How to Count Macros on a Vegan Diet

Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
     
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Counting macronutrients has long been practiced in the fitness industry as a way to burn fat, gain muscle and optimize training and recovery through diet. But the "traditional" food plate stacked with meat, grains and veggies looks a little different on a plant-based regimen.

Vegan diets exclude the common sources of protein - meat and dairy, and rely solely on plants for complete nutrition. Plants tend to be a source of multiple macronutrients all at once, which can blur line between a protein, carb or fat choice. Nonetheless, with a little portion adjusting and practice, it’s entirely possible to hit your macro diet goals and get the results you’re looking for on a vegan meal plan.

vegan tofu noodle meal macros

Counting Macros 101

To start, you’ll need to estimate your macro needs by hand or using an online macro calculator.

Then you’ll need to understand which foods should fall under which macro category or in some cases, multiple categories to start meal planning efficiently. You can also use a macro friendly app like Trifecta, that does a lot of the hard math for you.

Once you’ve established the basics for counting and tracking your macros, let’s save you even more time with a few suggestions you can use to get the maximum protein benefits and best overall balance from your food on a plant-based diet.

 

Vegan Protein

It’s commonly stated that vegans don’t get enough protein in their diet or that they actually need more protein than meat eaters. And you may be asking yourself, how much protein do I need on a vegan meal plan?

Regardless of whether you are eating meat or not, your protein needs are strongly guided by your activity level, health and fitness goals, and total calorie intake. On average, you should probably be striving to get at least 25 to 30g of protein per meal, or 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass (1).

Getting 25+ grams protein is easily accomplished with a 4 to 6 oz portion of meat or fish because of its high protein nutrient density- compared to other foods, lean meat, fish, eggs, and some dairy will give you a significant amount of protein per calorie.

The trouble with plant-based sources is that they are typically a source of carbs or fat as well – nuts contain protein, but also contain a significant amount of fat, and while beans are a good source of protein, they are also fairly carb heavy. Unfortunately, this tends to be the case with almost every plant-based protein you can think of. In addition, there is much debate over the quality and absorbability of plant protein compared to animal products.  

High Protein Foods for Vegans

So which vegan proteins are going to give you the most bang for your buck?

Most vegan sources are roughly half the protein density as meat options, but that doesn’t mean you cannot get sufficient, quality protein from plant sources. You just have to be a little choosy. For comparison, here is the macro breakdown of common protein containing foods and a look at what 100 calories of each will get you:

Food
Protein (g)/ 100 calories
Carb (g)/ 100 calories
Fat (g)/ 100 calories

Egg Whites

22g

1.5g

0.5g

Grass-fed steak

20g

0g

2g

Chicken Breast

19g

0g

2.5g

Low Fat Yogurt

13g

5g

3g

Salmon

11g

0g

6g

Tofu

12g

4g

4g

Tempeh

11g

4g

6g

Edamame

10g

7g

3.5g

Soy Veggie Burger

9g

8g

3.5g

Lentils

8g

17g

0g

Green Peas

7g

17g

0.5g

Black Beans

7g

18g

0g

Peanuts

4.5g

2g

8.5g

Quinoa

3.5g

18g

1.5g

Reference: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/

Tofu and soy-based alternatives tend to be your best food option, as they contain relatively low carbs and fat and are a good source of quality protein.

If you’re not big on soy, food producers are constantly looking at ways to develop more protein alternatives for plant-based eaters. Knowing exactly what to look for can help you beef up your choices accordingly. Some advertised options may sound great, but still lack basic nutrition or they are heavily processed. Some veggies burgers aren’t even a good source of protein (5g or more) and can be loaded with fat.

Here are a few things you will want to consider when grabbing some vegan “meat” alternatives from the store:   

  • Vegan meats should have roughly 40% of their calories coming from protein or 10g of protein for every 100 calories.
  • Check the fat and carbs to make sure the options fit within your macro range. Lean proteins will have less than 8g of fat per serving. And carb friendly options should have less than 25g of carbs per serving.
  • Read the ingredients and look for options that are less processed and contain quality proteins.

 

Getting Complete Protein

When consumed, your body breaks down protein into amino acids that are used for multiple bodily functions - like building, repairing and maintaining muscle, or they are used for energy. Your body can make some amino acids on it’s own, but others you can only get from food. There are nine amino acids that are considered essential in the diet, because your body needs them but is not able to produce them.

Many sources of plant-based protein are not considered “complete” because they do not contain adequate amounts of all essential amino acids you need to thrive. This is why many sources of nutrition advice tells us that you must consume all essential amino acids in one meal, through complementary protein options that equal adequate amino acid intake, to get what’s called a “complete protein” (2).

But don’t stress just yet, as it turns out, consuming a diet containing all of your essential amino acids throughout the day may be sufficient enough. In addition, your body is able to fill in any gaps with free amino acids on hand through normal protein breakdown and recycling that occurs (3). In other words, if you don’t get all of your amino acids in perfect amounts every single day, your body has ways of compromising to get you what you need - as long as you are eating a balanced diet.

When it comes to gaining muscle mass, however, the type of protein you are eating may be important. Studies suggest that animal proteins are more anabolic than plant because of their optimal amino acid content - meaning they support building muscle more efficiently (4). While the research looking at animal vs plant protein is still fairly limited, eating a complete or complementary proteins during your active recovery window, 20 minutes after a workout, could be more beneficial when it come to building and repairing muscle.

Choosing complementary proteins is thought to improve overall absorption and reduce the need for free amino acid use (2,5). In other words, your body won't have to work as hard to get the right muscle building amino acids after a workout when you are consuming them on the spot, which allows you to recover more efficiently.

Based on amino acid balance, here are the best vegan protein combos you can eat to get a complete protein:

  • Soy Protein Isolate
  • Rice + Peas
  • Whole Grains + Legumes
  • Grains + Vegetables
  • Grains + Nuts + Seeds
  • Legumes + Nuts + Seeds

 vegan veggie burger protein

Vegan Protein Absorption

It is somewhat true that some plant based proteins are not as bioavailable for absorption by the body compared to meat and dairy. This argument stems from something called the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). PDCAAS was adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as a measurement of protein quality, in solving world hunger. And as a result has been used as an indicator of protein quality ever since. 

Looking at the PDCAAS, one would assume you can end up missing out on up to 30% of the protein from plants due to poor digestibility. But luckily, the FDA requires nutrition labeling to correct for this, and what you see on the label is what you actually get.

If you’re curious anyways, here is what research shows in terms of PDCAAS for common proteins:  

Food
Protein Digestibility %

Dairy

100%

Eggs

100%

Mycoprotein

99%

Soy

98%

Beef

98%

Quinoa

91%

Edamame & Chickpeas

88%

Lentils

84%

Black Beans

72%

Vegetables

73%

Green Peas

59%

Peanuts

52%

 

Best Protein Powder for Vegans

If all else fails, supplements can be an easy way to add a significant amount of protein without the added carbs and calories. Powders are made by concentrating just the protein portion of certain plant-based foods to give you roughly 20g of protein for about 100 calories – making them a great nutrient dense addition.

While traditional whey and casein don’t fit into a vegan diet, there are many complete, high quality options on the market. Soy protein isolate is often praised as the best option, but various blends of rice and pea, as well as spirulina can be just as good.

Look for options with clean, simple ingredients and not too much “extra” going on. You can easily add a scoop to your oatmeal, baked goods, soups, mashed potatoes, etc. to get that extra boost.

Carb Cycling on a Vegan Diet

Because carbohydrates come from anything that grows out of the ground, plant-based diets tend to be very carb heavy. This can be great when it comes to supporting high performance, but not so great when you are looking to burn fat by cutting carb intake or just decrease your carb intake during rest periods.

If you are opting for a protein source that is also carb heavy, you will need to adjust your starch portions accordingly and opt for non-starchy veggies or low carb fruits. While beans and quinoa provide a great protein combo, to get to 30 grams you will also be taking in over 600 calories and 100 grams of carbs. Compared to 30g of protein from grass-fed steak which is less than 200 calories and 0g of carbs.

To help counteract some of this, you can always opt for your starch choice to also be a source of protein. And non-starchy veggies and low carb fruits should fill the remainder of your plate to add nutrition without too many carbs or additional calories.

Below is a suggested macro plate based on your performance and weight loss goals. Let’s take a look at how you can learn to portion your food choices to hit your vegan macros. 

VEGAN MACRO PLATES

  • Step 1: Choose a protein rich starch option like quinoa, beans, peas or lentils.
  • Step 2: Choose a nutrient dense protein option like tofu or a vegan “meat” alternative.
  • Step 3: Combine the starch and protein portions below using complementary proteins, or nutrient dense vegan proteins, and scale back the total portion size slightly. Here’s a suggested breakdown:
    • Maintain: 50% veggie/fruit, 50% vegan protein mix
    • Gain Muscle: 40% veggie/fruit, 60% vegan protein mix
    • Lean Out: 60% veggie, 40% vegan protein mix (opt for mostly low carb/nutrient dense proteins on these days)

 

Healthy Fats for Vegans

You may have noticed fat is not mentioned in the plates above, what gives?

Fats are typically used as a topping or already naturally occurring in some foods, so there isn’t a need to add a designated portion at each meal – you probably have little trouble getting enough fat into your day. But this could also be an opportunity to get a small protein boost with things like nuts and nut butters, seeds and nutritional yeast.

If you are looking to control calories, fat is an easy way to cut without removing too much volume. Although, a little bit of fat is important for satiety and nutrient absorption. Here is a good rule of thumb to live by:

If your food is cooked with fat, like olive oil, or naturally contains fat from foods like olives, nuts, seeds and avocado, you probably do not need to any any additional fat. But if you are eating lean with steamed veggies and plain starches, you may want to add a little fat that also gives a little protein boost.

vegan bowl healthy fats

 

Vegan Macros Made Easy

It is entirely possible to get all of the nutrients your body needs and be a macro counting machine while still staying vegan. Just like any diet plan, optimizing your nutrition requires a bit of understanding and self education. And as you get to know your calorie and macro needs better, portioning your food definitely gets easier. Or you can also just skip the meal planning all together and go with a macro aligned vegan meal delivery option that takes all of these things into consideration.

Check out our vegan meal plan!

MAKE ME FOOD

 

Additional References: 

Related Posts