If there’s one question vegetarians or vegans get asked far too often, it’s “But where do you get your protein?” And if the eater in question is also into fitness, you can bet he or she gets asked this question even more frequently. Working out while eating a vegetarian or vegan diet can seem daunting, but it’s totally doable (and yes, you can even get enough protein).
Why is everyone so obsessed with protein?
When you exercise, whether you’re lifting weights or going for a run, you create tiny microscopic tears in your muscles. During recovery, those tears are healed and the muscle is strengthened. That recovery process is fueled by protein, so without enough, your muscles have a hard time recovering and becoming stronger after every workout. Here’s the good news: You can get enough protein to fuel your muscles without eating meat.
The key is to focus on getting enough protein from a variety of sources. Your body produces some amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), but there are nine amino acids that your body can’t produce. These are called essential amino acids and you need to get them through food. Getting all the essential amino acids is important for keeping your muscles healthy and for just about every other metabolic process in your body.
What should I eat?
Meat and animal products (like fish, poultry, beef, pork, eggs, dairy, and seafood) generally contain a good mix of the essential amino acids, but not all vegetarian protein sources do. However, every food contains different amino acids, so if you don’t eat animal products (i.e., you’re vegan), simply eating a wide variety of foods that contain plant protein throughout the day will provide a range of the essential amino acids. To get your daily dose, especially if you’re vegan and don’t eat dairy and eggs, you’ll want to include foods from each of the following categories every day:
- Pulses (beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes)
- Whole grains (whole-wheat breads/cereals, brown rice, quinoa, barley, couscous, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, cashews, flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
- Soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, etc.)
Eating a variety of plant-based protein sources throughout the day could look like these simple (and delicious) ideas:
- Black beans and brown rice in a salad
- Chia seeds and soymilk in a smoothie
- Tofu stir fry over quinoa
- Avocado and Lentil Tacos in whole-grain tortillas
- Mango Couscous with Chickpeas and Avocado
- Black Bean Quinoa Chili
If you’re still curious about getting enough protein to fuel your workout from plant-based sources, check out this earlier blog about plant vs. animal protein sources. But protein isn’t the only thing to consider when working out on a plant-based diet.
Should I include any other foods in my diet?
You’ll also want to load up on anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, veggies and omega-3 fatty acid-rich nuts and seeds. When you feel sore after a tough workout, that’s a result of your body’s inflammatory response to those microscopic muscle tears. Anti-inflammatory foods reduce that inflammatory response, which could help reduce muscle soreness. Fruits and veggies are chock full of antioxidants that rid your body of the toxins that contribute to inflammation. Several studies show that omega-3s are effective for reducing the post-workout soreness that results from inflammation, and you don’t have to rely solely on fish for those omega-3s. Walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds are all good plant-based sources of omega-3s. Algal oil is a type of oil made from algae that is becoming more popular in cooking and is a good source of both EPA and DHA, two of the most healthful omega-3s that are also found in fish.
One final thought
Our vegetarian and vegan clients often complain that they’re hungry on days when they work out more intensely or for a longer amount of time, but don’t want to load up on unnecessary calories. The trick to staying full is to choose high-volume, nutrient-dense foods. Plant-based sources of protein like beans and whole grains are also high in fiber, which helps keep you fuller longer. Set yourself up for a filling meal by creating a base of fiber- and protein-rich foods, then add lots of veggies for satisfying volume and anti-inflammatory goodness. With a balanced meal, you’ll get enough protein to support muscle recovery and growth and you’ll be satisfied by the volume and filling fiber. Try these filling and nutrient-packed plant-based recipes:
- One Pot Black Bean Quinoa Chili with Avocados (protein from black beans and quinoa, plus anti-inflammatory avocado, tomatoes and spices)
- Apple, Flax and Pomegranate Smoothie (flax seeds bring protein and fiber and anti-inflammatory omega-3s (ALAs), Greek yogurt packs in more protein, and fruit has anti-inflammatory properties)
- Vegan Protein-Packed Quinoa Veggie Stir Fry (complete protein from the quinoa and tofu, plus anti-inflammatory and filling veggies)