Want to eat less meat? Join the crowd. While chicken and the all-American hamburger remain go-to staples in many diets, plant-based proteins are skyrocketing in popularity as demand surges. This protein boon now gives you more options than ever to get enough of this all-too-important macronutrient.
As an athlete, chances are you’re concerned about getting enough protein—and that’s a good thing since it is a vital macronutrient for muscle-building and recovery, not to mention maintaining strong bones and connective tissues. And, despite what you may think, research shows that as long as you are getting enough total protein, getting the majority of it from plants is not a concern when it comes to improving lean body mass and increasing muscular strength in response to training.
Getting more protein from plant sources can also be a recipe for longevity. A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found replacing some animal proteins, such as meat and eggs, with plant-based proteins in the diet may reduce the risk for premature death overall and death from cardiovascular disease. For every 3% of a person’s daily calorie intake that hailed from plant protein instead of animal protein there was a drop in a person’s risk of premature death by 10%, the results showed. Similarly, an analysis of data from more than 30 studies published in The BMJ linked higher protein intake overall and plant protein specifically to lower all-cause mortality risks. Notice that going full-blown plant-only was not required to boost lifespan in these investigations which is a good thing since the majority of athletes aren’t ready to transform into veganism.
These results make sense when you consider whole food plant-based proteins provide nutritional perks like dietary fiber and various antioxidants not found in animal-based sources. Eating more plants like legumes can also be a method for bolstering the microbiome, which plays a role in digestive, brain and immune health. And it can be a way to trim some of the saturated fat from your diet, which should still be considered a heart-healthy move.
So even if you aren’t slicing meat away from your diet, these plant-based proteins can be an excellent way support your athletic endeavors. What’s more, they can easily be added to the foods you are already eating.
Add crunch to your salad with soy nuts
Soy nuts aren’t nuts but instead are crunchy mature soybeans that have been soaked in water, drained, and baked or roasted. So not to be confused with the edamame you get at sushi restaurants.
Not only does each 1/4 cup serving of the crunchy morsels supply 10 grams of complete protein, meaning they contain a full arsenal of all the necessary amino acids, soy nuts are also a source of a wide range of micronutrients including magnesium, phosphorus and calcium. Since they are less fat dense than nuts like almonds and cashews, soy nuts provide more protein for fewer calories, especially if they have been dry-roasted.. You can find them at most bulk food stores.
Beyond a much healthier salad crunch than croutons, soy nuts can be used in trail mix or enjoyed as a straight-up high-protein snack.
Use freekeh in any grain-based dish
Quinoa isn’t the only grain with protein prowess. Popular in Middle Eastern cooking, freekeh is a form of wheat that’s harvested while still green or ‘young’ then roasted, dried and rubbed resulting in a whole grain with a habit-forming nutty, smoky flavor. Serving for serving, it has about twice as much protein and fiber as quinoa – about 5 grams of each in a 1/4 cup dry serving size. The duo of carbs and protein in freekeh makes the ancient grain a great addition to a post-exercise meal to kickstart muscle recovery. As a bonus, freekeh supplies a dose of lutein and zeaxanthin, the duo of antioxidants that play a role in boosting eye health and improving brain function.
One caveat: Since freekeh is in the wheat family those who need to follow a gluten-free diet including people with celiac disease can’t include the grain in their diets.
Use cooked freekeh as a stand-alone side dish or make it the backbone of salads, soups, grain bowls, and veggie burgers. It’s also a great stand-in for rice in burritos.
While freekeh may not be as prevalent as rice, couscous or quinoa at supermarkets, you can generally find it at natural food stores, Middle Eastern grocers, or online at Bob’s Red Mill.
Blend pea protein into your post-workout smoothie
Whey certainly does not rule the roost when it comes to muscle-making protein powder. The rising tide of plant-only protein powders coincides with the increasing popularity of plant-based eating with pea protein emerging as the most popular option. And it’s a solid option for protein-hungry athletes.
In a double-blind randomized controlled study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, participants enrolled in a 12-week resistance-training program were given either 25 grams of pea protein, 25 grams of whey protein, or a placebo. The results showed a significantly greater effect on muscle thickness in the pea protein group compared to the placebo group, with no clinical difference in strength between the pea and whey treatment. Not surprising when you consider the outcome of this report comparing various plant-based protein isolates which found that pea protein, which is made from split green or yellow peas and not the lower protein Green Giant variety, has the highest essential amino acid content as a percentage of total protein, nearly rivaling whey protein in that regard.
With so many options on the market, don’t be afraid to judge by taste and texture. And don’t forget that you can use pea protein powder in more ways than smoothies. Stir into oatmeal for a boost of much-needed breakfast protein, blend an unflavored powder into dips or sneak it into pancakes and baked goods in replace of some of the flour.
Dish up chickpea noodles on pasta night
Nearly every athlete loves pasta. And now you can make your favorite noodle shape work harder for your muscles by embracing those made from legumes instead of wheat flour. A 2-ounce serving of chickpea-based pasta supplies about 13 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber – that is twice as much protein and three times as much fiber as regular pasta. This, in turn, can set you up for fewer post-meal hunger pangs and improved blood sugar levels so you feel less sluggish post pasta feast. Also, you get more of the vital micronutrients like magnesium, iron and potassium found in beans and lentils. Talk about a nutritional upgrade. This 2021 systemic review showed that higher and more frequent intakes of pulses, which includes chickpeas, is associated with improved blood lipid and blood pressure numbers, less inflammation and even healthier body composition.
They’re not only more nutritious and gluten-free—they’re also increasingly delicious with textures that won’t leave an Italian grandma cringing. But there are a couple of important things to keep in mind when preparing any legume-based pasta. Most notably, they can go from perfectly al dente to soggy in a matter of moments, so taste often close to the recommended cooking time. The noodles also foam like crazy in boiling water, so skim it off as needed with a spoon. Unlike wheat-based noodles, the legume variety should be rinsed with cold water after draining. One of the best brands out there is Chickapea.
Stir-fry some seitan
Seitan (pronounced SAY-tan) is a chewy meat alternative produced from high-protein vital wheat gluten, which is made from wheat flour. It’s been used in Asian cooking for a lot longer than bleeding plant burgers have been around.
Certainly, if you’re gluten-free, you should not eat it as it is literally made from it. But if you aren’t gluten-averse it’s a surprisingly great plant-based option for those that don’t have an appetite for the more processed mock meats hitting the market. Not only is it very high in protein – 18 grams in each 2-ounce serving – as well as low in fat, it has a nice, mild taste and a very delicious beef-like chewy texture that tofu can’t achieve.
You can find seitan at most health food and some grocery stores (or online), where you can purchase plain or seasoned options that are cut into chunks or ground. Since it’s already cooked, you can give it a little sear in a pan to brown and rewarm it and then use in stir-fries, tacos, stews, sandwiches, pasta sauce, salads and noodle bowls. It absorbs flavors well, so any marinades or sauces used for meats can also be applied to seitan.
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