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.

 

 

 

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.

Mushroom and Black Bean Enchiladas

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Have you ever had days or weeks or seasons where you’re putting a lot of effort in and not seeing much results? And then when you stop trying or put your focus just a little to another direction and stop caring so damn much, the results show up in their own way and on their own timing?

 

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I think this is simply God or the universe’s way of telling us to trust and go with the flow a bit more. There’s a Chinese proverb that states, “Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.”  I love this one. It generally seems to apply, always.

 

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This is all to say, I had a very different blog post and recipe planned for this week but after many drafts and recipe variations, I’ve accepted it simply wasn’t ready to come out. On the other hand, I wrote down mushroom and black bean enchiladas in my blog ideas journal recently and with putting hardly any effort in at all, this recipe worked itself out in my head and then in the kitchen, and it came out so completely to perfection in one easy go that it became clear this is the recipe and message to be shared this week instead.

 

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So if enchiladas with mushrooms and black beans, zucchini and a coconut, cilantro and lime drizzle sound delicious, go make them. They’re tasty. And if not, go ahead and think about applying that proverb to whatever you need to. Or join me and do both.

 

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Mushroom and Black Bean Enchiladas, serves 3-5
This is a recipe that comes together with a little prep ahead. Most of the seasoning comes from the Spicy Tomato Sauce and the Creamy Black Beans. You can of course skip these and opt for ready-made enchilada sauce and canned black beans, but just understand the flavorings will be a little flat in comparison. After 10 years of blogging in this space, my Creamy Black Beans are the one recipe that I make from the blog most often and they have ruined our household of all other black beans, so if you have some time to prep and let them simmer ahead, they’re worth it. Otherwise, I used light coconut milk in the coconut lime sauce but a full-fat version would be a tasty and decadent alternative to top these enchiladas with. Enjoy!

coconut oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium sweet pepper, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, finely diced and seeded
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 large handful of shiitake mushrooms, sliced (about 1 1/3 cups or 100 grams)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2 cups Creamy Black Beans
salt to taste
2 cups Spicy Tomato Sauce, see below
10 6-inch corn tortillas
Coconut lime sauce, see below

  • Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  • Make the enchilada filling: In a large skillet, heat a little oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it’s soft, about 5 minutes. Add the peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms and cook until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes or a little more.
  • Stir in the garlic, cooked black beans, spices, and salt. Remove from the heat.
  • Brush a 9 × 13-inch baking dish with a little oil, then spread a heaping 1⁄2 cup of the tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish. Fill each tortilla with about 1⁄2 cup of the enchilada filling. Roll the tortillas and place them seam-side down in the baking dish. Pour the remaining 1-1/2 cup sauce over the enchiladas, down the middle, leaving a bit of the edges dry. Bake, covered, for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake for 10 minutes more.
  • While the enchiladas are baking, make the cilantro lime sauce, below.
  • Let the enchiladas cool slightly, then drizzle with half of the coconut lime sauce. Top Serve with the remaining cashew cream on the side, as desired.


Spicy Tomato Sauce
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
2 tsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. chili powder
1 tsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. dried coriander
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. black pepper

  • In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium-high heat. Saute garlic until just beginning to brown, about 30 seconds.
  • Stir in the tomatoes and spices.
  • Bring to a boil and then turn down to medium-low. Simmer for about 45 minutes to thicken a bit and have flavors develop. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. At this point, the sauce can be pureed if you’d like a smooth sauce, but I opted to leave it slightly chunky.


Coconut Lime Sauce

1 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
1 garlic clove
2 Tbs. fresh lime juice
1/4 tsp. sea salt

  • In a high-speed blender, place the coconut milk, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, and salt and blend until smooth. Chill until ready to use.