a lot of characteristics of animal foods, like a lot of protein, sulfur amino acids, choline, various minerals.
    Actually being low in methionine may be a very healthy aspect of a vegan diet, see http://www.oasisofhope.com/media/pdf/met_vegan.pdf

  19. beforewisdom Says:

    Jack, was this post mostly for people who do not regularly eat legumes?

    I read your article and went though the charts. I was golden on lysine halfway through lunch and I don’t make any special efforts.

  20. Jack Norris RD Says:

    beforewisdom,

    > Jack, was this post mostly for people who do not regularly eat legumes?

    Yes, depending what you mean by “regularly”. Glad to hear your meet your lysine needs by lunch time.

  21. Melissa Says:

    Hi there.

    @1/2 ounce of chia seeds is a serving, according to my bag of Bob’s Red Mill black chia. When I make a single serving of pudding I use 1.5 servings of chia. It’s a tasty, filling and nutritious way to get omega 3s. I’m happy to see it also helps me with lysine. 🙂

  22. Melissa Says:

    I worry about getting the proper nutrition too. I keep thinking that with the wide range of foods I eat, I should be okay. Thanks for the information Jack, and everyone else. I’m going to find out if I do eat enough lysine-rich foods. 🙂

  23. Marika Says:

    Hi Jack! I read the article on protein and lysine with particular interest. As a woman of smaller stature (and not super active), my daily caloric needs are relatively low. I eat a fair amount of tofu, quinoa and legumes (plus several of the lower lysine foods like peanut butter, almonds, etc), though not always all of them daily. You mentioned supplementing with protein powder to one of the commenters above – is there a particular form of protein powder to look for with lysine in mind, i.e. soy, hemp, pea, rice, etc?

  24. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Marika,

    If you eat a lot of tofu, quinoa, and legumes, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you are interested in even more lysine/protein, soy protein powder and Naturade’s Soy-Free Protein are both high in lysine. Pea protein should be (based on peas) and hemp is supposed to be high in lysine (though I haven’t seen that verified). Rice protein would not be as high given that rice is low in lysine.

  25. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Miles,

    Thanks for the run down. I decided that I jumped the gun with the pumpkin seeds and removed them from my list of high-lysine foods. That’s too bad. As for the rest, until I see an official pronouncement of how much lysine they have per regularly eaten amount, I’m going to lay off adding them to my recommendations as a good source. But people who read the above discussion and eat those foods will know they are probably getting a decent amount of lysine from them.

  26. CAB Says:

    The protein content in buckwheat flour is the second highest after oat flour, and it is significantly higher than in rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, and maize. Compared to other cereals, the amino acids in buckwheat proteins are well balanced and rich in lysine, which is generally recognized as the first lim­iting amino acid in wheat and barley. The high-quality buckwheat proteins can complement cereal and vegetable proteins because of the high levels of lysine as well as arginine (Table 2). The protein of buckwheat flour has the amino acid score of 100, which is one of the highest amino acid scores among plant sources. Buckwheat protein consists of 18.2% albumin, 43.3% globulin, 0.8% prolamin, 22.7% glutelin, and 5.0% other nitrogen residue (Javornik and Kreft, 1984; Ikeda et al, 199l; Ikeda and Asami, 2000). In the absence of gluten type proteins, buckwheat flour can be an important ingredient in gluten-free diet for people suffering from the celiac disease. Buckwheat groat and flour can also be an excellent ingredient in bread and cereal formulations.

    http://www.specialcrops.mb.ca/BuckwheatProductionMarketResearch/buckwkwheatpromotionbrochure.doc

  27. JD Mumma, Ami. Says:

    I’m confused by the consistency of your statements about pumpkin seeds.

    Your leave out pumpkin seeds (http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/protein.php) and say in your article “Vegan Protein Needs: Updated” (http://jacknorrisrd.com/?p=1630 December 1st, 2010) and state “I decided that I jumped the gun with the pumpkin seeds and removed them from my list of high-lysine foods.”, yet in another article (http://jacknorrisrd.com/?p=354 March 14th 2009) stated “Here is a website [http://www.herpes.com/Nutrition.shtml] that compiled some of the USDA data into a chart showing the lysine to arginine ratio.” were it shows that “Pumpkin seeds & squash 140gr serving has 2530mg” of lysine (seems to be considered a VERY high amount of Lysine) so I double checked by going here http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3066/2 and it lists pumpkin seeds at 138gr with 2530mg of lysine!

  28. Jack Norris RD Says:

    JD,

    The USDA lists “pumpkin seeds & squash seeds” not just “pumpkin seeds”. So maybe it’s squash seeds that are high in lysine, not pumpkin seeds. Apparently, some seeds of this variety are high in lysine, but until it is determined specifically which types, I don’t want to promote any of them as a reliable source of lysine.

  29. Derek Says:

    Jack, on your protein page you list white and whole wheat bread. Whole wheat has almost twice the protein as white bread, but white bread is significantly higher in every amino acid except one. I guess my question is….does that seem strange? Do you know why this is?

  30. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Derek,

    Indeed, I do find this strange. But I just checked the USDA database and that is the numbers they have:

    http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/5656?fg=&man=&lfacet=&count=&max=&sort=&qlookup=&offset=&format=Full&new=

    http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/5379?fg=&man=&lfacet=&count=&max=&sort=&qlookup=&offset=&format=Full&new=

  31. JD Mumma, Ami. Says:

    RE: lysine in pumpkin seeds

    I apologize Jack for taking so long to respond!

    After my post above (“I’m confused by the consistency of your statements about pumpkin seeds.”) in response to your statement “I jumped the gun with the pumpkin seeds and removed them from my list of high-lysine foods. That’s too bad. As for the rest, until I see an official pronouncement of how much lysine they have per regularly eaten amount, I’m going to lay off adding them to my recommendations as a good source.”, I did my homework and was able to procure and “official pronouncement” for you! 😉

    I contacted someone (not going to list it here but I can can directly send you his name and email address) who works on the USDA National Nutrient Database and here is his response:

    “the values (including amino acids) for the dried kernels and roasted kernels are for pumpkin seeds only.” that value being “…currently the lysine value for 1 cup (129 g) is 1.594 g.” (1595mg)

    Keep up the Vegan Verocity Jack!

    One of your fans! 🙂

  32. Jack Norris RD Says:

    JD,

    That’s good news. I would like to see that information – how would you like me to contact you? If the email you submitted with your comment is accurate, I can write you there or you can write me through my contact form:

    http://jacknorrisrd.com/contact_form.php

    Thanks!

  33. MacSmiley Says:

    Which are the limiting amino acids of legumes and other lysine-rich plant foods?

  34. Jack Norris RD Says:

    MacSmiley,

    Methionine:

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

  35. VegFemme Says:

    Hi Jack,

    Thankyou for your important work on vegan health, you’ve done a great public service here. Your site and book, along with Reed Mangels’ book, are my current go-to sources while I plan a vegan pregnancy.

    I’ve based a smoothie recipe on your lysine recommendations, in case anyone is interested: http://compassionatemotherbychoice.weebly.com/blog/lysine-rich-black-bean-banana-chocolate-smoothie

  36. Frederique Says:

    Dear Jack Norris,
    I’ve struggled with IBS since my 12th and therefore im very sensitive to foods high in insoluble fibre. I can’t eat any gluten(also oats), legumes, nuts and seeds, also onion, garlic dried fruit and cabbage.
    I’m 100% vegan since about a year. Do you have any advice on how I can meat my lysine needs? Any advice would be very welcome!
    Kind regards,
    Frederique

  37. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Frederique,

    What can or do you eat? Quinoa is high in lysine–you might try that.

  38. Miriam Says:

    Check these out too:

    This abstract is on anti-nutrients that interfere with protein uptake:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=23107545

    Here’s a paper on traditional solutions to at least some anti-nutrients:
    http://jn.nutrition.org/content/137/4/1097.long

    Thanks for all you do.

  39. Miriam Says:

    Hi again Jack,

    The last amino acid profile I saw on sunflower seeds shows them a little short on lysine so I stand corrected from my last long note to you. Brazil nuts are supposed to have a lot of two of the sulfur containing limiting amino acids. Here’s an abstract with an amino acid breakdown for them: http://iufost.org.br/sites/iufost.org.br/files/anais/05795.pdf Apparently both sunflower seeds and Brazil nuts have some lysine, though not enough for a full match with their own other amino acids. Quinoa, flax and Brazil nuts should only be consumed in moderation as each has other issues if consumed in large amounts. Moderation is key. Soaking and rinsing doesn’t fix everything but definitely improves the taste of all of these.

    Take care,
    Miriam

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