Sunday, January 21, 2018

Plant-Based Protein Sources

Recently, two things happened that spawned this blog topic:

1) One of my ultra-fit friends who is training for an Ironman asked me about how she could boost her protein intake from plant foods.  


2) I watched an amazing presentation by Dr. Garth Davis (author of the book Proteinaholic which is definitely my next read) on vegan diets & protein intake.

The response to my friend's protein question has to be prefaced with this golden nugget:  the first nutrition priority for endurance athletes is getting adequate calories.  If you boost protein without consuming enough overall calories to support your training, it won't help much.  Spreading calories as evenly as possible throughout the day is usually the best way to get them all in, breakfast - snack - lunch - snack - dinner - snack or snack - breakfast - snack - lunch - snack - dinner, depending on your schedule.  If you were aiming for 3000 calories/day, this would equate to about 750 calories/meal and 250 calories per snack.  Secondly, out of the three macronutrients in foods (carbs, fat, & protein), the one that gives us energy and we need to eat the most of as endurance athletes is carbohydrates.  Skimping on carbs will leave you feeling tired and your muscles without any get up and go (because they are depleted of their glycogen stores).  Good carbohydrate sources are:  fruit, potatoes & sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beans, and whole grains (quinoa, oatmeal, barley, bulgur, millet, brown rice, etc).  Whole wheat bread can also be a good carb source - Ezekiel is the brand I've been buying and they also make tortillas and pitas. 

OK, so on to the protein issue at hand.  Typically needs for an endurance athlete are 1.2 g/kg.  So for someone like me at ~125 lbs, that is 125 / 2.2 = 56.8 kg * 1.2 = 68 g/day.  That is much lower than a lot of people *think* they need to eat and are so worried about getting.  If I spread that out evenly throughout the day it would be 17 grams per meal and 5-6 grams per snack, pretty easily obtainable numbers.   Remember that the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range of 10% of total calories from protein meets the needs for ~98% of the population.  Now, protein sources.  Here are some excellent ideas for getting more plant-based protein:

*Beans - Beans are an incredibly healthy food and you should aim to eat three 1/2-cup servings daily.  It is worth trying as many types as possible to find out which ones you like the most.  Any type of bean is good and some you may not have considered are lentils, split peas, peas, chick peas (these can be roasted in the oven for a salty/crunchy snack), edamame, and hummus.  You could also try disguising beans by making something like black bean brownies!  Then you feel like you are eating a yummy brownie but the starch in it is coming from beans rather than flour and it is higher in protein.  I've tried a few recipes that I've found online.  Wish I could give you one that's great but never wrote any down; some are definitely better than others. 
*Nuts - In a nutshell, these provide healthy fat, fiber, and protein.  Include a wide variety of nuts in your diet and enjoy the use of nut butters!  Cashew butter and almond butter can make things more exciting if you are tired of the same ol same ol peanut butter.  Nuts also increase longevity - hip hip hooray!

*Seeds - Reap what you sow by eating these plain as snacks, sprinkled onto salads or other main dishes, in a home-made trail mix, or buy the blended versions (sunflower seed butter) which you could then spread on whole wheat bread and/or use in a sandwich. 

*Whole grains - Whole grains are a really really good source of healthy complex carbs, fiber, and protein.  Quinoa is a buzz word among whole grains b/c it is high in protein - this is b/c it is technically a seed not a whole grain but whatever, it's healthy.  Go to a health foods store and hit up the bulk foods section - you will see tons of whole grains that maybe you have never tried before - millet, bulgur, teff, wheat berries, barley, spelt, etc.  These can be eaten as a side dish or put into any soup or stew.  You can also make a hearty breakfast out of them, instead of using oats, for ex - qunioa with cinnamon, walnuts, and chopped apples, mmm.  

*Vegetables - Leafy greens are about 30% protein!!!  Eating leafy greens daily is super important.  This could be in the form of a salad, cooked greens, mixed into soups/stews, or in a green smoothie.  All vegetables have a good amount of protein in them, so make sure to up your ante on veggies.  If you don't like veggies start by trying 1 new thing per week until you gradually find things you like and can expand your palate. 

*Tofu - This is protein packed.  You can buy the firm or extra firm and use in stir-fries and other main dishes.  You can use the silken tofu which is a lot softer in sauces and smoothies.  Again, just like with the black bean brownies you can find yummy recipes, like vegan cheesecake and pumpkin pie, that use silken tofu if you want to disguise it!

*Seitan - Seitan is gluten, which is the protein portion of wheat.  You can make your own seitan which is a lengthy process or you can purchase it pre-made at health food stores.  Seitan has a very chewy texture similar to turkey.  Use it in place of meat in recipes.

*Tempeh - Tempeh is a fermented soy bean pressed into strips.  These strips have a much denser texture than tofu.  You can purchase the strips pre-flavored at a health food store or a regular grocery store.  I used to buy the bacon-flavored tempeh strips, cook them in a skillet, and then use them instead of bacon to make a BLT, which I called a TLT!

*Faux Meats - These are things like fake chicken strips (Gardein) and fake hamburgers (Beyond Meat) that are easily replaceable in your diet for the regular version of the food.  They are not my top go-to protein source b/c they tend to be highly processed. I feel that eating these things 1-3x/week constitutes moderation. 

*Vegan Protein Powders - These are typically made from soy, rice, pea, hemp, or other vegetable proteins.  Just like with the faux meats they are processed so they are not my #1 recommendation.  However, they are convenient and easily added to non-dairy milk or smoothies if you are just not able to get enough protein or are in a rush to get something in quick after a workout. 

Lastly, keep in mind that ALL FOODS contain amino acids, which are the building blocks to protein.  This essentially ensures that as long as you consume adequate calories you will consume adequate protein.  Consider when I did the fruitarian diet...fruit is about 10% protein on average.  If I was eating 3000 calories/day of straight fruit, that means 300 of those calories were coming from protein. Since there are 4 calories per gram of protein that means I was consuming 75 grams/day, which is greater than the 68 g/day that I gave you in the example calculation above.  


  1. Thanks Tara, we do all of this.sure more than myself. It's all good.

  2. Great info as always Tara! Sharing