Athletes often wonder if going vegan will work for them. Whether you're hoping to minimize your carbon footprint, eliminate carcinogens from red meat, stop contributing to animal cruelty, clean up your diet, or simply feel lighter, a vegan diet can provide the solution you're looking for. The benefits include better digestion, fewer allergens, less inflammation, and the peace of mind that your diet has the lowest environmental impact on the planet, by a lot!
Unfortunately, there are some common pitfalls of plant-based diets, especially for athletes requiring a higher protein intake. As a vegan runner averaging over 25 miles a week, and an avid rock climber focused on getting stronger, I understand the plight quite well. Supplementing an adequate amount of protein isn't easy, but what positive life change is? After a short analysis of the amount of protein you need on a daily basis, I'll give you some tips and meal examples to keep your carbon footprint low, your animal friends alive and well, and your body functioning at its maximum athletic potential.
How much protein do athletes need?
According to a synthesis of various studies, athletes need anywhere from .5 to .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Endurance athletes require less than power athletes, and the weekend warrior who's only active a few days a week requires even less. There's no perfect formula, and the needs vary based on the type of activities you perform. The key is maintaining a healthy nitrogen balance, without which your body will start to break down muscle and use it for energy. So if you workout with the simple purpose of staying lean, you don't need to shoot for .8. If you're simply trying to build muscle mass and get stronger, however, you should aim high. So if you're not eating meat or eggs or drinking milk or whey protein shakes, where does it all come from? Well, everywhere.
The old food pyramid we grew up seeing on the wall of our classrooms has been debunked. The meat and dairy industries had a lot to do with promoting the idea that every meal needed to contain both to get an adequate amount to support strong bones and muscle growth. The current, non-biased research speaks for itself, and as recently as this past winter olympics a group of elite athletes spoke out on national tv for a dairy-free diet. Studies have shown that active people train their bodies to synthesize protein better, so the more active you are, the better you'll break down the protein in everything you eat.
By the Numbers
Vegan Protein Options for Athletes
So what are the best vegan options for maintaining an optimal protein intake? Let's take a look.
For the 160lb athlete who wants to stay lean, venture out on runs a few times a week, and continue to get stronger in their athletic pursuits, I'd recommend aiming for .65g per lb. per day (that's what I shoot for). For the sake of this article, however, I'll go for the full .8g per lb., which would be 128g.
Breakfast: Whether you eat a lot or a little first thing in the morning, there are options for everybody. If you're into hot food when you roll out of bed, cook a serving of oats (5g for a ¼ cup), toss in a serving of chopped cashews (5g for a ¼ cup), add some nut butter (7g for a ¼ cup), some chia seeds (6g per 2 tbsp), pumpkin seeds (5g per ¼ cup), and whatever you'd like to sweeten it with (agave, sorghum, maple syrup, coconut nectar). That gets you to 28g of protein with a hot, soothing meal. If you want to keep it light, use a pea, hemp, or brown rice protein powder in a shake or smoothie. Depending on your level of activity for the day, use 1 to 1.5 servings, which would get you between 20g and 30g.
Lunch: Bowls are a popular lunch choice these days, so I'll design one that's tasty and packed with protein and nutrients. Cook a serving of quinoa (8g per ½ cup), throw on some tempeh bacon (16g per 3oz serving), steamed broccoli (4.2g per ½ cup), roasted chickpeas (6g per ½ cup), black beans (7.6g per ½ cup), and drizzle it with some tahini sauce or a dressing of your choosing for a healthy, nutrient-dense, 41.8g of protein for lunch. (Bowls like this are common at most restaurants and coffee shops these days, so you can probably find a similar meal close by if you're working and need something on the go.)
Dinner: If you're like me, you enjoy taking dinner slow by starting with a salad. Toss 2 cups of spinach (2.5g) with some lima beans (7.3g per ½ cup), a diced tomato (1.1g), sliced cucumber (1g per ½ cucumber), pumpkin seeds (5g per ¼ cup), and use an olive oil, apple cider vinegar combo for a simple dressing. That's another 16.9g before you even dive into the main course. Next up, cook some wild rice (6.5g per cup), bread some tofu with coconut milk and nutritional yeast (12g per 3oz), add some sauteed collard greens (1.1g per 1cup), red pepper (1.5g per ½ cup), yellow onion (.8g per cup), and throw on some cashew cheese for a rich, satisfying meal with another 21.9g.
Post-Workout: If you're an athlete, you know you need a protein supplement within about an hour of a strenuous workout. As mentioned earlier, there are quite a few brands that make excellent brown rice, pea, hemp, or all-around plant-based protein powders that taste great. Shake one up for 25g at least once a day.
So all told, with one shake and no repeat ingredients, that's 28g for breakfast, 41.8g for lunch, 38.8g for dinner, and a 25g workout supplement that adds up to a whopping 133.6g of protein in a day. Whatever type of athlete you are, that's plenty to keep you going and getting stronger.
Added Tips: By keeping some jars of various seeds, nuts, and grains in your cupboard, you can impress your friends with some complex dishes that require very little cooking time, and also optimize your protein intake. There are some extra health factors to consider when using solely plant-based protein. Soy consumption, for example, has shown to promote extra estrogen production in males, and should be monitored accordingly. If you love tofu and tempeh, you shouldn't be using a soy-based protein shake. Go for pea, hemp, or brown rice protein as an alternative, and stick to 1-2 servings maximum of soy-based protein a day. Also, some people have grain allergies, and should use seed-like grains (quinoa, amaranth, kamut) instead of wild or brown rice.
All of the vegetables I used for examples can be sampled out for your favorites for a similar amount of protein. They key to this type of diet is to keep it diverse throughout the day, and keep it rich in greens, seeds, and vegetables to be sure you're getting an ample amount of the other necessary nutrients. Also, it's important to stay committed to post-workout supplement, which helps train your body to optimize protein intake. If you do this (and I can attest from personal experience), you'll be able to synthesize an optimal diet with all of your athletic ventures, and feel good knowing you're doing the most you possibly can to keep the earth green and sustainable for future generations.
For further reading:
- How to Create a Grain-Free Plant-Based Diet
- Vegan on the Go: Finding Vegan Restaurants & Prepared Foods
- Natural Foot Health for Happy Feet
Andrew Potter is a writer based in Portland, OR. He advocates for plant-based diets, natural foot health, and climate awareness.