Navigating Food Restrictions: Vegan Protein, Vitamins, and Calories

You’re gluten-free, soy-free, and vegan: How do you get enough vegan protein? Aren’t you vitamin/nutrient deficient eating that way? How can you eat enough calories? These are the most common questions about the protein, vitamins, and calories of my vegan and gluten free diet.


First, I’d like to address two misconceptions here:

1.The amount of protein the average person needs during the day

There are different factors that contribute to the amount of protein needed per day: Age, sex, pregnant/breastfeeding, medical conditions, greater than average physical activity, etc. According to the Institute of Medicine, a person should consume 10% of their daily calories from protein, but not to exceed 35%. This translates to about 46/56 grams for adult women/men.

An easy way to determine how much you should be eating is 0.36 grams per pound that you weigh. Most people are actually eating an unhealthy amount of protein, which puts unnecessary stress on the liver and other organs.

2.The amount of protein found in plant-based sources.

Where does a gluten-free vegan get protein if eggs, dairy, and meat are out of the picture? These are my top choices for vegan protein:

  • Nuts/seeds: (almonds, flax/chia seeds, pumpkin, cashews) 4-6 g. per cup!
  • Hemp seed: 10g per 3 tablespoon
  • Lentils/beans: 18g per cup!
  • GF grains: (brown rice, oats, buckwheat, etc.) 5g per cup!
  • Quinoa: 9g per cup!
  • VEGETABLES: 4-6g per cup!
  • Spirulina: 4g per tablespoon
  • Goji berries: 4g per 1/4c.

Note: I personally don’t eat soy (or recommend it in high amounts), but that comes in at 20g per cup.

This article does a primo job of explaining further.


Sometimes, in direct relation to the protein questions, I am asked about important vitamins and nutrients that may be missing without eating meat and dairy. With a gluten-free and vegan diet, you’re looking specifically at B12, folate, iron, calcium, zinc, and omega 3s.

Where can you find gluten-free and vegan sources of these  vitamins and nutrients?

  • B12: (2.4-2.8 micrograms daily; varies by sex, age, pregnancy)
    This is the one vitamin you cannot get from plant-based sources, so talk to your doctor about a proper supplement. I personally take Methylcobalamin from Pure Encapsulations.
  • Folate: (400-600 micrograms daily; varies by sex, age)
    The better question is where WON’T you find folate? Carrots, Nuts/Seeds, Squash, Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc), avocado, beans/lentils, citrus, leafy greens (spinach, romaine, collard leaves, etc.), raw cacao. For a more detailed list, which includes the percentage daily value read: this article.
  • Iron: (8-11mg men/ 7-18mg women daily; varies by age, pregnancy)
    lentils/beans/peas, spinach, molasses, raw cacao, soybeans (if you eat soy – I do not recommend)
  • Calcium: (1,000mg daily)
    lentils/beans/peas, rice, figs, raisins, collard greens, butternut squash, broccoli, brussels sprouts, nondairy milk (almond, hemp, flax, cashew), kale, oatmeal, almonds (almond butter), etc. For a great resource to learn why plant-based sources of calcium are more healthy for your body than animal sources read: this article
  • Zinc: (11mg men/ 8 mg women daily)
    seeds (pumpkin, chia, flax), nuts (peanuts, walnuts, cashews, almonds), nutritional yeast, mushrooms, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, lentils/beans/peas, rice, oatmeal, quinoa, aloe vera, honey, raw cacao (not the same as chocolate)
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: (250-500+ mg daily; varies by age, pregnancy)
    flax seeds, walnuts, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, seaweed, spirulina, hemp seeds
    *Note: it is argued that non-vegan sources Omega 3s do not contain the long-chain fatty acids necessary for proper health; discuss these concerns with your doctor

My first recommendation for anyone concerned about their vitamin levels is to go to your doctor and get blood work done. There’s no way of knowing without some basic testing.

With that being said, I’ve had blood work done half a dozen different times over the past two years and have never had vitamin levels outside normal ranges. This is because if you’re maintaining a balanced diet with lots of variety every week, you don’t even need to give this topic a second thought — I don’t!


A little background…

Three years ago when I was starting to see the first signs of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (but didn’t know it at the time), I began to gain weight. This was with no changes in diet or exercise. I’ve always been very athletic and had what most people call a “rabbit metabolism:” the type of metabolism that burns food off before it even has the chance to consider turning into fat. So you can probably imagine my concern when I started gaining about a pound a week for no reason.

As a proactive problem-solver, I downloaded the Lose It app on my phone to try and pinpoint what the source of my weight gain was. This was an amazing learning experience that gave me a whole new perspective on exactly how many calories are in different foods (namely fast food, snacks, sugary drinks).

I’d suggest everyone start their health journey with an app like this to begin learning what food has to offer in terms of calories, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, sodium, and vitamins.

So I’d downloaded LoseIt, had reduced my calorie intake to 1,400 a day, and increased my exercise, yet no changes were happening. Why is that?

Of course, there will always be plenty of factors that play in, but I want to make one firm point: 2,000 calories of wholesome food that nourishes your body is not the same as 2,000 calories of candy and junk food.

All calories are not created equal.

One reason my efforts were falling short is because I wasn’t making a point of eating enough vegetables, fruits, healthy grains, nuts/seeds, etc. (Read more about what my current diet looks like here.)

Instead, I was limiting myself to 1,400 calories a day of things like cereal, trail mix with M&Ms, Subway, granola, baked goods, and mayyyybe some spinach to go alongside my dinner (which was usually something drowning in cheese).

I was starving my body of the nutrition it needed to stay healthy. Through my experiences, I’ve learned calorie counting can really do more harm than good when you don’t have adequate nutritional knowledge to accompany it.

Let’s look at some unhealthy foods that would make up the average recommended daily allowance of calories:

  • 2,000 calories: 7.5 candy bars (2 oz. size)
  • 2,000 calories: 8 glazed donuts
  • 2,000 calories: 4 fast food chain cheeseburgers
  • 2,000 calories: 8 caramel frozen coffee drinks

On the flip side, here are some healthy alternatives and the amount of each you’d need to eat to reach the same mark.

  • 2,000 calories: 286 cups of spinach
  • 2,000 calories: 32 medium sized nectarines
  • 2,000 calories: 9 cups cooked quinoa
  • 2,000 calories: 33 cups of Almond Milk

There is a vicious cycle that is created when you eat meals high in sugar, carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats. You may have eaten 1,000 calories of chips, burger, soda, and ice cream for lunch, but it 1) does not fill your stomach and 2) is nearly devoid of nutrients and fiber, yet extremely high in sugar.

Spinach v. Hamburger

To address the first point, you can refer to the 2,000 calorie healthy examples above for reference. It’s hard to imagine eating 140 cups of spinach in one sitting, but that is how much you’d need to equal the calorie intake of the burger lunch above.

You’d be bursting at the seams if you tried eating 1,000 calories of plant-based food one in sitting. Not only that but fruits and vegetables aren’t processed. Your body has to do all of the work to break them down into usable fuel.

In contrast, processed foods are just that: already processed.

It doesn’t take much for your body to digest them, leaving you feeling hungry much sooner. In the most simple of terms, the high sugar, low fiber content means that your blood sugar will spike quickly with no way to slow the absorption of that sugar. Ultimately, you’ll have a burst of energy that will then nosedive in a hurry without the fiber.

To understand this better, I highly recommend watching the documentary Fed Up.

So sure, you could eat 8 glazed donuts every day and get your “recommended daily intake” of calories, but there’s no way that could sustain your body for a day. (Not to mention the damage it would do to your gut microbiome.)

Therefore, as I mentioned above, I absolutely do recommend starting your healthy journey by counting calories to get a feel for those high-calorie meals you don’t know you’re eating. Just don’t let calorie-counting become an excuse to eat 2,000 calories of processed food, while simultaneously starving your body of nutritious food it needs to function.

When you have that understanding, go ahead and throw the calorie counting out the window.

The bottom line is that if you’re eating a primarily plant-based diet that maintains a consistent variety of food, you don’t need to count calories or worry about portion control. Protein, vitamins, and calories will not be an issue. Your body will tell you when it’s full and when you’re hungry for real.

Make sure you consider the amount of protein your body needs based on your daily lifestyle, and also that you are getting the vitamins/nutrients that may be missing from a vegan diet.

Did I mention how much better I feel now that I feed my body what it really needs? It’s hard to describe exactly how “clean” your body feels without the constant parade of processed junk, but I can assure you, it’s worth the experience, and you may have a hard time going back to your old ways.

Last but not least, my most important thought on living a wholesome, plant-based lifestyle:

“Healthy food should be just as delicious as it is good for you.” -Brittany Nunley (that’s me!)

If you don’t believe me, try some of the recipes here on Sharing Every Bite and see for yourself. 🙂

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