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  • Protein content of various foods




    Nuts & Seeds







    2.5 to 10%


    (Human need)

    Figures for food are averages for several foods in each category4 and were taken from the bible of nutrient data, the USDA Food and Nutrient Database. Human need from studies1, WHO2, and US govt. recommendations.3

    Protein for Strength & Athletes

    It's easy to build muscle even on a vegetarian or vegan diet

    by Michael Bluejay
    Original: April 2010
    Updated March 2023, though I didn't look for all the new studies between 2010 and 2023; I added only one each from 2021, 2022, and 2023

    This article is specifically about building muscle and strength, as well as comparing athletic performance on veg vs. non-veg diets.  For more on protein requirements in general, including the myth that plant proteins are "incomplete", see the separate article Protein myths debunked: Setting the record straight.

    Vegan diets have plenty of protein for muscle-building

    Plant foods supply plenty of protein even for athletes and those trying to build muscle, according to numerous studies in peer-reviewed journals.  The amount of protein recommended even for athletes by official nutrition and sports bodies is easily supplied by vegetables.  Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn't bothered to look up what the science actually says.

    It's true that meat has more protein than vegetables, but more isn't better, it's useless.  The excess you eat beyond what you need is simply wasted.  If you're shopping for a car, and one goes 200 mph and the other goes 400 mph, the faster car isn't better, because you're not allowed to drive even 200 mph anyway.  Two hundred mph is more than you need for a car, and plant foods supply more protein than you need from food.  As one science journal said, "...protein beyond that necessary to maintain nitrogen balance does not provide additional benefits for athletes."10  Multiple studes show no benefit from protein supplementation.

    Simple math makes this clear.  We simply figure the amount of muscle you can build, how much protein is in that new muscle, and then how much extra protein you'd have to eat to account for that new muscle.  When we do that, we see that, not surprisingly, the amount of extra protein you'd need to build the muscle is right in line with what the authorities recommend.  (Click to see an example of the math.)

    And no, vegetable protein isn't of poorer quality.  That's another myth that stems from bad criteria for quality.  But even if we erroneously assumed that plant protein is only 75% as good as animal protein, then vegetables still supply 22% x 75% = 16.5% protein, which is still plenty.  Anyone who insists otherwise, please show me the peer-reviewed science performed on actual humans (not guessing) to support that claim.

    So let's look at what the science actually says.  In a recent study older adults doing either lower-body or whole-body resistance training increased their muscle strength and mass on the US RDA for protein of only 0.36 g per lb. of body weight.1  For a 120-lb. person eating 2000 calories or a 180-lb. person eating 2500 calories, that's 8.6% to 10.4% of their diets as protein.  And as the table above shows, vegetables average 22% protein and beans 28%.
    Recommendations & Findings for Protein for Athletes or Exercisers
    from various sources

    Study or other source
    g/kg. of ideal body weight
    % of calories*
    Campbell (2002)1 Older adults increased muscle strength & mass at this level.
    Jack Norris, R.D.(2003)5
    Registered dietician's recommendation for vegan bodybuilders
    Tarnopolsky2 (1988)
    Bodybuilders maintained lean body mass at this level
    Lemon (1991)6 For both endurance and strength athletes
    (given as %)
    Kreider (1993)8
    Recommendation of "most sports nutritionists"
    (given as %)
    Lemon (1998)7
    For endurance athletes
    Official recommendation4
    Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine 1.2-2.0
    Butterfield (1991)9 &
    Kreider (1999)11
    A review10 quotes four papers, including these two, which give the overall range at right
    Tarnopolsky (1992)13
    Strength athletes maintained positive nitrogen balance at this level
    (Can't find the study online. I have a book that references it on order.)
    Lemon (1998)7 Strength athletes "might" need to consume "as much as" this amount
    Lemon (2000)15
    Need for strength training
    Butterfield (1991)9 Athletes training at high altitudes "may" need "as much as" this amount.
    *% of calories is for a 180-lb. man eating 3000 calories/day, or actual recommendation if listed as "given as %". Here is a summary of studies showing daily caloric intake by type of sport. (p.757)

    Another study suggested that established bodybuilders need around 0.48 g of protein per pound of body weight per day (1.05 g/kg).2 (Incidentally, it also found that endurance athletes require more protein than bodybuilders—1.67 times more than sedentary controls for endurance vs. 1.12 times for bodybuilders.  But since endurance athletes are eating more food anyway, they're already getting more protein.)  For an 180-lb. athlete the 0.48 g/lb. figure is 90 grams (360 calories from protein).  For a 3000-calorie diet, that's 12% of calories from protein. And again, vegetables average 22% and beans 28%.

    Another study of 60 elderly men doing power training showed that supplementing with whey or casein to exceed the RDA for protein didn't lead to muscle improvement versus no supplementation.32

    Those starting a muscle-building program may need more protein, 0.77 g/lb. (1.7 g/kg).3  For a 180-lb. athlete that's 139 grams (556 calories). On a 3000-calorie diet, that's 18.5%, still less than supplied by common vegetables.

    If the athlete eats more than 3000 calories a day, or weighs less than 180 lbs., then the percentage of protein required goes down even more.

    In 2009 three major health bodies endorsed the 0.5 to 0.8 g/lb. (1.2-1.7 g/kg) figures above (American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine).4

    Jack Norris, RD points out that nutrient recommendations are always "padded" with safety margins. That is, most people need less:

    Considering the information reviewed above...it seems reasonable to conclude that the protein needs of most vegan bodybuilders are somewhere between 0.8 and 1.5 g/kg (0.36 and 0.68 g/lb) of body weight....

    The Food and Nutrition Board, which sets the RDA, reviewed Lemon et al.'s study and others and concluded there is no sufficient evidence to support that resistance training increases the protein RDA of 0.80 g/kg [0.36 g/lb] for healthy adults.5

    Research comparing vegetarians/vegans to non-veg.
    Study Evaluation of performance Performance Resulta
    Veg/Non-veg had similar results
    Hevia-Larrain (2021)33 Strength & muscle mass gains between vegans and omnivores with intake of 1.6 g/kg/d No difference between groups
    Phillips (2005)16 Strength gains between those consuming milk and those consuming soy drink (note: not a vegetarian study) No difference between groups
    Barr & Rideout (2004)31
    Literature review
    "Convincing evidence in support of consistent beneficial or adverse effects on performance of vegetarian (vs. omnivorous) diets is not available."
    Campbell (1999)17 Strength gains between veg. and non-veg. men age 51-69 No difference between groups
    Hebbelinck (1999)25 Vegetarian young adults, compared to reference data No difference in triceps, calf, and suprailiac skinfold thicknesses, or hand grip strength in males (females scored lower than ref.).
    Nieman (1997)18 Maximal aerobic power in 80 women age 27-72 Power not related to meat intake
    Eisinger (1994)19 Finish ability and finish time in endurance run (1000 km in 20 days) No difference between groupsb
    Raben (1992)20 & Richter (1991)21 Maximal aerobic capacity, aerobic endurance time to exhaustion, muscle glycogen concentrations, and isometric strength in 8 subjects who alternated between vegetarian and meat-rich diet No differencec
    Hanne (1986)22 Pulmonary function, aerobic/anaerobic capacities, arm/leg circumferences, hand grip and back strength, hemoglobin, or total serum protein in 49 vegetarian and 49 non-veg. M+F Israeli athletes No difference between groups
    Williams (1985)23 5-8 km runs before & after 2-wk vegetarian diet, and 2-wks after resuming non-veg diet No difference
    Cotes (1970)24 Thigh-muscle width, pulmonary function measures, and cardiorespiratory response in 14 vegan & 86 non-veg. women No difference between groups
    Vegetarians performed better
    Hebbelinck (1999)25 Vegetarian young adults, compared to reference data Vegetarians scored better on cardiorespiratory test.
    Danish study (1968)26
    Cycle to exhaustion for the same group of men, who were variously fed a diet of meat and vegetables (MV), then one high in meat, milk, and eggs (HM), then a vegetarian diet (V).
    114 minutes MV, 57 minutes HM, and 167 minutes V.
    Fisher & Chittenden (1907)27,30
    Meat-eating athletes (MEA) vs. vegetarians and near-vegetarians (V), half of whom were sedentary. Time for holding arms outstretched, and number of deep-knee bends.
    Only 13% of MEA could hold their arms out for 15 mins., compared to 69% veg.   0 MEA could hold their arms out for 30 mins., vs. 47% V. Only 33% of MEA exceeded 325 knee bends vs. 81% of V.
    Meat-eating vs. vegetarian athletes
    Veg. had 2-3x more stamina and took 1/5th time to recover, vs. meat-eaters
    Belgian test29
    Number of times vegetarians and meat-eaters could squeeze a grip-meter Vegetarians 69, meat-eaters 38.
    Vegetarians performed worse
    Hebbelinck (1999)25 Vegetarian young adults, compared to reference data Vegetarians scored lower on strength and explosive power test.d
    a "No difference" is shorthand for "No statistically significant difference"b Food was provided, suppyling 60% carbs, 30% fat, 10% protein for both groups, potentially negating the advantage of possibly lower fat content in a self-selected veg. diet.

    c Food was set to 57% carbs, 29% fat, 14% protein for both groups, potentially negating the advantage of possibly lower fat content in a self-selected veg. diet.

    d Veg. males did 20.4 situps (vs. 26.8) in 30s, and 204.9cm (vs. 220.1) for standing long jump. Researchers noted that the veg.'s weren't consuming enough calories. Perhaps simply eating more food could have erased the difference.

    I spent several hours combing the literature to see what the science suggests for protein for strength training, and the summary appears in the table at right. Most of the results are fairly consistent.  The amounts suggested are easily met with common vegetables (which average 22% protein).

    Vegetarian-specific research

    There's not a lot of good, current research on strength-training for meat-eaters vs. vegetarians, and even less on vegans.  The Campbell study showed that meat-eaters didn't develop any more strength than the vegetarians.  The meat-eaters did develop more muscle fiber, which has to be small consolation if they didn't actually get any stronger.  And if vegetarians are truly at a (small) disadvantage, it's probable that that could be erased with plant-based supplements (soy, rice, or pea).  In any event, the question is not whether vegetarians and vegans can build muscle, even without supplements, since we absolutely, unequivocally know that they can and do.  At right is the science I was able to find comparing veg*ns to non-veg*ns.

    Higher protein intake = muscle LOSS

    A study of older (>60) twins showed that those who ate more protein than the European recommendation (1-1.3 g/kg) experienced the most muscle loss, while those eating less than the recommended amount had a protective effect on muscle loss. (Oxford 2023) 

    Examples of successful vegetarian and vegan athletes

    (Note: As of July 2012, I've stopped adding to this list, because I've made my point that there are numerous vegans who among the top athletes in their sports.  The number of vegetarian and vegan athletes is growing rapidly now and there's no way I'll be able to keep up with all the new ones.  Also, to clarify, not all of these athletes are/were veg*n for their whole careers, the point is that they are/were veg*n while they were successful athletes.)

    Vegan Bodybuilders

    Some sites for vegan bodybuilders:

    Vegan bodybuilders shatter the myth that vegans are skinny and malnourished.  (Pictured: Avi Lehyani, anonymous, Ryan Wilson, Robert Cheeke)

    Vegan Powerlifters
    • Noah Hannibal. Gold medal, heavyweight division of the Australian National Bench Press Championships
    • Pat Reeves. 12-time British Masters Powerlifting champion
    • Bill Mannetti. 1st place in division, Connecticut State Powerlifting Championship
    • Joy Bush. 1st place in division, Connecticut State Powerlifting Championship
    • Andrew Clark. 1st place in division, Global One IPF
    • Joel Kirkilis. 1st place in division, Global One IPF and ANB Victorian Championships
    • Patrick Virtue. 2nd place in division, Global One IPF
    Other Vegan Athletes
    • Carl Lewis (track) 2 Olympic gold medals as a vegan
    • Scott Jurek (ultramarathoner) 7 consecutive wins at Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, numerous other first place finishes and records
    • Matt Frazier (ultramarathoner), runs NoMeatAthlete.com
    • Scott Spitz (runner) Numerous 1st place finishes
    • Tim VanOrden (runner) Numerous 1st place finishes
    • Fiona Oakes (runner)  1st place woman and 2nd overall in a 2011 marathon
    • Brendan Brazier (Ironman triathlete).  Won the National 50km Ultra Marathon Championships
    • Ruth Heidrich, (triathlete and marathoner) More than 900 first-place trophies and set several performance records. Named One of the 10 Fittest Women in North America.
    • Dave Scott (Ironman triathlete) Six-time Ironman champion

    Vegetarian Athletes

    • Billy Simmonds (bodybuilder) Natural Universe champion
    • Bill Pearl (bodybuilder) Mr. Universe (3 times), World's Best Built Man, Mr. America, Mr. California, numerous Halls of Fame
    • Roy Hilligenn (bodybuilder) Mr. South Africa (4x), Mr. America, Olympic lifter
    • Ricky Williams (football) Miami Dolphins
    Amateur Vegan Athletes of note (except vegetarian where noted)
    • Vegan Bodybuilders: Ryan Wilson, Ivan, Mike Mahler, Marvin Whittred, Jon Hinds, Charlie Abel, Mike Mahler: "Becoming a vegan had a profound effect on my training. … [M]y bench press excelled past 315 pounds...and I put on 10 pounds of lean muscle in a few months."
    • Dan Attanasio (extreme calisthenics)
    • Mike Eves (IKFF certified kettlebell trainer)
    • Jeanie & Chelsea Ward-Waller, Stephanie Palmer.  Bicycled coast-to-coast across the U.S. in 2012 to support safe bicycle routes in cities.  They mentioned that they're vegetarian in a presentation I attended in March 2012.
    • Jane Ward, M.D.  Described herself as mostly vegan at a presentation I attended in March 2012.  At age 60 in 2012, in the last four years she completed over 10 triathlons including a Half-Ironman, and is also a veteran of over 8 marathons and the 24 hour/50 mile Caledonian Challenge in Scotland.
    • Michael BluejayI'm listing myself not because I'm an elite athlete (I'm not), but just to show that I put my money where my mouth is.  As a vegan, I used to run marathons, and before a knee injury ruined my running career, my half-marathon time put me in the top 22% of male runners my age.  After my injury, I started doing handcycle marathons.  I won the handcycle division of the 2012 Austin Marathon, but there were no other entrants in my division.  I hope to win next year's race against actual competition.

    In this video, McDougall notes that Roman gladiators were vegan.

    The mega-paper on protein and strength

    In 2006 the International Society of Sports Nutrition published this lengthy review, summarizing a plethora of studies on the effects of protein in strength training.  Here's my review of that paper.

    Creatine supplements

    No discussion of strength training would be complete without a mention of creatine, which is "the only nutritional supplement that has been consistently shown to improve strength and muscle mass." (link, including a summary of creatine supplementation trials in vegetarians)  Creatine not an essential nutrient, since it's made by your body, but meat-eaters do have more of it since it's found only in animal foods.  However, it can be synthesized so there are vegetarian supplements available.  Jack Norris, R.D., has some advice about dosage and frequency.

    Protein supplements reported to have no benefit

    I haven't done any exhaustive review of the literature about supplements, but since I ran across some important bits from some different papers, I thought they would be a good closing for this article:
    "There appears to be little scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that amino acid supplementation may enhance the physiological responses to strength training when athletes consume dietary protein within the recommended guidelines."8

    "Dietary supplementation of protein beyond that necessary to maintain nitrogen balance does not provide additional benefits for athletes."10

    Those consuming 40g of whey protein after doing HIIT (high-intensity interval training) did not improve skeletal muscle mass or fat mass compared to the placebo group. (Nutrients, 2022)

  • Why be vegetarian? Save animals, get healthy, lose weight, help the planet -- take your pick!
  • All about Protein. All vegetables have plenty of protein. Even lettuce. How do you think elephants get so big? :)
  • Is meat-eating natural?  Our bodies are optimized for eating plants, not meat. Read all about it here.
  • Vegetarian Myths.  From "plants aren't a complete protein" to "Hitler was a vegetarian", we run down all the common misconceptions here.
  • Vegetarianism and the Environment.  Meat production involves horrific amounts of water, land, energy, and pollution, compared to plant foods. Going veg. is the easiest way to lessen your impact.
  • This website is not medical advice.  While the author has tried to ensure the accuracy of the information on this site, and while he quotes many medical doctors, he is not a medical doctor himself, and this website is not medical or nutritional advice. Anyone contemplating nutritional changes should seek the counsel of a qualified health professional.

    ©1998-2023 Michael Bluejay | Contact


    (Google picks the ads, not me.)

    For those who have never read original research before, a good primer is this one on How to Read a Scientific Paper, and this explanation of P-values.

    1 Dietary protein adequacy and lower body versus whole body resistance training in older humans, Wayne W Campbell et al., J Physiol. 2002 July 15; 542(Pt 2): 631-642. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2002.020685
    2 Influence of protein intake and training status on nitrogen balance and lean body mass. Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. J Appl Physiol. 1988 Jan;64(1):187-93.
    3 Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. J Appl Physiol. 1992 Aug;73(2):767-75  
    4 Nutrition and Athletic Performance, joint position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine (2016)
    5 Vegan Weightlifting: What does the science say?, Jack Norris, RD, Vegetarian Journal (2003, Issue 4)
    6 Protein intake and athletic performance, Lemon PW, Sports Medicine, 1991 Nov;12(5):313-25
    7 Effects of exercise on dietary protein requirements, Lemon PW, Int J Sport Nutr. 1998 Dec;8(4):426-47
    8 Amino acid supplementation and exercise performance. Analysis of the proposed ergogenic value, Kreider RB, Sports Med. 1993 Sep;16(3):190-209.
    9 ButterfieldG (1991). Amino acids and high protein diets. In Lamb D, Williams M(editors), Perspectives in exercise science and sports medicine, Vol.4; Ergogenics, enhancement of performance in exercise and sport(pages 87-122). Indianapolis, Indiana: Brown &Benchmark
    10 Effects of protein and amino acid supplementation on athletic performance, Kreider RB, Sportscience 3(1), 1999. The Butterfield paper is referenced in this one.
    11 "Dietary supplements and the promotion of muscle growth with resistance training", Kreider RB, Sports Medicine 27, 97-110, 1999
    12 Assessment of protein status in athletes,
    13 Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes, Tarnopolsky MA, Atkinson SA, MacDougall JD, Chesley A, Phillips S, Schwarcz HP.  J Appl Physiol. 1992;73:1986–95
    14 Lemon PW. Protein requirements of strength athletes. In: Antonio J, Stout J, editor. Sports Supplements. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins Publishing Co
    15 Beyond the zone: Protein needs of active individuals, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 19, No. 90005, 513S-521S (2000)
    16 Dietary Protein to Support Anabolism with Resistance Exercise in Young Men, Phillips S et al., Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, CANADA, 2005
    17 Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men, Campbell W et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 70, No. 6, 1032-1039, December 1999
    18 Animal product intake and immune function, Nieman DC, et al. Veg Nutr Int J 1997;1:5–11. Reviewed in Effect of Vegetarian Diets on Performance in Strength Sports.
    19 Nutrient intake of endurance runners with ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet and regular western diet, Eisinger M et al., (1994). Zeitschrift fur Ernahrungswiss 33, 217-229. Reviewed in Effect of Vegetarian Diets on Performance in Strength Sports.
    20 Serum sex hormones and endurance performance after a lacto-ovo-vegetarian and a mixed diet, Raben A, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1992;24:1290–7. Reported in Physical Fitness and Vegetarian Diets: Is there a relation?
    21 Immune parameters in male athletes after a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet and a mixed Western diet, Richter EA, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1991;23:517–21. Reported in Physical Fitness and Vegetarian Diets: Is there a relation?
    22 Physical fitness, anthropometric and metabolic parameters in vegetarian athletes, Hanne N et al. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 1986;26:180–5. Reported in Physical Fitness and Vegetarian Diets: Is there a relation?
    23 Nutritional aspects of human physical and athletic performance, Williams MH et al. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publisher, 1985:415–6. Reported in Physical Fitness and Vegetarian Diets: Is there a relation?
    24 Possible effect of a vegan diet upon lung function and the cardiorespiratory response to submaximal exercise in healthy women, Cotes JE et al.   J Physiol 1970;209:30P–2P. Reported in Physical Fitness and Vegetarian Diets: Is there a relation?
    25 Growth, development, and physical fitness of Flemish vegetarian children, adolescents, and young adults, Hebbelinck M et al., American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 70, 579S-585S
    26 Reported in John Robbins' Diet for a New America, footnote 29.
    27 Vegetarians the Stronger: Yale's flesh-eating athletes beaten in severe endurance tests. New York Times, March 22, 1907, about research published in the Yale Medical Journal.  Also reported in John Robbins' Diet for a New America.
    28 Enquete scientifique sur les vegetarians de Bruxelles, Henri Lamertin, Brussels, Ioteyko, J et al., p. 50. As reported in John Robbins' Diet for a New America, footnote 28.
    29 Reported in John Robbins' Diet for a New America, footnote 30.
    30 Old research offers laughs, secret of life, Yale Daily News, February 14, 2007
    31 Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarian Athletes, Susan I. Barr and Candice A. Rideout, Nutrition, 20:696-703, 2004
    32 Effects of slow versus fast-digested protein supplementation combined with mixed power training on muscle function and functional capacities in older men, M C Dulac et al, British Journal of Nutrition (2020 Jun 5)

    Other research not used or cited:
    Vegetarian Dietary Practices and Endurance Performance (Nieman, Am J Clin Nutr, 1988) is a literature review that adds nothing useful in illuminating any actual performance differences between veg/non-veg diets for athletes.