Dear Mark: Vegetarian Protein Possibilities

In response to last week’s “Encore on Omegas” post, reader dunim asked this question about alternative protein sources:

Mark, how can an active person who doesn’t eat meat or fish and wants to eat minimum soy get good quality protein? Would you suggest whey supplements in case the protein requirements are not met? How much whey is too much?

As everyone and their grandmothers know, I strongly advise a meat and fish eating diet for the most complete nutrition. That said, I know that vegetarians won’t die of protein deprivation. However, they need to make more of a concerted effort to get the full “family” of amino acid building blocks. There are 22 amino acids that the human body uses to manufacture muscle and other vital tissue. Together, these 22 are essential for the body’s repair and regeneration needs. For vegetarians, getting enough of all 22 amino acids generally entails consuming more protein-containing carbohydrates and more calories to get the full amount of necessary protein.

Whey is probably your best quality source of protein. Studies have shown that milk proteins (whey being one) are especially beneficial (and more effective than soy) for muscle growth. A whey-protein shake once or twice a day can offer what I call “protein insurance.” I’d suggest 40 grams a day.

In addition to the whey-protein shakes (my personal favorite ;)), I’d absolutely recommend DHA-enhanced eggs as a staple for your diet. Though I also suggest flax for ALA omega-3s, flax isn’t converted efficiently enough to provide complete omega-3 needs.

Other protein sources you can consider include Greek or European style yogurt, nuts and nut butters (particularly almonds and almond butter), high protein legumes like lentils, higher protein grains like quinoa, and tempeh if you are interested in incorporating some soy.

Thanks, as always, for the question. Despite my pro-meat/fish stance (just had to get that out there one more time), I know that people choose a vegetarian lifestyle for a variety of compelling, non-health related reasons. Of course, each of us makes various kinds of health compromises in building the life we want: dealing with the smog to live with the benefits of a large city, playing a dangerous sport we love and can’t bear to give up, accepting high levels of stress in a job that offers us fulfillment and/or other significant benefits, etc. When we’re intentional about the compromises we make, we’re in a better spot to effectively and creatively mitigate the disadvantages they bring.

Keep the questions coming, everyone. Thanks!

VeganWarrior Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

44 Finger Lickin’ Recipes for Vegans and Carnivores Alike

Scrutinizing Soy

5 Meats to Avoid

Escape from Vegan Island!

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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45 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Vegetarian Protein Possibilities”

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  1. There are 22 amino acids that the human body uses to manufacture muscle and other vital tissue. This seems like a daunting task to always be on the side of positive eating habits, to fulfill the amino acid requirements. But, then again I am not a vegetarian and do not see the benefits of not eating fish and grilled chicken breast.

  2. What about beans? I’ve always been a big bean boy myself, or is the lima and the garbanzo too close to the soy?

  3. I eat meat but I try to keep the portions small for environmental reasons. I like to get good-quality protein and fat and keep my carb intake low though, so it makes me get creative.

    My most consistent source of protein is pasture-raised chicken and duck eggs. I eat 2-4 eggs a day. I also think eggs are one of the healthiest foods one can eat. The more naturally they’re raised, the more nutritious they are.

    Dairy is great if you tolerate it but fermented is best. I eat lots of cheese and I make my own yogurt from grass-fed raw milk.

    I also go for legumes sometimes, although I usually eat them as a side because they’re starchy. Mark mentioned lentils as a high-protein legume. I agree; they have a ratio of digestible carb to protein of about 1:1. Not bad for a plant. They also have low levels of the anti-nutrient phytic acid and a low glycemic load. Just remember to soak them for several hours to make them more digestible and nutritious.

    Nuts are a pretty good source of protein. Just avoid nuts that are high in omega-6 like peanuts (not technically a nut), and eat them soaked or roasted to reduce anti-nutrients.

    I also eat soy once a week or so. It’s probably not optimal but I think it’s probably fine in the context of a healthy diet.

  4. Thanks for a great post. I wonder, too, about seitan. Obvs, not an option for gluten-intolerant folks, but if you don’t have celiac? (I also like it because it’s tasty and fun to make, but that doesn’t mean it’s awesome for my body.)

  5. As a long-time vegetarian who doesn’t eat many grains either & hates soy, I found this post fascinating! Does vegetable protein count? Maybe I don’t worry enough about protein but I just make sure and make vegetables the main course of all my meals. I also eat a lot of beans, legumes and nuts. Like Sasquatch, I also eat a lot of eggs and fermented dairy. I drink milk. And I stay as far away as possible from packaged “vegetarian” garbage.

    Sasquatch – how do you make your own yogurt? And what are “anti-nutrients”? I always heard that one should eat nuts and seeds raw – that roasting them destroys the delicate omega-3’s.

    McFly – Love beans! Go hummus:) What’s this about garbanzos and limas being kin to soy??

  6. Hi Charlotte,

    For the yogurt, I buy unpasteurized grass-fed milk at the farmer’s market. Then I culture it overnight with ABY-2C culture starter from the Dairy Connection. ABY-2C gives a firm enough curd even if you use raw milk. I pour it into jars in a styrofoam cooler, pour 115 F water over it and let it sit.

    Anti-nutrients are molecules that prevent the absorption of nutrients. The most studied anti-nutrient is phytic acid, and it dramatically reduces the absorption of certain minerals from food. Seeds like grains, nuts and legumes are full of them. The best way to get rid of them is to soak, sprout and/or ferment them. This activates enzymes in the seeds themselves or in the bacteria that are fermenting them.

    You often see malnutrition in agricultural societies not because they don’t get enough minerals, but because they can’t absorb what they eat. Many traditional cultures throughout the world have developed methods like sourdough fermentation, soaking then roasting nuts, soaking or sprouting beans, fermenting soy into miso or tempeh, etc, to make these foods more nutritious.

  7. Wow, thanks for the information Sasquatch! I’d seen the yogurt starter in the store and always wondered how to use it. It sounds really easy – I’m trying it this weekend. I get so many great ideas from this site!

    Since I always use dried beans, I soak them overnight before using them so hopefully that’s enough to nutralize the anti-nutrients because I eat a lot of beans.

    1. If you have plain yogurt you can use it as a starter for yogurt. I am sure flavored yogurt will work too but plain is better. This is how we make yogurt in India. Add the yogurt starter to luke warm milk and let it sit for 8-10 hours in a warm area. It might take longer if you live in colder areas.
      To make greek yogurt just hang the curd and let water drain. You can use water for curries or breads if you want.

  8. Mark

    Thanks for answering my question in detail. I have been vegetarian my whole life. Its not something I chose..I grew up as one and now I can’t seem to handle any kind of meat or seafood. Eggs, yogurt and milk form major part of my diet.
    These days I carry Whey protein powder in small container and mix it with water and drink it up straight. It makes a great snack when I am on go.

    In my effort to reduce soy in my diet, I recently “found” how to make seitan at home. I am wondering too now….First its grain product and then obviously made from processed gluten flour….hmmmm…

  9. longtime lurker here… thanks for all the wonderful info! regarding whey… i am learning everyday about traditional diets… with that in mind, it is my understanding that dry milk product is best avoided because processing oxides the cholesterol and this could be culprit in the clogging of arteries… shouldn’t the same apply to dried whey? or is processing different for this product?

  10. jaime

    OMG I used the same recipe few days ago 🙂 It was really dense but yummy.

  11. fumblebunny, try optimum 100% whey gold standard in banana cream, its yummy


  13. Why is tempeh a better soy source than tofu? Can you explain please?

    1. Tempeh is fermented soy, and tofu is not. The fermentation reduces many of the negative aspects people associate with soy consumption, and the fermentation process does many wonderful things to the food. It can make nutrients more bioavailable to us, reduce allergens and anti-nutrients like phytates and lectins, as well as help the food express new novel cofactors it did not contain before the fermentation process.

  14. Nice post – as a former vegetarian and now “happily eating grass-fed meats” grokette, I agree w/ everything written.


  16. The China Study book is rubbish. Campbell (the book’s author) selectively picked out data to match his beliefs. The actual data says things entirely different than what he proposes in the book. Do research on it before you believe it. I don’t have time to type everything out, but there are rebuttals to Campbell out there.

    And, btw, I used to be a believer in vegan/vegetarian diets. NOT ANYMORE. I got very ill because my body isn’t suited to a veg diet. But that’s not to say other people can’t thrive on it. It’s just not for some people.

    1. Exact same experience here… On a vegetarian diet (or any carb based diet) I always felt really tired and cold 24/7. I needed over 10 or 11 hours of sleep most nights. As for the china study, I agree there too. The study proved that feeding rats a diet extremely high in pure refined casein powder can induce liver cancer, thats it. It’s like saying fructose can cause fatty liver and therefore we should avoid all green vegetables because they have traces of fructose in them.

  17. I think it needs to be said, protein is extremely important for body builders/extreme athletes but not for the average athletic person seeking longevity. Look at the lifespan of professional football players & body builders (I am not bashing them, I LOVE football). There in no more nutrition in meat than in a good variety of plant based foods. Although I am thrilled you promote grass-fed, humanely treated animals which is awesome, why do you think their meat is more nutritious than factory farmed meat? Maybe it is because they get to eat high quality PLANTS in a healthy environment! What nutrition is exclusively in meat that you can not get from plants?

    I think this society is WAY to obsessed with protein and consumes way too much meat. There is a huge difference between being strong and being healthy.

  18. And I am not suggesting vegetarianism or veganism, just less meat consumption for the sake of health & well-being and a sustainable amount of athleticism.

  19. The most concentrated source of protein is a blue green algae called spirulina, it’s 70% protein which are absorbed much better than from meat or whey. It’s a complete protein and it’s also considered by many to be them most complete food in the world.

    Another blue green algea called chlorella is between 50-60% protein.

    Those too found a incredibly rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxydant, chlorophyl (chlorella is the richest source) and possess many health benefits like boosting the immune system, cleansing the body from toxing, etc..

    Hemp seeds is my favorite source of protein, hemp is one of the oldest culture we know. Hemp seeds are about 30% proteins. The most prevalent protein in hemp is edestin, it’s the protein that is most similar to our (in term of amino acid composition) it’s also one of the easiest form of protein to digest. Hemps seeds also contain a great amount of essential fatty acids, GLA, SDA (omega-3″ stearidonic acid)and vitamins and minerals.

    If you take spirulina and chlorella, make sure you take enought. If you take only 5 grams of each it’s not enought to get you proteins. If you’re physically active you can take more. When I trained the most (triathlon) I took up to 50-60 grams of spirulina a day and 25 grams of chlorella. I usually finish first or in the top three in my age group and I was among the top 10 overall (I finished ten on a internationnal race as a vegan so don’t listen to people saying you can’t be healthy and fit without meat).

    Most seaweed are high in protein, nori for example is 40% protein. But you should not rely on them to get your proteins as it’s difficult to eat alot.

    Quinoa, a speudo grain, is not so high in protein but it’s one of my favorite because it’s a really good protein (complete and absorbed very well) it’s also really versatile and rich in many nutrients. It’s 13% protein.

    Fruit usually don’t contain much proteins but some do, goji berries are 13 % complete protein, 50% of those protein are free amino acids that are absorbed directly. Mullberies are 11% protein, incan berries are 15% and an avocado have 6 grams on average of protein each.

    Amaranth is a pseudo grain too and it’s also high in protein.

    Grains are a moderate source of protein. Legume on the other hand are high in protein, sometime they don’t contain all amino acids in the right balance, so taking them with grains is best.

    Soy ”nuts” are 40% proteins they’re also high in omega 3 fatty acids. Soy in the form of tofu, tempeh, soy milk and meat alternative is always high in protein. It’s a complete protein too.

    Nuts are not protein-rich food actually . Exept almonds, pistachio, and some other, nuts are fat dominant food. The same thing is true for meat. The real substitute for meat is nuts. Meat it usually not a protein dominant food but a fat dominant food. When people stop eating meat and start craving it it’s sign that they’re lacking fat not protein. They’re craving fried chicken, bacon and beef… not tuna and other low fat meat. That’s because we’re so brainwashed to believe we need to replace meat with high protein foods… and nobody tell you to replace it with high fat foods! (avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, etc). Replacing meat with quinoa and soy is like replacing oil with sugar… it’s just not equivalent in term of macronutrients.

    Seeds are more rich in protein than nuts. Flax seeds and chia seeds are my favorite they’re both complete protein, rich in omega 3, fibers, minerals, etc…

    Green leafy vegetable don’t contain a high amount of protein but they contain all amino acids in a perfect balance.

    Grass are higher in protein, wheatgrass, barley grass, alfafa etc… those are all complete protein and very nutritious foods. You should eat them in the form of juice and powder only (you can chew on them and leave the fiber out) since we’re not herbivore.

    Medicinal mushroom are also high in complete proteins that include ; maitake, shiitake, reishi, lion’s mane, etc..

    Super-food like maca, spirulina, chlorella, blue green algae, cacao, goji berries, incan berries, bee pollen and other bee product, coconut, etc… are also usually high in protein.

    I could go on and on… but really the thuth is protein are eveywhere as long as you get enought protein from whole plant based food you can’t lack protein.

    1. @Seb —

      This is an awesome post!

      As a vegetarian myself, I wanted to thank you for the incredible information. I think most people who fail in the attempt are simply not clued into _what_ to eat.

    2. Hi Seb, I found your post very informative. I’m a new vegetarian and could use guidance similar to what you’ve posted. Do you have any resources you’d recommend? Thank you!!

    1. Well, that’s a constructive comment! this is a wonderful conversation, why cut it off with comments like that?

      I am a MS nutritionist and have a naturopathic masters in nutrition, and i …there are many valid points to both sides of the conversation here…what is most valuable, i think, is the acceptance of the possibility that there are in fact different metabolic and digestive abilities that exist among us. and that we can remain open to that conversation without being judgmental or …

      great and useful postings for the most part, though! i appreciate your site!

  20. my message got clipped, i just wanted to ad that i am an avid crossfitter and for 50, keep up with (and surpass) all but the most agro youngsters at my gym. I am not vegetarian, but prefer very little animal protein other that eggs and fish in my diet. i have found that this works well for me personally, but have clients who run the gamut from vegan to ex-junkfooders.

  21. Hi Mark, I think you should look into this more deeply. As Seb’s comments point out the most efficient proteins for the human body are not meat.
    Also, you seem to be working under the assumption that animal proteins and non-animal proteins are different – they are not. In fact there is no such thing as animal protein, that would be a massive over-simplification of the way essential and non essential proteins are combined and created in the bodies of animals, including humans.
    Soy protein can be manufactured to replace beef, chicken or in its own traditional forms such as tofu (of which there are hundreds of varieties for those of you who have only tried the horrible gloopy kind) in terms of protein, and it tastes pretty good. Obviously if you love steak you should eat steak, there is nothing else quite like it, but you could simply replace it with vegetarian alternatives if you wanted to eat meat free, and leave the rest of the plate intact. The obvious health advantage of doing that would be lower saturated fat and therefore cholesterol intake.
    As another user pointed out, what’s right for one person is not necessarily right for another, but personally I have never noticed any health defect from being vegetarian, and have never taken a protein supplement in my life. My diet includes upto 100 grams of protein a day, and is almost entirely ‘primal’ – aside from the fact the Grok the caveman would not have access to soy protein! Fortunately I am not a caveman! And neither are your readers. Let’s not forget that your average caveman didn’t live past 35, something I intend to do!
    I would welcome some more even handed research into vegetarianism on your site. It’s not a myth, it’s very possible and quite healthy I assure you!

    1. L.,
      Respectfully, you need to do some research as well. I say that as someone that used to be vegetarian and held opinions similar to yours. Start by looking around a bit on this website, Mark has some great information.

      A short retort to your post (forgive the lack of references, it would take me too long to compile!):
      Soy is not healthy to eat in large quantities. Meat is a complete source of protein while plant sources are not (but can be eaten in the right combination to make complete proteins.) Protein is not the biggest issue when it comes to eating vegetarian, there are bigger problems, like a total lack of absorptive B12 from plant sources, high levels of omega 6’s, and few sources of essential long-chain omega 3’s… etc. Also, not all saturated fat is bad for you, animal fat is actually very healthy, much more healthy than seed oils. Cholesterol is also not bad for you (I know I’m going against a slew of popularly-held beliefs, but bear with me!)
      In addition, “primal” diet generally means pre-agriculture, which includes grains, cheese, and legumes, which I’m sure you consume a good deal of.
      And lastly, most cave people did not die at 35. Here is an excellent blog post that breaks it down:

      I used to be a “healthy” vegetarian and then vegan for many years, I ate organic and took my vitamins. Then my health deteriorated severely, and I now have permanent health problems due to nutrient deficiencies (like spinal disk degeneration that began in my 20’s, and massive muscle spasms and joint pain that almost took my ability to walk.) I’m not the only one this has happened to, either.
      I’ve since done massive research on nutrition and even worked with holistic health practitioners on my diet. I’ve been following a totally grain free, nightshade free, diary free diet for a year now and my health has improved dramatically, I’m actually taking dance classes again (unthinkable two years ago.)

      Other good resources:

      Chris Kresser’s blog:

      The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith (interesting note: the author has health problems very similar to mine):

      The best of health to you!

      1. Edit: “In addition, “primal” diet generally means pre-agriculture.[Agricultural foods] include grains, cheese, and legumes, which I’m sure you consume a good deal of. [Soy is not the only deviant from the primal diet].”

    2. Fascinating that so many vegans and vegetarians comment on Mark’s articles. There isn’t enough ‘research into vegetarianism’ on the site? IT’S NOT A VEGETARIAN WEBSITE. There are plenty of those if you’re seeking research on all the benefits of not eating meat. And meat products. And by-products. I’d feel free to read what Mark has to say, weigh it in your own mind and make your own decisions – but please don’t mind if people don’t want to have to filter through vegan talking points to get to useful information from others living a primal lifestyle.

      1. This is definitely NOT a vegetarian website as you say. I’ve been a vegetarian since birth but from what I’ve read on Mark’s website eating meat definitely makes sense. I’ve made the choice to remain a vegetarian for personal reasons and I recognise that this makes living the optimum primal lifestyle all but impossible, however, I wouldn’t criticize this website if nothing was ever mentioned about vegetarian options because I know that’s not what Mark and primal is about. Like you have said Robert, I get my information from other websites that are dedicated to vegetarian nutrition and tailor that as best I can.
        I highly commend Mark for being gracious enough to give vegetarians the time of day and not dismiss us entirely, and even, acknowledge it’s a personal choice (not condoned by himself obviously).
        Mark’s occasional vegetarian posts provide an opportunity for discussion and for an exchange of information. Thanks Mark.

  22. A great source of protein (as well as the perfect balance of Omega 3,6 & 9) are Hemp Seeds! They are delicious too!

  23. Hi, I’m a pescatarian and have just started this primal lifestyle! Although I think I might struggle with not eating meat. I eat quorn , is this acceptable replacement as meat free does anyone know? Thanks 🙂

  24. I think that the discussion of primal vs veggie/vegan should continue. I’d like to ask veggie/vegans if they think there is a healthy limit to your daily carb intake? It certainly depends upon size and activity but do you really think 300+ gms per day is ok?

  25. Hi Mark,

    It’s refreshing to read a well-rounded and non-militant response to vegetarianism.

    I’ve been a supporter of Paleo lifestyle for a number of years and I can’t deny the health benefits. Unfortunately I’ve had to cut down on my meat consumption recently because of startling statistics concerning the amount of meat produced for the planet as a whole.

    In 2012 70 billion animals were reared for food consumption* And a study by the National Academy of Sciences showed that livestock production is one of the most destructive forces driving climate change^

    Raising animals to eat produces more greenhouse gasses (via methane and nitrous oxide) than all of the carbon dioxide excreted by automobiles, boats, planes and trains in the world combined.

    Industrialised livestock also contributes to deforestation used to rear animals or grow soya to feed them.

    We could turn to the seas and oceans. Sadly 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion** and Unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048^^

    I’d like to know what you think the future holds for the Paleo diet within the context of climate change?