Meeting Your Protein Needs as a Vegan Athlete – and a quick socca recipe

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Over the years as I increased my athletic activity load and gradually began eating in a way that was more vegetable and plant heavy and included even less animal protein than before, I was curiously never asked the question that so often comes up when one stops eating meat. No one ever asked me Where do you get your protein?, the stereotypical question that so often comes up about plant-based diets. Knowing the basics of nutrition, and always adding a small protein source to my meals, I wasn’t at all worried about not getting enough. And interestingly, amongst many of the athletic women in my community who choose predominately vegan meals, it’s common that no one else is worried about protein either, with many active individuals like myself commonly eating plenty of whole grains and plant-heavy dishes that seem incredibly nutrient dense–yet they’re still left wondering over time why their health is in decline. I know I’ve for sure been in this scenario.

It wasn’t until I saw a nutritionist near the beginning of graduate school that I began to realize I too fell into dietary imbalance. My nutritionist mentor pointed out, You’re REALLY active. And for your activity level and because you tend to avoid meat, you need A LOT more protein. For quite a few months before I learned the particulars of what protein’s amino acids are doing in the body, and the higher needs of plant-based athletes, I really struggled with her suggestions to increase my intake.

Now before we get into the particulars, I’ll add a caveat that I do tend to eat some animal protein, usually in the form of monthly-ish wild-caught fish, a handful of eggs per month, and every once in a while, a bit of other meat. This blog post is not about the why’s of how I eat, or to encourage or discourage anyone from adopting a plant-based or vegan diet, it’s simply to support what the nutritional science currently knows about protein and our needs based on activity level and dietary choices.

 

As we all learned in grade school science, protein is made up of amino acids. Certain amino acids are essential to eat because the body, though incredibly wise, cannot make them out of other amino acids, as it otherwise can do.

Protein at its most basic understanding, builds muscle. We all learned that in elementary school and the idea is popularized in the cross-fit / weightlifting community. Beyond that role, amino acids from protein are used for bone health, enzyme formation to catalyze and carry out essential metabolic reactions, energy creation, to bind together skin and tendons, blood vessels, in the digestive system, and more. Nearly every one of the body’s 100 trillion or so cells is composed of various proteins, so our bodies require amino acids to function optimally. We don’t necessarily need “a lot” of protein in the diet, but we do need enough to meet our individual body’s needs.

 

Where vegetarian and vegans differ from meat-eating individuals is that they actually require a bit more protein as a percentage of body weight. Athletes of all types who train more than about 30 minutes 3x / week require more too than the non-athletic community. And vegetarian and vegan athletes require just a bit more. So compared to their meat-eating counterparts, a vegan marathon or ultrarunner for example, needs quite a bit more protein than an individual who fuels with meat, and that protein can be more difficult to come by—especially when or if further dietary limitations come into play, such as when soy, legume, or nut allergies also limit food choices.

 

When I work with individuals, I don’t tend to give amounts or percentages of protein because we all eat food and food contains many different macro and micronutrients. In fact, even a plate of plain vegetables can offer a little boost of protein. I also never encourage anyone to get caught up in tracking meals rigidly to reach a certain number of either calories or nutrient values. That practice breeds its own problems.

But for the sake of being more precise, our current research suggests that vegan athletes need from 1.3-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight in the diet per day (1, 2, 3), with that intake being closer to the high end when there is a lot of high intensity or big-mileage pursuits in the regular training plan. For a 130-ish pound female athlete, that’s roughly 120 grams of protein per day, which is more easily achieved with two servings of fish or meat in the meal plan for a day, but maybe not so much with beans, quinoa, and lots of fresh vegetables. In other words, active vegan athletes training for challenging events are going to have to work to get the necessary protein in to meet the body’s needs and repair itself adequately. That’s where and why a good-quality protein powder might come in handy, as well as adding in little extras throughout the day and diet to help.

One other thing to note is that our currently data suggest that a good amount of protein per meal is from 20 to 30 grams, and this is enough to help the body begin to recover post-exercise and throughout the day. More than 30 grams in a single meal is not necessarily beneficial, i.e. the body metabolizes protein best when it’s eaten throughout the day in meals that contain that 20-30 gram amount. Weightlifters slamming 50+ grams post-workout aren’t necessarily doing their body any favors. And neither is the person that eats one large meal that contains a burger and bacon, or a surf and turf steak and seafood meal, or a meat-lovers pizza.

 

Beyond just needing more protein if you’re a vegan athlete, those with active inflammation, such as when healing from an injury, getting over a long illness, or dealing with an autoimmune disorder likely need more protein as well, since more (of all nutrients) are going to be used in the body’s process to repair itself.

 

For a lot of individuals who know or suspect their protein intake is low for their needs, I generally suggest making small changes that start to add up. Adding more nuts and seeds of all types to morning porridge, swapping the amounts of beans and rice for dinner (more beans / less rice), rotating in tofu and tempeh more often, and adding in chickpea or other bean flours where previously grain-based flour was used are examples I often employ in my own meal patterns.

When choosing to eat whole grains, there are also certain choices that are higher in protein than others, such as wild rice (6.6g / cup), spelt berries (6.6g / cup), quinoa (6.4g / cup), amaranth (6.4g / cup), buckwheat (6g / cup), oats (5.9g / cup), and barley (5.6g / cup) (4).

Another idea is to start being more creative with beans such as using a chickpea flour to make delicious socca, a French pancake or crepe-like flatbread that’s simple, quick, and tasty. Socca is one of my favorite ways to add a little extra protein boost in a meal when I’d otherwise reach for a more-carbohydrate-rich food, like bread, flatbread, or a cooked grain.

 

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If this topic interests you, below are a couple follow-up articles that give more meal ideas and delve deeper into one of the amino acids that frequently falls short in a vegan diet (leucine). They are all great short reads.
Thinking about becoming a vegan athlete? (with information about meeting leucine requirements)
No Meat Athlete Protein Bowl with 30 grams protein
The Full Helping’s protein meals combinations (not specific to athletes / contains some lower protein examples)

 

 

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Socca, makes 2
1 cup chickpea flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt and dash or two of black pepper
1 tsp. turmeric
1 cup water
oil, just enough to coat the pan

  • In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper, turmeric, and then water. Whisk until you have a smooth batter. Set aside while you heat a large skillet over medium heat.
  • When the pan is hot, lightly brush the bottom with oil. Pour in half the socca batter (about 3/4 cup) and tilt the pan to distribute it evenly. Cook for about four minutes, until the bottom is browned and comes away easily from the pan, and then flip to do the same on the other side. Repeat with the remaining socca batter.
  • Remove the socca to a plate, and serve alongside or as a base for whatever other ingredients you prefer.

References:

  1. Kerksick, C.M. and Kulovitz, M. (2013). Requirements of Energy, Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fat for Athletes. Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-396454-0.00036-9.
  2. Zhou, J., Li, J., and Campbell, W.W. (2013). Vegetarian Athletes. Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-396454-0.00036-9.
  3. Witard, O.C., Garthe, I., and Phillips, S.M. (2019). Dietary Protein for Training Adaptation and Body Composition Manipulation in Track and Field Athletes. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 29(2), 165-174. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0267.
  4. Whole Grains Council. (2014). Whole Grain Protein Power! Retrieved from: https://wholegrainscouncil.org/blog/2014/02/whole-grain-protein-power.

 

 

 

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Summer’s End Tomato Crumble

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Every summer around this time, I make a version of this crumble. So much so that I can’t help but get to late-August and start to crave it when I’m inundated with too many tomatoes.

Also every year, we go to the coast for a family reunion over Labor Day weekend. When we get back and September has arrived, the light begins to change dramatically and the fall colors soon set in. So this is the last week of true summer.

 

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And thus it’s a proper time to make a savory dinner crumble, filled up with the season’s best tomatoes and enjoyed on one of these still-long, slow evenings.

 

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Summer’s End Tomato Crumble, serves 4-5
I love to add just a bit of non-dairy cheese to the crumble topping. I think it adds a nice flavor complexity that the otherwise simple ingredients need. Also, I’ve made this so many times and it’s quick and easy to get in the oven, but sometimes corners are cut and I can tell in the result. For instance, fresh herbs really make the seasoning. Use oregano, thyme, or even rosemary, minced quite fine. Add arrowroot flour to the tomato and bean filling if using large slicing tomatoes, but feel free to skip if using smaller cherry varieties. The flour will thicken it up when the tomatoes are extra juicy.

1 1/2 pounds / 700 g ripe tomatoes
1 tsp coarse sea salt
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 cups cooked white beans such as flageolet or small lima beans
1/4 cup arrowroot flour (optional, see notes)

1 1/2 cups / 140 g rolled oats, gluten-free as necessary
6 tbsp almond flour
1/2 cup / 25 g grated vegan parmesan or cheddar cheese (I prefer Vtopian aged cheddar)
4 sprigs fresh oregano or thyme, leaves picked and chopped
1 pinch sea salt
1/4 cup / 55 g coconut oil

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F / 175°C.
  • Rinse the tomatoes and cut in halves if using cherries, or dice if using large slicers. Place in a 9-inch pie pan or baking dish and toss with sea salt, apple cider vinegar white beans, and arrowroot flour if using.
  • Prepare the crumble in a separate bowl. Start by thoroughly mixing oats, almond flour, grated cheese, oregano and salt. Add the coconut oil in small pieces. Use your hands to mix until large crumbs begin to form. Pour the crumble filling evenly over the tomatoes. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes or until the tomato juices are bubbling around the edges and the crumble is firm and browned.

summer peach oatmeal

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At times over the years, I’ve considered making this a blog of oatmeal recipes. It’s pretty much my favorite food, I’ll eat it just about any time of day and it’s been my breakfast of choice for the strong majority of my life.

What I’ve added to the oats has definitely changed over the years however. From the brown sugar, milk, and stink bugs (aka raisins) of my youth, to the 10 carefully counted blueberries and half a banana of the days when I ate religiously too rigid during my eating disorder, to now when the toppings are varied and more numerous, oatmeal has been my tried and true.

 

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For many years the one ‘error’ I made in my morning bowl was that I was afraid of adding any healthy fats to it. I notice this with others too. Either seasonal fruits or berries or dried fruit are a popular topping but the thing about eating nutrient rich foods like fresh berries or anti-oxidant filled fruits (and vegetables), is that without a carrier fat in the meal they’re eaten with, those fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K can’t actually be absorbed. We need healthy fats to make them effective. After years of being afraid of fat, I’m now a big fan of eating it in moderate amounts since fats are important for both cellular and hormonal health. Fats surround all cells and organelles in what is called the phospholipid bilayer and they are essential for proper cellular development, as well as carrying messages throughout the body in the hormones.

It’s important for us to eat a variety of fat types from foods rich in saturated fat to the unsaturated mono and polyunsaturated omega 6 and 3 fatty acids. Our modern diets tend to be less diverse and mainly have an abundance of saturated and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. The omega 6 fats are found in soy, corn, safflower, sunflower and peanut oils, as well as sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, and most nuts. In whole food form, they are incredibly healthy and essential, but need to be balanced with omega-3 fats such as freshly ground flax, chia, walnuts and wild caught cold-water fish such as salmon, halibut, anchovies, cod, and sardines. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3’s should be under 5:1 to be considered anti-inflammatory and for most individuals, this ratio is at least 20:1 or more.  For anyone with health concerns that are inflammation-related such as any of the common ‘lifestyle diseases’ like diabetes, high cholesterol or blood pressure, autoimmune conditions, arthritis of any type, and/or you are an otherwise healthy athlete looking to improve recovery between workouts, consuming those delicious nutrient-filled fruits and vegetables along with a healthy fat source and eating an optimal balance of omega 3s and 6s can be incredibly helpful. (My personal example is as an athlete trying to improve recovery and with an underlying chronic autoimmune/arthritic-like condition.)

One other thing to note is that all fat digestion first takes place in the mouth from chewing and saliva beginning to break down food–so chewing is important–and intestinal digestion requires bile salts and pancreatic lipase, an enzyme that specifically helps to break down and absorb fat molecules. If you find you don’t digest fats well, consider sending me a note. There are lots of natural ways to assist the digestive process!

 

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Now for my favorite oatmeal bowl lately. It’s got a super-seasonal local peach chopped and added in the last few minutes to old-fashioned oats, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon or so of tahini, and a good tablespoon of ground flax seed. In the summer, I tend to always add a sprinkle of fennel seeds, which also support digestion, and then top it all off with a bit of cinnamon.

 

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Creamy Summer Peach Oatmeal, makes 1 large or 2 small bowls

1 1/2 cups water
1/2-3/4 cups old-fashioned oats, gf certified as necessary
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 large peach, chopped
1 tsp. tahini
1 Tbs. ground flax
cinnamon, to sprinkle

  • Bring the water to a boil, add the oats, and turn down to medium-low. Cook until nearly all the water is absorbed and then stir in the remaining ingredients except the cinnamon. Cook until it is creamy and all the water is absorbed.
  • Turn out into a bowl and then top with cinnamon.