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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Fig + Olive Pâté with Seedy Snack Crackers

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Like most people, I tend to fall into the same routine when it comes to my daily snacks. My usual is to cycle through variations of dried fruit and nut or seed bars, which I make in batches every couple weeks and then grab and go mid-morning as needed. For later in the day or when I need hefty snacks, I often throw a big bunch of ‘functional foods’ in the blender and make a smoothie bowl that is mostly tasty, but more importantly packs a good nutritional punch to make sure I’m getting in what I need during training cycles.

The Recipe Redux challenged us to share healthy bites and bars this month and it ended up being the perfect incentive to put a new spin on my snacking go-tos, as well as finally experiment with a flavor and ingredient combination I’ve had in the back of my mind for months. The result is this absolutely delicious pâté.  It wasn’t exactly what I was after when I began, but that’s the beauty of the creative process. Sometimes getting out of our own way and letting the result happen leads to something even better than we’d imagined.

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Beyond the flavor, I’m really excited about the ingredients I’ve used here, how they work together, and the sprinkles of good nutrition they’ve got going on. Part of this is because I’ve added anchovies, and here’s why:

For almost a decade, my doctor has had me taking daily fish or cod liver oil for its high omega-3 content. Now that I’ve gone to nutrition school and read the research, I find there’s evidence that suggests taking fish oil supplements or eating fatty fish can help just about any illness condition or improve general health. The reason is because in our modern society we simply don’t get enough of the type of essential fatty acids called omega-3s–or more accurately, we eat too many of the other types, including the also essential omega-6s as well as saturated and trans fatty acids.

But on my journey towards nutrition school over the years, I started out with environmental sustainability in mind and our oceans’ health has long been one of my concerns. I’ve experimented a lot and continue to eat all the vegan sources of omega 3’s, but they involve a more complicated metabolic conversion and thus (for me as well as many others) are less hefty in their benefits. This has led me right back to taking my fish oil supplements even as I’ve questioned whether they’re contaminated with heavy metals, been oxidized during processing, or are simply unsustainable given the current state of global fisheries. This is definitely the case of the more you know the more complicated the scenario…

Over the winter months, I finally read The Omega Principle, which was less about the nutritional benefits of consuming fatty fish and more about every other aspect of the sustainability in doing so. If this is a topic you too are interested in, I highly suggest reading it.

Beyond all my chatter about the above, anchovies are one of the most nutritious and sustainable fishes we can eat. There is a subtle but definite umami thread to this pâté due to a small amount of anchovy paste, as well as a good base of hemp seeds which provide a balanced ratio of essential fatty acids from plant sources. Pureed together with sweet figs, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and a pinch of thyme and rosemary, and you’ll be wanting to snack on this sort of easy but fancy tasting treat all the time. I know I will!

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Fig + Olive Pâté, makes 4 small or 8 more substantial servings
Recipes notes: In my quest to make a savory snack bar, I added some cooked millet to thicken the mixture. The result was this thick pâté and not a bar at all. Beyond millet, you can add another leftover cooked grain like rice or quinoa, or leave it out if you don’t mind a looser more tapenade-like consistency. 

1/3 cup kalamata olives, pitted
3/4 cup dried figs, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic
1 Tbs. anchovy paste
6 Tbs. hemp seeds
1 1/2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. fresh or dried thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary, finely minced
1/3 cup cooked millet (optional, see notes)

  • In a food processor or blender, combine all ingredients and puree until they come to a thick paste that is almost but not completely homogenous.
  • Serve with crackers or sliced vegetables.

 

Seedy Snack Crackers, makes about 12 crackers
If you’re going to eat crackers, skip the boxed versions and make these instead. They are super simple, highly adaptable, and free from questionable oils. Plus they’ve passed the flavor test–they’re quite popular and quickly gobbled at parties! Double or quadruple the batch if you’re likely to share with others or snack on for several days.

2 Tbs. sesame seeds
2 Tbs. walnuts, chopped
2 Tbs. hemp seeds
4 tsp. ground flax seeds
1/4 cup amaranth flour (or other whole grain flour)
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. honey
1/3 cup water

  • Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
  • Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and combine until you’ve got a loose batter. Add more water if it’s not loose enough.
  • Line a small baking sheet with parchment, and then spread the seed mixture as thinly as possible.
  • Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently cut into 12 pieces without separating them. Return to the oven and bake for 30 additional minutes or longer until they are crunchy and completely dry. They should no longer have a supple doughy feel to them.
  • Remove from the oven, cool completely, and then break into pieces.

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Rosemary-Balsamic Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke Chips

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I’ve been a long-time participant in the monthly Recipe Redux challenge, a recipe challenge founded by registered dieticians and focused on making healthy, delicious meals. One of the things I love about the monthly themes is that it challenges me to keep trying new foods or techniques, and to be open-minded when sometimes I want to fall back on the same old thing. In fact, one thing I’ve noticed this winter is that William and I have regularly taken to relying on “oatmeal night” on weeknights when nothing else sounds good and we want a quick and easy comfort meal. We both love oatmeal, me even more than him, and I’d gladly eat it for several meals a day.

But there’s one thing we all need more of in our meal routines, and that’s diversity, because the more different whole foods we eat, the better our gut and overall health tends to be. So I’m glad for the extra push to focus on diversity. This month, our theme also speaks to this idea, with the idea of adding in a new ingredient with the new year.

Since I’m always trying to work on adding whole foods and encouraging others to do so, I focused on seasonally appropriate locally grown Jerusalem Artichokes, which are also known as sunchokes. Even though they’re not entirely new to me, Jerusalem artichokes are just about the only locally grown vegetable I don’t regularly add into my winter routine, for no particular reason. If they’re new to you, they are not artichokes, nor from Jerusalem, and they’re actually from the sunflower family. Many years ago when I was managing school gardens, we grew sunchokes, and the plant was a truly towering, sunflower-esque behemoth. In the late fall, we dug up the tubers, which are quite knobby and look like ginger roots. Texturally, they’re somewhat akin to a waxy potato and jicama, and the flavor is mild and just a touch nutty. I’ve had them before in soups, but thinly sliced and roasted is where their flavor and texture really shines!

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Now, beyond just tracking down a novel vegetable, Jerusalem artichokes have some unique nutritional aspects that make them worth eating more often. That’s because they are particularly rich in inulin, a type of fiber that assists the digestive system, particularly because it feeds the good bacteria in our lower gut. We can think of inulin as fertilizer for the digestive system! In addition to their digestive health benefits, sunchokes also host an impressive amount of iron, calcium, and potassium. For those of us ladies (or men) who are super active and always in need of good sources of iron and calcium, this is a great vegetable to add into the winter rotation!

Here, I’ve sliced the tubers into thin chips and roasted them on low with a little water for 30 minutes, to help make them more digestible. Since they are so high in inulin compared to what most of us regularly ingest, it can initially cause some GI upset, and this method of slower-roasting helps. Then I upped the heat and added rosemary, sea salt, and balsamic vinegar to finish them out and get the right crisp-tender texture. Once they’re done, they are absolutely delicious.

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Rosemary-Balsamic Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke Chips, serves about 4
20 oz. Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed clean and thinly sliced
1/2 cup water
a couple good pinches of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, minced
2 tsp. coconut oil
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. On a baking sheet lined with parchment, spread out the sliced sunchokes and add the water. Bake for 30 minutes. Then turn up the heat to 425 degrees.
  • Add the salt and pepper, minced rosemary, oil and balsamic. Toss to coat and then bake for another 15-20 minutes, until crispy but still soft. They’ll have some crispy golden edges but still slightly soft centers.
  • Remove from the oven and cool slightly before serving.

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