It’s very hard to be a vegan athlete: Not only do they have to plan their meals more carefully than their meat-eating counterparts, but they are also frequently subject to intense skepticism and scrutiny from the athletic community at large. You can’t gain muscle if you don’t eat meat. There’s no way you’re getting enough protein to accommodate your workout schedule.
Do any of these statements or questions sound familiar?
If you’ve been a vegan athlete for more than, say, a week, I’m betting the answer is “yes”.
These comments are annoying and misguided. Still, they do have a small grain of truth to them: If you’re working out regularly, then it’s vital to consume plenty of protein on a regular basis. That’s because protein provides our bodies with the fuel they need to power through workouts and recover after them.
Here’s what happens if athletes (whether vegan or carnivorous) don’t consume enough protein:
Your body will break down muscle instead of building it.
When you aren’t eating enough protein, your body needs to find fuel somewhere else—and if it gets desperate enough, it will start “feeding” on your own tissues in order to do so. More specifically, the body will start to tear down muscle tissue in order to obtain the amino acids that are necessary for sustaining the function of your organs. Obviously, the loss of muscle mass is the last thing any athlete wants.
It will take longer to recover from injuries.
Our bodies require protein in order to repair damaged cells, skin, and tissues. When we’re not consuming enough protein, our bodies won’t recover from injuries as quickly, and we’ll suffer from decreased immunity overall. This can be a major setback for anyone attempting to follow a rigorous training plan.
You’ll feel tired all the time.
If you’re not getting enough protein—especially as an athlete—then you’re liable to suffer from chronic fatigue or a general sense of sluggishness. This can seriously impair your workout routine, because you’re less likely to show up for your workouts or power through intense workouts if you’re constantly feeling tired.
So it is true that protein should play a major role in athletes’ diets. But it certainly is not true that it’s impossible for vegans to eat a high-protein diet. We’ll prove it in the following section.
High-Protein Foods for Vegan Athletes
There is a huge variety of vegan foods that are packed with protein. Below, we’ve highlighted 10 of the best.
These teeny tiny little seeds are known as a superfood for a reason: They pack four grams of protein into just two tablespoons, and they also boast plenty of other nutrients in the form of calcium, fiber, iron, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds can be added raw to a variety of dishes, from smoothies to oatmeal or yogurt parfaits. Give them a try in this recipe for Chia Vegan Protein Muffins.
Young soybeans (aka edamame) boast 11 grams of complete protein per half cup, which makes them a stellar source of protein. They’re also a great source of other nutrients including calcium, fiber, folate, iron, and vitamin K. Make sure to steam or boil edamame prior to eating. Once you’ve done that, you can enjoy edamame on salads, in noodle dishes, or simply as a finger food. For starters? Check out this recipe for Vegan Pho with Carrots and Edamame.
While they might not have the same reputation as chia seeds, hemp seeds are just as deserving of acclaim. They boast 10 grams of prot ein per two tablespoons in addition to calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, omega-3s, and all nine essential amino acids. Like chia seeds, hempseed can be eaten raw or added to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, and other dishes. Get hooked with this recipe for Raw Pumpkin Hemp Seed Protein Bars. Hempseed can also be enjoyed in the form of hemp milk.
This is a huge category, but it deserves its own entry thanks to the sheer volume of protein-rich foods that fall under it. From lentils to black beans, chickpeas, green peas, and virtually all other beans, legumes promise anywhere from seven grams of protein (for most bean varieties) to nine grams of protein (for lentils) per cooked half cup. What’s more, they also boast plenty of fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, and other nutrients. Cooked legumes can be incorporated into a wide range of recipes; get started with this recipe for Orange-Infused Black Beans.
Nuts, seeds, and nut butters
We’ve already mentioned chia and hemp seeds, but other seeds and nuts deserve mention on this list as well. From cashews to pumpkin seeds and peanut butter to pecan butter, virtually all nuts, seeds, and nut butters pack a substantial protein punch. (One serving of nuts, seeds, or nut butters can have anywhere from five to nine grams of protein.) What’s more, nuts and seeds are great sources of other nutrients such as calcium, fiber, healthy fats, iron, magnesium, selenium, and a variety of vitamins. Give them a try in this recipe for West African Spinach with Spicy Peanut Sauce.
This powdery yellow substance tastes a lot like cheese, but don’t let that fool you. It’s definitely vegan. It’s also packed with protein—the deactivated yeast contains a whopping 14 grams of complete protein per ounce. It’s also a good source of fiber, and it’s sometimes fortified with other nutrients including B vitamins, copper, magnesium, and zinc. The powder can be added as-is to tofu scrambles, mashed potatoes, popcorn, and basically any other dish that might usually call for cheese. Try it out in this recipe for Vegan Alfredo.
Quinoa isn’t just packed with eight grams of protein per (cooked) cup. It’s also loaded with fiber, iron, magnesium, and manganese, all of which are important micronutrients. As an added bonus, it’s very easy to cook and makes for a versatile ingredient that works well in everything from casseroles to salads and baked goods. Give it a try in the form of Vegan Quinoa and Black Beans.
Rice and Beans
This classic combination boasts seven grams of protein per (cooked) cup. The pairing makes for an especially great way to refuel after a workout thanks to the fact that it contains both protein and carbs. And if you thought rice and beans were boring, think again—try them out in this delicious recipe for Mango Salsa Black Beans and Coconut Rice.
The product of fermented soybeans, tofu is a classic vegetarian and vegan staple for a reason: It’s packed with 21 grams of protein per four ounces. It’s also incredibly versatile in the kitchen (and it’s cheap, to boot) Tofu is safe to consume cold, but it’ll taste much better cooked. Experiment with adding tofu to stir fries, curries, casseroles, and other dishes. Not sure where to start? Give this recipe for Spicy Thai Braised Kale and Tofu a try.
While many athletes choose to drink their veggies in the form of green juices, vegan athletes may want to consider also eating them whole. That’s because many cooked vegetables contain fairly impressive levels of protein. These include artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, kale, and spinach, all of which contain anywhere from four to five grams of protein per cooked cup. Eat them on their own or enjoy them in a range of recipes including soups, stews, and casseroles. Try this Sautéed Kale with Tahini-Lemon Sauce as just one example.
The next time someone tells you that being a vegan athlete is an oxymoron, show them this list. The truth is it’s entirely possible to eat a vegan diet that’s jam-packed with protein.
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