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 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.

cacao super syrup + a simple cacao tea

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This one is for y’all that really like chocolate. Especially if you crave chocolate, particularly during stressful times.

Cacao Tea Co. recently launched a really delicious (herbal) tea that’s essentially the husks of roasted cacao beans. Brewed into a traditional cup with freshly boiled water, it’s delicious as an afternoon pick-me-up sipper without the caffeine, sugar rush, or cravings for more more more that comes with the otherwise delightful combination of sugar and chocolate.

 

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But after a few days of sipping, I got all sorts of inspired and took it to another level by making a superpower cacao, maca, and eleuthero syrup. I’ll get to those ingredients in a moment but this herbal syrup idea is essentially a tasty traditional way to take in herbs when one might otherwise not. It’s exactly the same method by which elderberry syrup (for cold and flu prevention) is made. Like other herbal syrups, it can be used in whatever way one desires, but I’ve been adding a spoonful or so to my mid-afternoon smoothie snacks lately.

 

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Now, about these ingredients: 
Cacao, 
Theobroma cacao // When we eat chocolate, it’s coming from cacao beans. As we can see, the plant name is derived from two words theos and broma, which are ancient Greek and translate to ‘the food of the gods’. Additionally, cacao is rich in a compound called theobromine, an antioxidant that has a mild stimulant effect, similar to caffeine. Studies show that the husks of cacao are rich in these antioxidants, just like the inside portion.

Maca, Lepidium meyenii // Maca is an herbal root that is often considered an adaptogen, meaning it will restore stress levels back to a balanced state, and it’s particularly helpful for adrenal stress (i.e. the fight or flight side of our nervous systems have been on high alert for too long). It increases energy (making it dually great for athletes) and has many antioxidant properties, as well as much research on its ability to regulate reproductive hormones (1). It is also rich in iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc–nutrients that many particularly female athletes are low in.

Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng), Eleutherococcus senticosus // Eleuthero has an exceptionally long history of use in traditional medicine. It is also known as an adaptogen, a tonic herb, a nervine (to help the nervous system) and is anti-inflammatory. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, eleuthero is used for treating people with wind (spasmodic) conditions, and is also helpful for weak tendons and ligaments, strengthening the qi, and Chinese spleen and kidneys; i.e. it can help extract nutrients from food and is an herb that is really good for “stressed out Type A people” (2). Eleuthero has long been in use in Korean and Russian folk medicine for increasing stamina and promoting overall health (3). Additionally, scientific studies show that it alters the levels of several neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the stress response, chiefly at the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis (1). Further, eleuthero significantly suppresses nitric oxide production, which is a characteristic of inflammation, and has shown strong free-radical scavenging activity. In overworked individuals, it has been shown to reduce their response to stress, and in some studies with both trained and recreational endurance athletes, it has improved work capacity, increased endurance time, and elevated cardiovascular function (1). Overall, I like to think of it as a superpower herb for those that tend to have a lot of stress and fatigue that has accumulated over a long period of time, who wake tired and can’t really get their energy up throughout the day, and whose internal temperature tends to run cool or cold.

I chose to add maca and eleuthero to this cacao syrup specifically because many individuals I’ve worked with clinically present with similar situations in that they are highly driven, are often on the go mentally and physically, tend towards cravings for sweets and chocolate, and experience ongoing fatigue. Without discounting that this presentation can mean there are some truly relevant nutritional deficiencies to be addressed, adding an herbal support that happens to taste excellent can be a great way to return the body to balance a bit more quickly. That’s why I call it super syrup.

 

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Cacao Super Syrup, makes about 3 cups
I often source my powdered herbs such as maca and eleuthero from Mountain Rose Herbs since they are a trusted supplier. Additionally, I highly recommend starting with local, raw honey since it supports your local beekeeper, and contains beneficial enzymes no longer available in processed supermarket honey. If you’d like a ‘purer’ tasting herbal syrup, you can also use sugar in place of the honey.

6 Tbs. cacao tea
3 Tbs. maca root powder
3 Tbs. eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) powder
4 cups filtered water
1 cup honey

  • Combine the cacao tea and herbal powders with the water in a pot. Bring to a simmer and partially cover the pot with a lid. Let simmer until the liquid is reduced by half.
  • Remove from the heat  and strain out the herbs – you have now created a strong decoction for your syrup base. I strained mine a little ‘coarsely,’ so there were more herbs in the syrup, but a finer strain using a cheesecloth and/or a fine mesh strainer can also be done.
  • Return the liquid to the pan and add the honey. To retain the beneficial, naturally occurring enzymes in raw honey, gently heat it just until the honey dissolves, being careful not to boil the syrup.
  • Finish by pouring the syrup into clean, sterile bottles, and store in the fridge for up to 3 months.
  • A standard dosage of herbal syrup depends on the herbs used, the situation being addressed, as well as the age of the recipient. A general dosage is a ½ teaspoon to 1 tablespoon taken 1 to 3 times a day. Since we are using adaptogenic herbs that are better used long-term to re-balance, 1/2 to 1 Tbs. per day is a nice starting amount.

 

 
Cacao Tea, serves 1
freshly boiled water
2-3 tsp. cacao tea

  • To prepare a simple cacao infusion, add 2-3 tsp. of cacao tea to a tea ball or infusing basket and then pour freshly boiled water over the top. Cover and allow to infuse for 5-10 minutes before drinking.

 

References:
1. Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide, vol. 2 (4th ed.). Chatswood, NSW, Australia: Elsevier.
2. Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, VA: Healing Arts Press
3. Mountain Rose Herbs. (n.d.). Eleuthero Root Powder