Plant Protein: Why Vegan Diets Need Beans

Plant Protein: Why Vegan Diets Need Beans

By | 2014-02-10T09:53:32+00:00 February 10th, 2014|37 Comments

If you subscribe by email to this blog, you may have received a post about calcium and protein and bone health last week. I’m not sure why since that post was published last August. But it worked out to be okay that it popped up out of nowhere. It’s actually a reasonable segue to this post, which is a follow-up to my recent article about my diet.

In talking about my own eating habits, I noted that I tend to favor legumes over grains. A number of readers emailed, asking if I think vegans should be reducing grains in their diet.

I don’t. I have absolutely nothing against (whole) grains and I eat them every day. Including the ones that are packed with gluten.

I just happen to think that legumes are more important for vegans and that they sometimes need a little more attention in vegan diets. It’s because they are the richest plant sources of protein.

It’s tempting to brush off the whole protein issue and I think many vegans are somewhat inclined to do so. Which is why I might end up seeming a little bit obsessed about it, I think. Twice in the past month I ran across the claim that “no vegan has ever been diagnosed with kwashiorkor.” That’s true, but it’s also irrelevant. It’s a way of deflecting attention from real nutrition issues by focusing on something that is extremely unlikely to happen.

Some of the sample menus that float around the internet to show how easy and/or cheap it is to eat a vegan diet are woefully short of protein. Here’s an example: Oatmeal with almond milk for breakfast + hummus wrap for lunch + pasta with tomato sauce and a salad for dinner. That’s not a menu that provides enough protein. (Even if your salad is packed with cucumbers and green peppers which one vegan infographic erroneously cites as excellent sources of protein.)

Certainly vegans do not have to worry about kwashiorkor, an extreme deficiency disease seen only in the most impoverished populations. It doesn’t mean that all vegans have optimal intakes of protein, however. The suboptimal or marginal intake I’m talking about is miles away from acute deficiency. But it can take a toll—on bones and muscle mass with aging for example.

This was demonstrated in a report from the Adventist Health Study-2 last fall. The research looked at associations between different protein-rich foods and risk of hip fractures. Eating beans, veggie meats and meat were all associated with lower risk for hip fractures. Jack offered more information about this study on his blog.

Don’t worry, though; you don’t need to start eating meat. The key to good bone (and muscle) strength isn’t to eat animal foods. It’s to eat protein-rich foods and there are plenty of plant choices for that.

Protein is not a “vegan issue.” Omnivores can fall short on protein intake, too, and it is not uncommon for people on low-calorie diets or for older people to have marginal protein intakes. And the fact is that it is easy to get adequate protein on a vegan diet. It’s just not automatic.

Legumes are the best sources of protein for vegans. They are especially rich in the essential amino acid lysine which the Adventist Health Study researchers suggested is important for bone health.

I recommend at least three servings per day of these foods or at least four for those of us over 50. A serving is ½ cup of cooked beans, ¼ cup of peanuts, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, ½ cup of tofu, ½ cup of tempeh, ¼ cup soynuts, 1 ounce of veggie meat or 1 cup of soymilk. This group does not include other kinds of plant milks such as almond, hemp, coconut or rice milks. It’s okay to have these foods but they are very low in protein. Most vegan cheeses including those made from soy are also very low in protein.

We don’t need to worry about protein; it’s easy to get enough. But the consequences of diets that are marginal in this nutrient can take a toll on health over time. So we should avoid blithe observations about how “all plant foods have protein” or “vegans never get kwashiorkor.” While those observations sound pithy and reassuring, they don’t actually help vegans stay healthy. Instead we should make sure that vegans know the importance of legumes in diets. The graphic at the beginning of this post shows super-easy ways to include legumes in vegan diets.

Legumes are important for another reason in vegan diets, so this is Part 1 of why you should eat them. Stay tuned for more good news about legumes.


Reference: Lousuebsakul-Matthews V, Thorpe DL, Knutsen R, Beeson WL, Fraser GE, Knutsen SF. Legumes and meat analogues consumption are associated with hip fracture risk independently of meat intake among Caucasian men and women: the Adventist Health Study-2. Public Health Nutr. 2013 Oct 8:1-11.


  1. Sarah February 10, 2014 at 11:15 am - Reply

    I agree that getting enough protein is important. The example servings you provided still seem really low to me. Each serving ranges from about 8-15 grams of protein. At your recommendation of 3 a day, that’s 24-45 grams a day (or 32-60 for people over 50).

    Most recent data I’ve found on protein requirements recommends aiming for .5 grams per pound of body weight. Your highest recommendation doesn’t come close to that for most people.

    What are you basing your protein recommendations on?

    • Ginny Messina February 10, 2014 at 11:25 am - Reply

      Sarah, you don’t need to get all of your protein from legumes. The grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables in your diet will also provide some. It’s just that vegans are likely to fall short–of the amino acid lysine in particular–if their diet doesn’t include legumes.

  2. Dan February 10, 2014 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    You, Jack and Michael Greger have sold me on the importance of eating plenty of legumes, and I now incorporate these with all three meals per day. I agree it’s essential not to miss lysine. Unfortunately, things like dehulled hempseed fall very short on lysine composition, as has been documented in the literature.

    What I would like is a protein snack or additive to a meal that does not contain a lot of fat (which nuts/seeds do). Something that’s convenient and can be taken anywhere. It is hard to believe that beans fit into that category – they just don’t seem all that edible as a snack and don’t have good portability. In terms of trail mix with peanuts, the latter contains a copious amount of omega-6 fats, which I am trying to limit. In the past, nuts/seeds have been my snack of choice, but not any longer, as I’ve bought into the McDougall/Esselstyn/Ornish thinking. I keep looking for a high quality, portable, vegan, protein-based snack food that is not high in fats.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 8:57 am - Reply

      Beans are definitely less portable than nuts and seeds. You could take instant soup cups, but then need access to hot water or a microwave. And hummus wraps are portable but you’d need to take them in some kind of thermal container. I can’t remember the brands, but there are some types of hummus that don’t need to be refrigerated.

    • Dael February 12, 2014 at 11:17 am - Reply

      Try roasted chickpeas. Easy to make and as portable as nuts and seeds.

    • Maureen February 12, 2014 at 6:53 pm - Reply

      Have you ever had dehydrated chickpeas? You can make them in your oven or buy from this company. Bombay spice is ridiculously good!

    • janet @ the taste space February 20, 2014 at 5:36 am - Reply

      Have you tried unsalted roasted soy beans? I find they are a great portable, crunchy snack filled with protein.

  3. mollyjade February 10, 2014 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    It always seems to me that *everyone* should be eating more beans. They’re just not a go-to food for most Americans, and there are so many good reasons to eat them. But definitely switching to a vegan diet is a very good reason to embrace beans.

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 8:58 am - Reply

      Absolutely! There are some pretty incredible benefits to replacing meat in the diet with beans.

  4. Ariann February 10, 2014 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    Do you have a guideline for legume servings for kids?

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am - Reply

      Ariann, it depends on the age, of course. I would aim for the three servings per day for kids, although those servings will be relatively small for toddlers and many preschoolers.

  5. blob February 11, 2014 at 2:33 am - Reply

    What about supplements?
    I take two 1g pills of lysine, for when I don’t want to eat beans…I just put it in with my diabetic pills(etc), so it isn’t a big deal to remember.

    I know supplements are a little bit taboo….but we supplement our lives with modern products anyway, why pretend that we are living as cave people when it comes to diet?

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 9:02 am - Reply

      I don’t consider supplements to be taboo. But it’s so easy to eat those three servings of legumes (which are more than just beans) and there are so many other benefits of these foods that I don’t think you can really replace them with a lysine supplement. If you feel like your diet constantly falls short of lysine, than maybe a supplement would help. If you’re just missing a few servings of legumes here and there, I don’t think I would bother.

  6. Matt February 11, 2014 at 7:47 am - Reply

    As always, Ginny — thanks so very much for writing such important, relevant posts. Your singular focus on helping people understand and maintain a cruelty-free diet is inspiring.

  7. […] Plant Protein: Why Vegan Diets Need Beans | The Vegan RD. Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… […]

  8. Rhonda February 11, 2014 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the informative article.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on the protein-fortified almond and flax milks now on the market. The brands I’ve seen contain pea protein; however, they’re generally not as high in protein as soy milks (5 g vs. 7-8 g).

    • Ginny Messina February 12, 2014 at 9:04 am - Reply

      Yes, they are still a little low in protein, although much better than the unfortified types. I wouldn’t want to depend on these as a serving of legumes on a regular basis but I think it would be fine to include them as one of your servings a few times a week.

  9. Tim Wilson February 12, 2014 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Great article, thank you ! We think it’s also very important to mention Nooch (nutritional yeast) as another great veg protein source, especially since it is loaded with a ton of other vitamins & minerals as well, so it is extra beneficial in many ways. A highly recommended shelf staple of every veg cupboard 🙂 We just try to always remind folks that not all varieties of Nooch contain B12, so always make sure to double check that your variety does.

  10. jon February 12, 2014 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    I think the advice you and Jack Norris give in Vegan for Life about considering non-traditional breakfast meals is good. But that said, I’m habitually very stuch with my oatmeal and soymilk in the morning. I add almonds or hazelnuts and berries and also have some bread with hummus. I tried putting some protein powder in the oatmeal but that changed the taste too much.

    So, do you have any tips on boosting (not replacing) an oatmeal breakfast? Something traditional plus rather than non-traditional, so to say.

    • Dar Meadows February 15, 2014 at 6:43 pm - Reply

      PB2 (peanut butter with the fat removed, just add water to the powder – delicious) could be added to your oatmeal , or you could eat some as a side dish as I do every morning.

      • Dan February 27, 2014 at 3:40 pm - Reply

        defatted peanut powder? where do you buy that?

        • Rob February 19, 2016 at 3:58 pm - Reply

          Better question would be – why would you want to?

  11. Steve February 12, 2014 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    What’s your opinion on soaking or not soaking beans? Also, how nutritious is the cooking water? Should I find ways to use the cooking water or is it OK to discard?

  12. VeggieMom66 February 18, 2014 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Aaahhhh….I hate graphics like the “protein in plant foods” you linked to!!! It does NOT matter if kale is 45% protein…what matters is the amount of protein you consume in an average serving. So… “how much protein in in 3 oz of chicken compared to 1/2 cup cooked kale?” is a more valid consideraton.

    Note, I”m a vegan-leaning vegetarian and am completely convinced of the health aspects of a plant-based diet, but I hate misleading statistics. Also, as a veg distance runner, I appreciate getting correct information on true protein needs…thanks for all your great work Ginny.

  13. […] Beans” on Breaking Muscle?  Or Ginny’s recent post on The Vegan RD called “Plant Protein: Why Vegans Need Beans“?  Both are very well done posts about beans.  Bucking the paleo trend, Jeff points out […]

  14. M C March 9, 2014 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    “I recommend at least three servings per day of these foods or at least four for those of us over 50.”

    Why more over 50?

  15. Eating Healthy on a Budget March 10, 2014 at 9:03 am - Reply

    […] powerhouses like beans & whole grains make this list. If I could convince everyone to eat more beans, I think we would have a happier world. Personally, I eat a lot of beans. Like alot. They are a […]

  16. Jennifer May 22, 2014 at 11:21 pm - Reply

    I appreciate this discussion Ginny. This is a real issue for me, as aspiring to be wholly plant-based and legume sensitivity. I have been using split peas as these are tolerable, and will take tofu a couple of times a week.

    Advocates of the whole foods starch-based diet I am following assert that sufficient protein can be sourced from vegetables; but a few months in I definitely experienced decreased fitness and muscle fatigue.

    I added in animal protein out of desperation, but that was never going to work so I am back again, plugging away. I have bought spirulina powder as that is purportedly easily assimilated, though I do not really prefer to consume powders.

    At this point I have more questions than answers, but am determined to persist and succeed as a vegan. I am taking unpasteurised sauerkraut to support gut flora.

    The other option I may try is to sprout and steam legumes, as this may release the anti-nutrients that stimulate the intolerance, I would be interested to know your thoughts/experience of this and also of the algaes as a protein source.

    Thank you for your excellent work!

  17. […] The researchers who study the Eco-Atkins diet have devised a vegan diet that is about 30% protein, but it’s just not a very realistic plan for the average vegan. I think a more practical approach for vegans who want to eat a little more protein and less carbohydrate is to aim for a diet that is about 20% protein, 30-35% fat and 45-50% carbs. It’s relatively easy to do so, and I think a lot of vegans already eat this way. It’s really the best of all worlds since it allows you to pack in a little extra protein and healthy plant fat, while still eating plenty of satisfying and comforting carbs. There is nothing Paleo about this plan, though; it’s much too big on legumes—which I think is a good thing. […]

  18. Ashley August 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm - Reply


    Thank you for the informative article.
    I have been a pescatarian for almost 5 years and am now trying to transition to a vegan diet.

    My digestion is fighting me on the recent switch. I had a small serving of black beans yesterday with my dinner of brown rice and veg and day before had a small serving of baked tofu with my dinner.

    I am bloated, and constipated… Soy and most beans have bothered my stomach for quite some time.

    Any suggestions?

    Thank you, Ashley

  19. Canis April 4, 2015 at 6:11 am - Reply


    Is there any problems for gout patients if consuming large amount of beans on their diet. Lots of vegetarian are avoided for beans in their diet due to that reason. They look very pale on their face and weakness in their health and always complaint by lack of nutrients.

    Any comments about the Uric Acid created by Beans ? Some research stated that the outer layer of beans should be removed as Uric Acid is mainly on the outer layer.

    Many Thanks !


  20. […] prótín í nánast öllu fæði, það er bara mismikið af því. Borðir þú fjölbreyttan mat, borðar baunir reglulega og borðar nógu margar kaloríur yfir daginn er auðvelt að uppfylla eðlilega prótínþörf […]

  21. Liz May 5, 2016 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    I have multiple food allergies…gluten, soy and all legumes. Legumes trigger major depression and my rheumatoid arthritis so eating them is not an option. Right now I eat meat once a week and am vegan the rest of the time. Dr McDougall says that we don’t need near as much protein as we think and I don’t need to eat beans to be healthy. What are your thoughts? The last thing I want to do is mess up my health even more!

    • Ginny Messina May 10, 2016 at 7:20 am - Reply

      If you can’t eat any legumes, it’s important to include other lysine-rich foods in your diet like peanuts, quinoa, cashews, and pistachios. It’s not impossible to get enough lysine without these foods, but it’s difficult. Unfortunately, a lot of vegan advocates have not really looked at the lysine issue.

      • Liz May 13, 2016 at 6:02 am - Reply

        I just read this post.
        I cannot eat gluten, soy, oats, and all other legumes including peanuts. Fresh peas and green beans and okay but all of the rest trigger my RA and I actually get sicker than a dog from gluten.
        I also struggle with my liver…my liver is more sensitive due to the meds I take for my RA.
        I have been eating a low fat McDougall style diet for a month. My liver hurts, I am having my classic high-liver-enzymes-inducing-nausea (aka fatty liver), my depression is back. My husband’s cholesterol is down to 168 but his A1C jumped to over 10 and his triglycerides are over 1,000! Yikes! And last night his liver started hurting too.
        We will be adding fat back in (and nuts, and avocado, and olives which I love dearly) today.
        We do eat meat once a week. My husband loves it too much. Vegan 20 out of 21 meals is better than not at all.(though he loves the fake meat burgers. I’m jealous because I can’t eat them!)
        I’m a little paranoid about my protein with all my restrictions so my weekly meat is my insurance.
        I really want to eat vegan and an struggling. I know a gluten free vegan diet is good for my RA. But I’m scared.
        Thank you for this blog.

        • Liz May 14, 2016 at 5:14 am - Reply

          I saw yesterday that they sell lysine supplements. What do you think of that for someone like me who can’t eat legumes?

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