If you think athletes can’t get enough protein on non-meat or vegan diets, it’s time to think again. Plants provide plenty of protein to fuel your post-exercise recovery, and vegan products can match non-veggie products nutritionally in every way. And if you know which plant-based sources to adopt, you don’t have to sacrifice power, taste or texture either.
Here’s everything you need to know to ensure you’re fuelling your body for athletic success on an animal-free diet.
We all know eating well is essential for a healthy lifestyle. Getting the right nutrients affects everything from your mood and risk of injury and illness, to your weight and even how you look.
A good diet for any regular exerciser should be made up of a good balance of macronutrients: healthy carbohydrates to provide energy and fuel your training; fats to provide energy and support cell growth; and lean protein to help rebuild and recover.
When you’re asking your body to do things like 4-hour bike rides or 26.2 mile runs, getting enough protein becomes a key focus, to help your body’s cells and tissues – such as muscle – recover, repair and grow.
At Veloforte we know that, whether you’ve chosen to eliminate animal products from your diet for ethical or health reasons (or both), you don’t need to worry about getting your macros.
While we’ve been foraging for the perfect ingredients for our energy bars such as the vegan-friendly Pronto, Avanti, and all-new Zenzero bars, we’ve discovered plenty of vegan-friendly foods that pack exactly the nutritional punch you need. And they're delicious. Coincidence? Or maybe that’s nature trying to give us a clue about how best to fuel our bodies?
Can plant-based athletes still meet their protein needs?
As any vegan will tell you, one of the questions people ask is, ‘Where do you get your protein?’.
This is probably rooted in the idea that a vegan diet doesn't provide enough nutrients to fuel training or build muscle, but as any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you, it simply isn’t true.
When people think of protein sources they often think of lean meat, fish, dairy and eggs but there are plenty of plant-based options out there including soy, tofu and quinoa. As long as you’re eating a variety of healthy foods, getting enough protein on a plant-based diet is perfectly possible.
The British Nutrition Foundation confirms that most vegans get enough protein intake from their diet without the need for supplementation.
The British Dietetic Association say that a ‘well-planned vegan diet can support healthy living in people of all ages’, and in the US the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that the protein needs of athletes can be easily met by following a balanced vegan diet.
We’re pretty sure ultrarunner Scott Jurek, boxer David Haye and tennis player Venus Williams, who all follow a vegan diet, would agree.
Can my body recover on a plant-based diet?
Protein is important if you’re exercising regularly because it helps your body recover after training and is a building block for muscle repair and growth.
Protein is made up of 20 different organic compounds known as amino acids. While some of these amino acids are made by our bodies, there are nine – known as essential amino acids – the body doesn’t create. These have to be provided through diet.
Studies have shown that leucine – a branch chain amino acid (BCAA) found in protein-rich foods and not created by the body – is particularly important as it’s one of the key drivers of muscle protein synthesis. To put that in simpler terms, it helps you build muscle mass. Leucine is used by muscles as fuel and so is depleted after exercise.
While leucine is found in many animal-based proteins such as chicken, eggs, beef and whey it’s also found in a number of plant-based foods. Vegan foods high in leucine include soybeans, hemp seeds, peanuts, almonds, oats and soy and pea protein powders.
Vegan or non-vegan, to supercharge your recovery you should be aiming to eat some form of protein and carbohydrate – to replace the energy used by your body – within two hours of exercising and ideally within the first 45 minutes.
How does your body get protein from vegan diets?
The body gets protein from a vegan diet in the same way it does from a diet that includes animal products, by eating protein-rich foods. You may have heard a theory that you need to combine plant-based protein types to ensure you’re getting a ‘complete’ protein but luckily, that complicated concept has been disproved.
Complete vs. incomplete proteins: the latest thinking
All animal proteins contain each of the nine essential amino acids and are termed ‘complete protein’, some plant-based proteins are deficient in certain amino acids, leading these to be termed ‘incomplete’.
This labelling promotes the thinking that you’d need to combine different plant-based proteins in one sitting to ensure you got enough of each amino acid, but the reality is that as long as you’re eating a variety of different proteins on a regular basis, your body will be able to pull from this pool of amino acids as it needs.
There are also a number of plant-based proteins including quinoa, hemp seeds, soy, and chia seeds which contain all nine essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.
How much protein do I actually need to consume?
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the protein requirements of a normal adult are 0.75g per kilogram of body weight per day. If you’re regularly cycling, running, hitting the gym or working out, your protein needs go up to help promote muscle tissue growth and repair.
The general advice is that strength and endurance athletes should aim for 1.2-1.7g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily. So if you weigh in at around 11 stone or 70 kg, you should be eating 84-119g of protein a day.
High-protein vegan foods
If you’re looking to add more plant-based protein to your diet try these ten healthy vegan protein sources.
Pulses are edible seeds that grow in a pod. Beans, peas and lentils all fall under the heading of pulse and are great sources of protein. Try:
- Lentils – Puy, brown, green and red. 8-9g of protein per 100g.
- Chickpeas – and yep, whizzed up in humous counts. 7g of protein per 100g.
- Garden peas – great for a quick protein fix from the freezer. 7g of protein per 100g.
- Beans – including butter beans, cannellini, pinto, kidney, black-eyed, soya, borlotti and kidney beans. 7-10g of protein per 100g.
- Baked beans – the childhood favourite count but they can be high in sugar and salt. 5g of protein per 100g.
Every athlete’s favourite breakfast, oats and porridge are ideal for slow-release energy before a long ride or run and they’re also high in protein. 10g of protein per serving of 100g.
3. Natural vegan protein bars
Protein bars can ensure you meet all your protein and carbohydrate needs, particularly for those times when you need a protein-hit but aren’t quite ready for a meal, or you’re on the move and you need the convenience of a portable sack.
Look for bars using all-natural, high-quality ingredients that’ll taste much better than cheaper, processed 'muscle-bulking' protein products.
Also, watch this space because we’ve been busy here at Veloforte creating our very own vegan recovery products, ideal for when you’re looking for an easy hit of protein for post-training recovery. (More on this later this season)
4. Tofu and tempeh
Soy products such as tofu and tempeh, which are made from fermented soya beans and much tastier than that sounds, are both high in protein. Throw tofu (8g of protein per 100g) into a stir-fry or marinate it and add to salad. Tempeh (19g of protein per 100g) usually comes in patties and can be used just as you’d use tofu, or served on the side of any dish.
5. Nuts and nut butters
Nuts are a great portable snack and can be added to cereals, stir-frys, curries and pretty much any meal you can think of. Almost all nuts are good but peanuts (26g of protein per 100g), almonds (21g) and pistachios (20g) pack a particularly high protein punch.
If you’re a peanut butter fiend the good news is that nut butters are high in protein too, particularly peanut and almond. Look for the most natural options with no added salt, sugar or oils. 25g of protein per 100g.
6. Chia seeds
These tiny black seeds from Central and South America can be added to cereals, salads and meals as a topping. They’re also known for their ability to take on liquid and when soaked in water or plant milk form a kind of gel-like paste often used in puddings or as an egg replacer in baking. 16.5g of protein per 100g.
Predominantly used as a meat substitute, seitan is made from wheat gluten and water. It’s usually bought pre-shaped and flavoured, in the form of burgers or meat replacement products, although you can make your own too. Because the starch usually found in wheat products is washed away it’s low carb and – depending on what’s been added to shop-bought versions – low in fat. 75g of protein per 100g.
A favourite of health food bloggers everywhere, quinoa is a seed from South America and can be used as an alternative to grains such as rice and couscous. Quinoa is a good source of all nine essential amino acids. 4.4g of protein per 100g.
9. Brown and wild rice
Rice is a staple of most diets and, while you probably think of it as a carbohydrate it’s also a good source of protein. Brown rice has around 2.6g of protein per 100g. Wild rice, which is actually the seed of an aquatic grass has around 4g and contains lysine, an amino acid also found in soy products that some vegans can be deficient in.
10. Sprouted-grain bread
Keep an eye out for sprouted grain bread to add extra protein to your sarnies. The sprouting of the grains increases the amino acids making it higher in protein than your average sliced loaf. 11.6g protein per 100g.
Should I use protein supplements?
If you’re eating a healthy, varied vegan diet you should be able to get all your protein from food alongside all those lovely vitamins and minerals that real food provides.
But if you do want a quick fix, vegan-friendly protein powders – usually made from pea or hemp protein – have their place. Just make sure you check the ingredients. Some protein powders use added flavourings, sugar or sodium (mostly to improve their pretty awful taste) - so it’s not just their protein content you need to be aware of.