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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Lemon + Sunflower Spring Quinoa

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A few weeks ago when we were in Boston for the marathon and our post-grad school (me) / post-tax season (William) vacation, we stayed in a cozy third-story Airbnb  apartment atop one of those ancient New England houses with narrow stairs and doors that close in every room. It was lovely and reminded me of my parents’ farmhouse before they tore out walls and opened up the space, but kept the narrow stairs.

The apartment had a tiny kitchen filled with old antique cabinets and a cozy eating nook luckily with skylight to let in more of the morning sun. What I loved about it — and every time we stay in a ‘cozy’ Airbnb actually, is that it reminds me of my time living in Ireland, cooking with whatever slim equipment is on hand, and creating simple meals with minimal ingredients. I’m often asked to share just these types of recipes. Admittedly, at home I prefer to plan meals a little more like a chef with a list of five or so meal ideas at the beginning of the week, and then I make one or two ‘parts’ of more complicated meals each day, often rolling over one component such as a sauce into another day and different meal. This isn’t the usual process for most people, I understand, but being in the kitchen is a major therapeutic relief and creativity space for me.

 

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When traveling, I usually switch up my routine to make the simplest of meals, only planning one meal ahead the night before a major race, and leaving it up to whatever we feel like in the following days. Because of my food and digestion sensitivities, I’m a stickler about making my own meal before races, but then am often a bit more lenient afterwards. When we were in Boston, we ate out about half or a third of the time thanks to ending up in a really great section of the city for delicious and allergen-friendly food. The rest of the time, I improvised with a few of the ingredients I’d stuffed in my suitcase, my tiny Ireland-era traveling spice and seasoning case, and a stop at the grocery for some fresh produce. On our last night there, I ended up with a version of this spring quinoa combination and I immediately knew I had to recapture and finesse it for all y’all that prefer some simple weeknight inspirations!

 

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At home, I added a couple fresh additions I didn’t have on the road like fresh mint and miso paste. I’ve kept them in the finished recipe because if you don’t already keep miso on hand to add umami flavor and depth to sauces, you definitely should try it. And fresh mint, though not always available without a garden, is a flavorful and helpful-for-digestion addition that can be added or not.

 

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Lemon + Sunflower Spring Quinoa, makes main-dish servings for 4 to 5
1 cup dry quinoa, cooked ahead
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans or 1 can
1 small bunch broccoli, chopped semi-small
a couple large handfuls of mushrooms, sliced
1 bunch radishes with greens, washed well and sliced thin
1 cup peas
salt and pepper as needed
fresh mint, minced

Lemon + Sunflower Dressing
1/4 cup sunflower butter
zest of one lemon
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1  tsp. honey or maple syrup (optional)
1 Tbs. light miso (I use chickpea miso)

  • Cook the quinoa and chickpeas ahead. Or use one can of drained chickpeas.
  • After all the vegetables are sliced, combine them in a large skillet with a little water to steam-fry. I like to add the broccoli first, cover for a few minutes, and then add the rest in stages with the mushrooms, radishes, and lastly the peas. Once they’re cooked through but not soggy-soft, add in the quinoa and beans, stir and heat just until it’s all warm. Season with salt and pepper to taste at this point.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, combine the dressing ingredients in a small dish and whisk with a fork or spoon until they come together well. Add a splash or two of water if needed to thin it up. The consistency should be spoon-able but not runny.
  • Pour the dressing over the quinoa and vegetables, mix it all together, and then sprinkle the mint leaves atop and serve.

pumpkin ginger bran muffins

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I’ve just made it past the halfway point of my last fall term in nutrition grad school. I’ve been working with clients in clinic these past few weeks, experiencing all that I’ve learned in the last couple years come together in practice, and enjoying it so incredibly much. Getting to the clinical work has reinforced why I’ve spent so much of my energy on this career shift endeavor when I get to sit with someone and offer even a little bit of individualized support.

In addition to nutritional recommendations, I also give interventions that address balance from a whole systems perspective which is in line with the integrative and holistic approach to my program. This often means I try to emphasize stress reduction and relaxation practices. On the closer to home front, I’ve been trying to take some of my own advice and incorporate downtime each day for relaxing my system, an intention I constantly struggle with. Inevitably I often forego the rest I need and end up in the kitchen instead. My only excuse is it’s pumpkin season– and I find baking quite restorative!

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Since it is pumpkin and winter squash season, The Recipe Redux theme this month is Fresh from the Pumpkin Patch. We’ve had a string of mostly gorgeous days so far but once this fall season finally and truly sunk in, I began cooking lots of very autumn appropriate Ayurvedic recipes from Kate O’Donnell’s Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind. Nutritionally, the recipes are helping rebalance my system after a rough end-of-summer transition. The first portion of the book is all about the Sattvic lifestyle in Ayurveda–a way of life I’ve been gleaning more from as time goes on and I notice how I fare better with less stimulating foods, practices, and experiences.

These muffins are a deviation from a recipe in the cookbook. If you’re a runner and a fan of the Run Fast Eat Slow superhero muffins, they’re also quite similar, but I’ve upped the emphasis on using walnuts and chia since they both are rich in omega 3’s which are an essential fatty acid that most of us need more of.

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Pumpkin Ginger Bran Muffins, makes 4 large muffins or 6 regular size
Even though I adapted these fairly dramatically, they do stay true to their ayurvedic roots. They are delicious as is but there are also many variations depending on what you’ve got on hand:
1) instead of ground walnuts, use almond flour 2) instead of bran, use 3/4 cup oatmeal 3) instead of pumpkin, use 1/2 cup applesauce and 1 medium chopped apple or other fruit and flavor combos. 4) instead of coconut sugar use pure maple syrup or honey

1 Tbs. ground chia seeds
3 Tbs. water
3/4 cup / 60 g raw walnuts, ground
1/2 cup / 50 g oat bran
1/4 cup / 20 g oatmeal
1/4 cup / 30 g coconut sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
pinch of ground black pepper
2 Tbs. / 25 g coconut oil, melted
1 cup / 220 g pumpkin, pureed or mashed
1 Tbs. / 3 g minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup raisins
1/4-1/2 cup water or nut milk, as needed.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line muffin tins with baking cups or oil and flour them.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the ground chia seeds and water. Let this stand for 5 minutes. In a separate bowl, mix the ground walnuts, oat bran and oats, salt, turmeric, baking soda, and baking powder.
  • Add the coconut sugar, pumpkin puree, and coconut oil to the chia seed mixture and stir until well combined. Stir in the ginger and the raisins.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until it just comes together. If the batter seems a touch dry, add water or nut milk just until it becomes a touch looser, but only add up to 1/2 cup, as they won’t need much. This step largely depends on how much moisture content your pumpkin puree has in it.
  • Divide into the muffin cups and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and a toothpick in the middle comes out clean.

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