Can runners get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
Hey runner... Have you heard the term plant-based before? It is kind of trendy right now, and you might be wondering a bit about what it means and whether eating a plant-based diet is right for you.
What does plant-based mean?
Basically, it means eating foods that are made from plants, not animals. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Being a plant-based eater doesn't necessarily mean that you never eat animal products like meat, fish, dairy, or eggs. It means that you mostly choose plant-based foods. Many people prefer the term plant-based to vegetarian or vegan, but they're not strictly the same thing.
Benefits of a plant-based diet?
There are many benefits. Plant-based foods are low in fat and cholesterol. They are high in antioxidants, which can help with recovery and muscle fatigue. They provide plenty of fiber, which is good for your belly and feeds the good bacteria in your gut. Plant-based foods reduce inflammation, which is especially good for athletes.
Plant-based foods are also better for the environment - it takes a lot of resources to produce meat, eggs, and dairy. Eating these foods can also decrease your risk of many chronic diseases.
Is a plant-based diet for me?
Maybe. I do think most people can benefit from eating more plants and reducing their intake of meat and other animal products. But whether or not you choose to completely give up animal products is a personal decision. I am willing to help you make that, but I don't think one way of eating is necessarily right for every person.
How much protein do I need to eat?
For recommendations on how much protein you need, read this article. Note that if you're strictly plant-based, then you should increase the amount of protein you eat by about 10% from what is recommended, or at the very least aim to hit the higher end of your goal. This is because plant-based proteins aren't as well absorbed.
Good sources of plant-based protein
Nearly all foods provide a little bit of protein. That said, you want to make sure you're including foods that are high in protein at each meal and snack.
Here's some great sources of plant-based protein: tofu, tempeh, seitan, soy products, beans/legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, and quinoa. You can also get protein from whole grains (like wild rice). Vegetables and fruits provided a little bit of protein as well, though not a lot.
If you avoid meat but aren't against animal products in general, then you can also include eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt (choose Greek for higher protein content), and cottage cheese.
Will I be missing any nutrients on a plant-based diet?
You can get all the nutrients that you need, even if you avoid animal products. That said, it doesn't happen on accident! You need to be more mindful of getting vitamin B12 (found mainly in animal products), iron (which is found in plant-based protein, but not absorbed as well), zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Eat a variety of different foods - that way you're more likely to get all of your micronutrients.
Do I need to include protein powders?
With enough planning, you shouldn't need to include protein powders. You'll need to eat a protein-rich food at each meal and snack. For example, try oatmeal with soy milk and peanut butter at breakfast, beans with whole-grain toast and a salad topped with some pumpkin seeds at lunch, tofu at dinner, and nuts at snacks.
If you want to include protein powders, then look for a reputable brand and preferably one that is NSF-certified.
Do I need to eat certain foods together to make a "complete" protein? You may have heard that you need to eat rice with beans in order to make a complete protein. What the heck does that even mean anyway? Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are building blocks of protein. Your body can make 11 of them but needs to get the remaining 9 from the diet (they are deemed "essential amino acids").
Animal sources of protein contain all 20 amino acids, while many plant-based protein foods do not. Some foods contain complementary amino acids - one food provides the amino acids that the other food is missing. This is where the idea that you need to eat these foods together comes from.
That said, as long as you get all 20 amino acids from a variety of foods throughout the day, it doesn't really matter when you eat them.
How do I start eating more plant-based foods?
Start by eating more foods that are high in protein that you already like. If you like beans, then add some to soups, salads, or stir-fries. If you like nuts, then make sure you have them around for snacks.
Make it a point to start trying new foods and adding them into your diet. Google recipes for "meatless Monday's" and try something that sounds good - for example, if you love tacos, then look for a meatless taco recipe.
I need help!
Are you are a runner who wants to recover faster, feel better, and reach your goals... and you know you need the right amount of protein (plant-based or not!) in order to accomplish those goals? And you haven't figured out HOW to do it in your life yet? I help runners do this all the time! Schedule your runner's nutrition strategy call to find out how eating better can help you reach your goals.