Is It Possible to Eat Enough Protein Without Animal Products?
This post may contain affiliate links. Click here to read my full disclosure.
Earlier this year, a documentary with an extreme anti-animal product agenda rose to massive popularity. There were plenty of commentaries disproving many of the claims, so I stayed away in an attempt to avoid fueling the fire. Other than a single Facebook post, which I’ll share below, I refrained from sharing many thoughts. Now that we’re six months removed from the craze, I’d like to elaborate on the topic of eating enough protein without animal products. More specifically, eating enough protein from plant-based foods as someone concerned with a high level of fitness or body composition.
The Facebook Post About Eating Enough Protein Without Animal Products
I promise this isn’t a “you must eat meat” article. The following post was in response to claims that protein intake doesn’t matter—even for active individuals—when eating a plant-based diet.
“If you want to avoid animal products as a whole, I can get down with it. Whether it’s for religious or cultural beliefs, personal preferences, or being convinced by the What the Health documentary, I understand.
Eating a plant-based diet is a GREAT idea and will certainly lead to a healthy body and life. No questions asked.
Don’t pretend it’s going to be optimal for body composition. It’s going to be very hard to eat adequate protein without animal products.
Why does that matter for body composition? I’m glad you asked.
Let’s say you weigh 185 pounds and eat ~2,000 calories/day to maintain your current body weight. You’re active and strength train 3x/week. Even at the lower ranges of optimal* protein needs, you’d need ~150 grams of protein per day.
*Optimal for protein’s role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy, thermic effects (20%-30% calorie burn during digestion/absorption), and recovery from resistance training. Studies show 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight to be the ideal range.
Okay, where is that 150g of protein going to come from? Looking at one of the better non-animal protein sources, soy beans, you’d need 600+ calories worth to net 50g of protein. Yikes.
And looking at other whole food, non-animal protein sources only gets worse from there. 25g of protein from Chia seeds would require 700+ calories.
There’s a good chance your 2,000 calories would end up looking like 50-75g (maybe) of protein, 50g of fat, and 300g+ of carbs each day. Even with the high-fiber content of vegetables, plants, and grains, that’s a lot of carbs.
If you’re an average-sized person who’s concerned with building muscle (read: looking toned) and body composition, it’s going to be an uphill battle without the help of supplements. (Supplementing with a non-animal protein powder would solve most of these issues other than the satiety from whole-food protein sources.)
That’s about it from me. If you want to skip meat or animal products, that’s fine. More power to you. Just be mindful of protein intake and body composition.
If I were going to try this, I’d like to get accurate body composition numbers (i.e. Dexa scan for fat-free mass, lean muscle, etc.) for comparison 6-12 months down the road. I feel there’d be an inevitable decline in lean tissue even with training parameters staying the same.
These beliefs are based on a large, growing body of evidence. Nutrition science is always changing, and we could find out that protein isn’t all that important for body composition (I doubt it), and I’d be happy to change my stance.
Think of all the money I’d save since protein is much more expensive than carbs/fats!
But for now, protein REALLY matters for body composition and avoiding animal products makes adequate protein intake an even tougher nutrition obstacle.”
After reading that, you may think it’s impossible to eat enough protein without animal products. While it’s certainly more challenging, it’s not impossible. Below you’ll find a graph of plant-based foods that are high-ish in protein and slightly lower in calories than most non-animal protein sources.
The Best Non-Animal Protein Sources
As you can see, the faux meats like tofu, tempeh, and seitan all have decent amounts of protein compared to their calories. Outside of those, leafy greens, peas, beans, and lentils all contain protein but may have higher calories. Again, it’s important to know these percentages if you’re concerned with fat loss or body composition for overall calorie intake.
Let’s say you’re 160 pounds and looking to lose 10 pounds. You strength train or exercise 3 days per week for 30-60 minutes. If you’re going to use the lower end of the optimal protein range (0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight), that leaves you with a goal of roughly 130 grams of protein. Using an equation for calorie intake, let’s ballpark your calorie needs for fat loss to be around 1,600 calories per day. If that’s the case, the 520 calories from protein (130 grams X 4 calories/gram) will need to make up 33% of your calories. You can see where eating foods under the 30% protein mark in the graph above won’t get you to your goal considering you’ll be eating other things with them.
Another way to look at this might be:
- 130 grams of protein from black beans would equal 1,877 calories
- 130 grams of protein from lentils would equal 1,675 calories
- 130 grams of protein from green peas would equal 2,106 calories
- 130 grams of protein from spinach would be impossible to eat
- 130 grams of protein from tofu would equal 1,235 calories
Of course, you’ll be eating a mixture of protein sources, but you can see that until you get to the tofu it’s an uphill battle reaching both a protein and calorie goal.
Comparing Animal Protein Sources to Plant-Based Protein Sources
To further emphasize my point from above, here are a few protein percentages from the animal protein sources list.
- Canned Tuna – 92%
- Tilapia – 82%
- Egg Whites – 83%
- Fat-Free Greek Yogurt – 71%
- 93/7 Ground Beef – 54%
- Salmon – 43%
- Whey Protein Isolate – 85%
- Pea Protein – 80%
Using our example scenario above:
- 130 grams of protein from tuna would equal 567 calories
- 130 grams of protein from egg whites would equal 624 calories
- 130 grams of protein from fat-free Greek yogurt would equal 733 calories
- 130 grams of protein from 93/7 ground beef would equal 962 calories
You certainly have more room to fit other foods and macronutrients in with the foods above. But like I said in the beginning, this article is not to praise animal protein sources. I simply want to highlight the importance of protein selection if you choose to eat a plant-based diet.
How to Eat Enough Protein Without Animal Products
It’s worth noting, once you get into fattier cuts of meat, the percentages of calorie from protein drop significantly and may not be far from plant-based sources. If you can consider an ovo-lacto diet where you don’t eat meat but include some dairy and eggs, you could get more than enough protein while staying in a lower calorie state. However, I understand if you want to avoid all animal products and in that case, supplementing with a plant protein powder like a pea, hemp, or soy may help. I commonly recommend Now Sports’ protein powder for any recipe with unflavored whey, and they have a great plant protein complex you can check out here.
Another strategy I recommend is doubling down on good protein sources when possible. For example, if you have a meal with one of the higher protein sources above like seitan or tofu, have an extra serving. Likewise, if you decide to use something like the plant protein powder, have two scoops instead of one. If you’re able to knock 40-50 grams of protein off your goal with only 300 calories, the rest of your day will be much more flexible.
I hope this article helps shed light on the topic of eating enough protein without animal products. It’s more than possible, it just takes a higher level of attention to food selection and overall calorie intake.
If you’d like to learn more about nutrition, calorie and macronutrient ratios, and optimizing your nutrition, you might enjoy my book, Nutrition Made Easy 3.0. You can learn more about it here or enter your info below and I’ll send you a free copy.