I was a vegetarian before I was a marathon runner. For me, fueling with plant-based proteins has always been the norm. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that many athletes aren’t all that familiar with vegan proteins. With the rise in popularity of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, I’ve been fielding many questions about the benefits (and drawbacks) of plant-based proteins. Many active people are curious (and dare I say skeptical) if they can get enough protein from plant sources to maintain their fitness level. That’s why I’m happy that my intern, Quinn, put together some info on the best plant-based proteins for athletes. The list provides as much healthy protein as a meat-based diet, and it even includes a yummy recovery smoothie.
By Quinn Haisley
There are plenty of reasons that athletes might turn to a plant-based diet, including ethical, environmental and the obvious health-related benefits (Read: Is Being A Vegetarian Healthy?). To name just a few advantages of a meatless lifestyle, studies have shown that consuming a plant-based diet may reduce a person’s risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 Diabetes. That’s probably not surprising since a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains also includes a ton of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants.
However, anyone who chooses to follow a vegan diet will also need to be more mindful about certain nutrients, like iron, B12, zinc, vitamin D and calcium. But with a little bit of planning, eating enough of each of these nutrients is absolutely doable. If you’re thinking of going vegan (or vegetarian), here are 5 plant-based protein sources to help fuel your workouts and achieve all of your performance goals.
1. Soy Products
When you hear ‘soy’, you probably think of tofu. But soy is the base of so many other products, like tofu, tempeh, edamame and soy milk (Read: Everything You Need To Know About Tofu). Soy is one of the few vegan protein sources that is considered a high-quality protein, meaning that is consists of high quality and easily digestible amino acids. Tofu and tempeh don’t have strong flavors on their own, so they will easily take on the flavors of any marinade. Both a quarter of a block of tofu and a ½ cup of shelled edamame have about 9 grams of protein. Pick up a bag of frozen edamame from any supermarket to throw in the microwave and enjoy as a quick recovery snack after an intense workout or try this chili roasted tofu.
This pseudograin (actually a seed) is one of the only complete plant proteins. In other words, it’s a rare meatless protein source that contains all 9 essential amino acids. With a mild, nutty flavor, quinoa is a gluten-free alternative to other grains. One cup of cooked quinoa offers about 8 grams of protein, and you can use it in salads, soups or just about anything that would normally contain rice.
This plant-based protein is very much like meat in texture and appearance, so it makes a great meat substitute for anyone new to veganism. Similar to tofu, seitan doesn’t have a super strong flavor on its own, but it will easily take on the flavor of the sauces and spices. And maybe the most notable point is that seitan has 21 grams of protein in just a 1/3 cup.
Although the word ‘legume’ may not be part of your everyday vocab, you’ve likely eaten many of them, like beans, chickpeas and lentils. Each has its own flavor, making them an incredibly versatile addition to any meal. Legumes are also a good source of the amino acid lysine, which is missing from some other vegan protein sources, like grains. Although the protein content differs between legumes, usually there is about 15 grams in one cup, cooked. All three of these vegan recipes are great post-workout dinners and snacks: lentil Bolognese sauce, vegan tacos and roasted chickpeas
Although hemp seeds may have a slightly hippie connotation, they shouldn’t be overlooked. This nutritionally dense seed is full of iron, zinc, magnesium and omega-3s. Try sprinkling some on avocado toast or a salad, or even putting a couple scoops of hemp powder into a smoothie or bowl of oatmeal. A 3-tablespoon serving will provides 10 grams of protein. Whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan or meat eater, you can try hemp seeds in this really simple smoothie recipe.
Raspberry Mango Hemp Smoothie
- 1/2 cup frozen mango
- 1/4 cup frozen raspberries
- 1 cup cow’s milk or unsweetened nut milk
- 1/4 cup 2% plain greek yogurt or nut yogurt
- 1 tablespoon hemp seeds
- 1 teaspoon agave