Nutrition Advice

The Best Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians

Dr. Allison Brager
Dr. Allison Brager

Veganism has been a tremendously growing movement in recent years. Best-selling books & plant-based protein start-up companies, products, and nutrition courses have fueled its growth. Every kind of nutritional plan has its benefits and costs. Today, I am going to focus on veganism and vegetarianism, and how people who fall under these categories get their protein.The focus lies primarily on those who will leverage plants as a primary source of protein. Also, I will say that it is possible to be a competitive athlete and a vegan at the same time.

But it comes with the cost of being extremely disciplined and planning ahead when traveling or attending a party. From top fuel sources to breaking down supplemental sources of protein, here is a look at protein in veganism and vegetarianism.

Top Fuel and Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians

1. Eat bananas. First, a banana is an excellent source of carbohydrates. There are about 100 calories in the average banana lending to about 25 grams of daily carbohydrates. Bananas are an excellent means to reach daily macronutrient goals for clients invested in a nutritional program for muscle growth, overall athletic performance, and/or weight management.

The banana also contains numerous micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, including phenols that are important for overall physiological health. The banana also has anti-inflammatory properties. Blood panels of cyclists who consumed a banana relative to those who consumed water had clinically significant reductions in biomarkers indicative of pro-inflammatory stress response: cortisol, interleukin-10, and leukocytes (i.e., cells that fight infections).

Bananas also provide immediate sources of glucose as an energy source and act as a conduit by releasing insulin for catalyzing glucose uptake in skeletal muscle during training. Have a banana for breakfast and try dried bananas prior to training. A frozen banana as a post-dinner dessert is also sufficient as it will provide the necessary fuel to skeletal muscle at night and stymie hunger signals in the process.

2. Eat your greens. Diets that are nutrient-dense consisting of leafy greens promote refueling and healthy digestion. Foods simultaneously high in unhealthy fat and sugar actually improperly signal the release of glucose and insulin into the blood leading to pro-inflammatory stress response and crashes after training.

Further, there are no shortages of menu selections & recipes catering to vegans that include leafy greens in 2021. Society has seen a significant boom in juice bars, powders, and products helping society get their daily doses of greens. While it’s best to opt for actual leafy greens, a powder is hugely beneficial while traveling. I bring a bottle of “green” powder on my one of many annual work trips.

3. Eat your avocados. I will elaborate more on the health-promoting benefits of avocados in a future post but avocados are an absolutely excellent source of fats for vegans. Avocados are enriched with healthy fats that can help sustain energy and performance across a training session and mentally taxing work. Avocados are the main base for many vegan-friendly products. My personal favorite is an avocado-base bowl topped with granola, almond butter, and fresh fruit.

4. Eat a variety of nut butter. One of the biggest challenges vegans face is getting enough fat to fuel performance and protein to promote, build, and repair lean skeletal muscle. Fortunately, this is easier today with the availability of select nut butter.

A peanut butter & jelly sandwich is no longer the preferred method to fuel performance prior to, during, and from the recovery of training. Clients can get healthy fats and proteins from not just peanut butter. Almond butter is incredible (especially in that avocado-based bowl or shake!) as is a new personal favorite, sunflower butter.

If you’ve never put a scoop of sunflower butter in a bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon or on a few sliced apples, you are truly missing out. Plus, nut butter is an excellent source of vitamins & minerals clients have to pay extra attention to.

5. Eat your grains. Ultimately, an athlete cannot forget about fueling through grains at the end of the day. Rice remains an excellent fuel source for all clients. Whether as part of a vegan-friendly bowl or a sushi platter, the rice should and ought to be a staple for clients.

Pasta is also an excellent fuel source for clients but the lesser preferred due to gluten. Gluten sensitivities are often a common thread as to why someone chooses veganism in the first place. But if this is not the case, help yourself to a huge bowl of pumpkin ravioli in the spirit of fall while you are at it.

6. Be Berry. Berries are absolutely enriched with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory to sustain health and performance. There are no shortages of vitamins & minerals in strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and mulberries. Fortunately, vegan-friendly menus make it easy to get avocados, bananas, berries, nut butter, and grains in an overall tasty bowl.

7. Try a vegan doughnut. Most vegan-friendly doughnuts have an apple sauce base. It makes the doughnut sweeter and crispier when fried. Regardless, a vegan-friendly dessert will undoubtedly challenge your taste buds in a way you’ll never forget and won’t want to ever forget.

8. Don't be shy of fats & oils. Fats are one fuel reserve that vegans and vegetarians have a difficult time obtaining. Some great "superfood" fat sources include chia seeds - an excellent source of fuel, primarily fats. Add to an avocado-based bowl or shake. Olive, coconut, and sunflower oil - Use as the primary fat while sautéing vegetables. Coconut oil is also excellent when added to coffee mixed with a bit of coconut-based cream. Coconuts combined with coffee promote fat burning in the form of ketogenesis. Also, nothing beats starting your morning with a chia seed coconut pudding.

Table of Fuel and Protein Sources

Food         Fuel
 Soy       Protein
      Legumes         Protein & Carbs
      Pea-Based Powders      Protein
        Sunflower, Coconut, Olive Oils        Fats
        Berries & Bananas         Carbohydrates
     Avocados       Fats
            Nut Butters       Fats

 

Protein Supplements with emphasis on pea-based proteins

1. Supplement with pea-based proteins. Pea-based protein powders are an absolutely excellent source of protein supplementation for the vegan athlete. The body has an incredibly easy time digesting pea proteins over whey proteins and thus, may also be an option for those like myself who are lactose-sensitive.

Pea protein is also the primary protein base of many burger patties amenable to vegans in 2021. Peas also provide a plethora of vitamins & minerals that vegans have to be mindful of without relying on animal protein as a fuel source.

2. Don’t stop with peas. Eat a variety of legumes. Legumes are the primary fuel source for most vegans even prior to 2021. Legumes provide an excellent source of sustained energy to promote performance, maintain lean muscle, and stymie hunger. The famous ultra-marathoners of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico eat primarily a diet of black beans to fuel their ultra-runs and bodies.

Like peas, black beans are often the base of many vegan-friendly burgers and related products. Chickpeas and lentils are also excellent sources of fuel. In my opinion, nothing is better than a vegan-friendly Mediterranean platter to fuel and refuel after training. Lightly fried falafel, roasted red pepper hummus, and a lentil salad with a side of tabouleh, grape leaves, and pita bread can help any athlete or client sustain performance and maintain lean muscle mass any day of the week.

3. Don’t forget about soy. Soy is also a legume but obviously deserves its own special place when discussing a vegan diet. Soy is indeed an overall excellent source of fuel for the everyday vegan athlete. Soy was one of the first legumes to attract vegans and it still remains today. There are endless soy-based products in today’s food industry.

Soy “blocks,” soy milk, soy burgers, soy-based cheese, and even bacon-flavored soy. I discovered the curiosities of bacon-flavored soy while on a canoeing trip with some colleagues who were Seventh Day Adventists years ago. It was a smoky flavor profile that I will never forget.

Conclusion

Obviously, these are not the only foods that can help sustain health and performance for clients opting for plant-based proteins. The bottom line is that fats and proteins are difficult to acquire but not impossible.

The Author

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Brager is a subject matter expert in behavioral genetics, sleep, and biological rhythms research. She is passionate about discovering new factors that promote resiliency in extreme environments. She also serves on the NCAA task force for mental health and sleep, contributing to the first edition of the NCAA student-athlete mental health handbook. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the 'dumb jock' and serves as a performance manual for functional athletes. Outside of the laboratory, Allison was a two-time CrossFit Games (team) athlete, a two-time CrossFit Regionals (individual) athlete, and a four-year varsity NCAA Division I athlete in track and field. Dr. Brager has an Sc.B. in Psychology from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Physiology from Kent State University.