When you tell someone that you’re vegan, you’ll most likely be asked, “Where do you get your protein?” You’ll hear it a lot, actually. In their defense, most people really just don’t know because they are conditioned to think that meat = protein, and that plants do not. First things first, protein is not a food, it’s a nutrient. Meaning, there’s not only one definable food source of protein, like meat, just as dairy-based milk isn’t the only source of calcium. Those attitudes about our sources of nutrition are a clear reflection of the very basic, and biased, education we’ve been taught about nutrition and our food.
Protein is made up of 20 amino acids that form by linking together. We can naturally produce 11 amino acids from chemicals already in our body, and these are called non-essential amino acids. The remaining 9 amino acids must be consumed in the foods we eat, and are called essential amino acids.
General guidelines suggest we consume 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram we weigh (approximately 0.36 grams of protein per pound).
Athletes, however, will usually require more protein to match the needs of your muscles due to activity, and to aid in recovery. As an athlete, you will probably need more protein than someone who isn’t active because your lifestyle requires more from your muscles through training and recovery. Aim to consume approximately 1.3 – 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram you weigh.
High vegan protein foods are:
Unsweetened Organic Soy Milk*
* food options that have all 9 essential amino acids
That is a great list of healthy proteins, and has excellent choices for vegan athletes! Some don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, and that’s OK. Just eat a variety of these foods each day (and weekly) and your body will readily absorb and utilize all the essential amino acids they contain.
Some great combinations of foods that provide all 9 amino acids are:
beans and brown rice
peanut butter on whole grain bread
oatmeal with sliced almonds
pasta and green peas
lentils and nuts or seeds
chickpea “tuna” sandwiches on whole grain bread
Building (and Maintaining) Muscle
It’s important to realize that if you want to build muscle mass, you may need to eat more! The vegan diet will supply you with all the nutrients and protein your muscles need to grow, but since plant based whole foods are typically lower in calories, you may need to eat more to get enough caloric intake to build mass. Some new vegans say they are always hungry or lack energy, but that usually is directly due to them simply not eating enough. Our bodies thrive on plant based whole foods, so eat up!
Fuel your body on a regular schedule, approximately every 3-4 hours. This will allow your body to know that food is coming on a consistent basis, and it will therefore be less likely to store your food as fat. If you don’t eat regularly or skip meals a lot, your body will go into survival mode, and store the calories it gets.
Eat 2-3 hours before activity. This will allow you to eat a well balanced, energy boosting meal, while giving your body the time needed to digest enough and be ready for activity without feeling sluggish, full, or having stomach cramping.
70% of calories from carbohydrates 20% coming from protein 10% coming from fats
While the macronutrient breakdown for a bodybuilder, or someone focused specifically on building muscle, might be:
50% of calories from carbohydrates 30% coming from protein 20% coming from fats
Every person is different though, so trial and error is an expected part of the process for all athletes, not just vegans.
I’ve been a competitive athlete for over 20 years, and in that time, I’ve searched for the most effective ways to maximize my performance. I tried countless pre-training foods, hoping to find the perfect meal that would give me tons of energy. It wasn’t until I became vegan that I finally found the foods that provide me with lots of energy and help boost my performance.
What to Eat Before Activity
Keep your pre-workout meals simple and unprocessed. Your body will thrive best on plant based whole foods. Stay away from packaged, processed items, white breads and pastas, refined sugars, and salty or fried foods. Make sure to choose foods that your body (and performance) will thrive on, such as raw vegetables and fruits (cucumbers, mushrooms, spinach, bananas, dates, watermelon, grapes, and oranges), quinoa, beans, lentils, organic tofu or tempeh, and hydrated chia seeds.
Some of my common go-to foods (in different combinations) before training are beans, chickpeas, lentils, raw mushrooms, raw cucumbers, raw spinach, organic tofu or tempeh, brown rice, quinoa, steamed veggies, hummus, and a small amount of avocado.
Staying hydrated is also important for performance, recovery, and overall health, so make drinking water a priority.
The Role of Proper Recovery
The 30-60 minutes after activity is a critical window of time when you’re body is seeking the proper nutrients to begin the muscle repair process. Refuel with foods that are a 4:1 ratio, which is 4 grams of carbohydrates for every 1 gram of protein. Foods that are easy and quick to digest are key during this short window of time, and include tofu, smoothies, protein shakes, beans, lentils, and fruits.
Replenish lost electrolytes with alkaline foods to counter the acidic environment your body experiences after activity. Some great alkaline foods are leafy greens, kale, spinach, broccoli, peas, beets, lemons, watermelon, banana, pear, sweet potato, quinoa, tofu, chlorella, flax seed oil, and brown rice or wild rice.
Ensure You’re Getting Essential Minerals and Vitamins
When it comes down to it, when you feel your best you can truly get the best results for your efforts. Prioritizing your overall health is key because you’ll have the energy and focus needed to do what it takes reach your athletic goals and build your strong body. Below are just a few nutrients to be aware of.
Vegan or not, iron is important for all athletes because intense activity strips the body of small amounts of iron. Without proper iron in your diet, you can experience low energy and a general lethargic feeling.
There are two types of iron: heme (animal-based) and non-heme (plant-based). Non-heme iron may be absorbed at a lower rate, so just eat iron-rich foods along with foods that contain Vitamin C, and this will boost your ability to absorb iron. Coffee and tea can inhibit your ability to absorb iron, so try to avoid consuming these within an hour (before or after) of eating.
The approximate RDI intake of iron for active vegans is 18-33mg for women, and 11-14mg for men.
Some great sources of iron are dark leafy greens, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, lentils, beans, pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, grains, molasses, tomato sauce, broccoli, and fortified cereals.
When we have an intense training session, we lose calcium through our sweat. Calcium is not only required for strong bones, but also needed for muscle contraction. Without it, we can experience muscle cramping.
The general recommended daily intake of calcium is 1000mg – 1300mg.
Some great sources of calcium are spinach, broccoli, bok choy, kale, almonds, edamame, flax seeds, tofu, fortified non-dairy milks, and kidney beans
Another mineral that’s lost when we sweat, potassium is responsible for automatic muscle contractions and regulating overall body water. It’s also classified as an electrolyte, and is something that needs to be replenished after activity.
The general guideline suggests approximately 4.7gram each day.
Some great sources of potassium are bananas, oranges, dried apricots, potatoes, kale, and avocados.
Zinc plays a role in muscle growth and repair, energy production, and keeping the immune system strong. Athletes should ensure they are getting zinc in their diet because it helps repair the micro tears in muscles after strenuous activity.
According to Jack Norris, RD, the recommended intake of Zinc is 11mg for men and 8mg for women.
Some great sources of Zinc are tofu, beans, chickpeas, lentils, beets, peanuts, and oatmeal.
Getting enough vitamin B12 is a concern for vegans and non-vegans alike, especially for those 50 years and older. If you’re deficient, you can experience tiredness, weakness, easy bruising, nervous system damage, or anemia. The general daily recommended intake of B12 for adults is 2.4 micrograms. There are excellent sources of B12 for vegans, like fortified cereals, fortified non-dairy milks, Nutritional Yeast (Bragg’s Nutritional Yeast is my favourite), and of course, supplements are a great reliable, convenient option.
Did you know? B12 is found in microorganisms, primarily bacteria, in water or soil. The only reason animals are a “source of B12” is because they are eating fortified food and/or soil containing these microorganisms. So, eating meat is not the only “natural” way to obtain B12, as some people will claim. Those who eat meat are supplementing their B12 too; they just choose to do so via the animal that has ingested it first.
I advocate for eating a high carbohydrate, low fat, and moderate protein diet. It’s essential that we eat some fats, and the healthiest sources are avocado, nuts, flax seeds, and almond/peanut butter.
The Plant Powered Difference
I consider myself an example of how being vegan improves performance. Over my 20+ years as a competitive athlete, from gymnastics to travel hockey to martial arts, I can compare and gauge the difference between my pre-vegan and vegan performances. I have more energy now than I did 10 years ago, my injuries heal faster, and as a female training with younger guys at my dojo, I not only keep up, but many times I can keep going and exceed their energy levels. It’s a great bonus to choosing a compassionate lifestyle!
I recommend visiting Vegan Protein Guide right here on Your Daily Vegan for an in-depth, thorough resource on everything you need to know about how to get quality protein from plants. Then, be sure to check out the other articles in the vegan athlete series: