When you think of toning up, a tofu scramble might not come to mind as the buff breakfast of choice. Well, it’s time to reconsider the power of plants. They’re an excellent source of hunger-curbing protein that’s the perfect fuel to sculpt those quads and biceps. “Vegan athletes don’t actually have very different protein needs than athletes who include meat in their diets,” explains Ginger, R.D.N., a nutritionist from Seattle. “There are a lot of protein sources equivalent to meat that have the added benefits of different vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.” Those nutritional extras might partially explain why vegans are believed to live longer and experience lower rates of chronic diseases.
Although the USDA recommends that a 150-pound woman consume 54 grams of protein daily, some experts believe we’re too obsessed with protein and that we will get more than enough nutrients by eating a varied vegan diet. (That’s a position supported by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.) “If you’re eating healthy whole foods in a plant-based diet, it’s impossible not to get enough protein,” says Julieanna, R.D., a vegan dietitian from Los Angeles. Her argument: The world’s largest muscled animals, such as elephants, gorillas and hippos, eat mostly plants. She also points out that if you’re working out hard, you’ll likely eat more calories overall, which will end up boosting your protein consumption anyway.
Just like meat-eating exercisers, what and when you eat your vegan vittles can help you maximize your body’s performance. Aim for small, frequent meals throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels steady and eat a variety of protein sources, says Sheth, R.D.N., a Los Angeles-based dietician who specializes in vegetarian nutrition. “You want a combination of protein, healthy fats, and carbs to give you the right amount of energy to push through a workout,” says Sheth, who’s also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her pre-gym favorites include a peanut butter and banana sandwich or oatmeal with soy milk and fruit. After your last squat, she recommends a meal containing 15 to 20 grams of protein within an hour to help your muscles recover. Good options include a bean burrito or lentil soup. You can always stash a few vegan protein bars in your bag.
Here are the experts’ top food choices to help you stay pumped:
Smoothies made with protein powders are easy to drink and carry on the go. Plus, protein powders are remarkably versatile because they can be mixed with everything from nut butters, soy yogurt, or even that quarter-bag of leftover frozen strawberries at the back of your freezer. “Vegan protein powders include hemp, pea, rice, or soy,” says Hultin. “This can be a convenient way to get a concentrated source of protein, and some have 20 or more grams per serving.” Skip powders made from whey and casein, both of which are derived from cow’s milk.
Soy is an excellent source of vegan nutrition because it’s higher in protein and fat while lower in carbs than other legumes, says Hultin. Soybeans (the base of tofu) are also bursting with antioxidants called isoflavones that research shows are linked to reduced heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain forms of cancer. “That combo could also boost your athletic performance,” she says. Try stir-frying your tofu with veggies and wrapping it inside a whole-grain tortilla, says Sheth. A half-cup of tofu has 10 grams of protein. This vegan mac and cheese makes a great comfort food meal:
Beans just might be the perfect food. Not only are they filling and tasty, they’re bursting with fiber and important phytonutrients, which tame disease-causing inflammation and oxidation, says Hever. Studies also show that beans reduce bad cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Plus, at 15 grams of protein per cup, beans are good workout fuel. “When athletes eat beans and lentils, they get complex carbohydrates in addition to protein for a sustainable, slow-burning energy boost,” adds Hultin. Make a Sunday pot of black bean soup or sprinkle some chickpeas on your salad.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts are highly portable and a great choice to eat after a workout, says Hever, who recommends noshing on one to two ounces daily. “They also have essential fatty acids, which help with inflammation, support muscle recovery, and are good for weight management,” she says. Those amazing omega-3s can also power your athletic performance, adds Hultin. She suggests walnuts, chia, hemp, and flax seeds to get the most omega-3 fats. As for protein, almonds and cashews have about six grams per serving, and peanut butter has eight grams. Spread some nut butter on your toast or sprinkle some peanut butter powder on your berries.