It’s a common misconception that people who regularly spend many hours doing intense, energy-draining workouts need a massive amount of animal protein to stay strong and healthy. Just look at the connection between the paleo and CrossFit communities! However, it is important to remember that not every body is the same. A diet high in animal protein may give some athletes the energy they need to keep going at the gym, but others will thrive just as well on a vegan diet.
To stay in top shape, athletes need a diet high in protein and carbohydrates. Your body used the carbohydrates to fuel your workout and the protein to retain muscle mass and aid the recovery process post-workout. Of course, this could mean eating a slice of toast before you hit the gym and a juicy steak afterward, but it doesn’t have to. Vegans can also sufficiently refuel their bodies pos-workout with plant-based proteins.
It’s also a common misperception that green vegetables contain no protein. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, the following vegetables have high protein content and are an excellent choice for a post-workout meal.
Protein content in vegetables (3 cups of each)
- Broccoli rabe – 15 grams
- Spinach – 15 grams
- Asparagus – 12 grams
- Bok Choy – 9 grams
- Swiss Chard – 9 grams
Making a spinach smoothie or stir-frying some broccoli rabe or asparagus with a healthy grain after a hard workout will keep athletes in great shape. There are also several beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains you can add to your post-workout meal for protein and to satisfy your appetite.
Protein content in beans, nuts, seeds and grains
- Tofu (1/2 block) – 22.5 grams
- Tempeh (1/2 block) 20 grams
- Lentils (1 cup, cooked) – 18 grams
- Edamame (1 cup) – 17 grams
- Oats (1/2 cup dry) – 13 grams
- Pumpkin Seeds (1/4 cup) – 8.5 grams
Compare this to how much protein is typically found in meat and animal products:
Protein in Animal Products
- ½ fillet of Salmon – 39 grams
- 1 cup of chicken meat – 35 grams
- 3 ounces of steak – 20 grams
- 1 ounce of cheddar cheese – 7 grams
- 1 hard boiled egg – 6 grams
Athletes who follow a diet heavy in animal products are likely to ingest more protein in a smaller portion of food. Vegan athletes simply need to eat a larger quantity of plants at each sitting. For example 3 cups of spinach and a ½ block of tofu contain about as much protein ½ of a salmon filet.
It’s also important to remember that in the case of protein, more is not always better. On average, a serious athlete needs about .6 times their body weight in grams of protein per day. This means a marathon runner weighing in at 150 pounds needs and average of 90 grams of protein per day to stay in competing shape. For a vegan athlete, a typical daily menu could look like this:
Tofu scramble with ½ block tofu and 1.5 cups of spinach – 30 grams protein
1 cup of lentils with 2 cups of broccoli rabe – 22 grams
¼ cup pumpkins seeds – 8.5 grams
½ block of tempeh with 1 cup of bok choy – 29 grams
Of course, most athletes will need more calories than this and should be adding other vegetables and whole grains into their meals, as well. An athlete who eats a lot of animal protein will easily go over 90 grams per day, in which case the excess protein is processed and excreted. Your body isn’t able to store excess protein in the body for later use.
It is completely possible for highly active and competitive athletes to survive and thrive on a plant-based diet. If you are an athlete and find that you feel better when you don’t eat animal products, experimenting with a vegan diet could be the answer!