My reason for not going vegan earlier, and not even really thinking of it, was that I thought my athletic performance would suffer.
If I had only compared vegan protein to meat at the time, I would have learned that plant protein sources aren’t that much worse or inconvenient than meat.
I’m going to walk you through exactly what you need to know to transition to plant protein sources.
Table of Contents
How Much Protein is Needed as a Vegan Athlete?
Most people think we need more protein than research actually suggests.
Examine.com did a detailed write-up on this topic, and found that athletes only need a minimum of 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. That’s equivalent to 0.64 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Evidence shows that if you’re an athlete trying to gain muscle, there might be some benefit going up to 2.4 grams per kg, or 1.1 grams per pound. But you’d also be eating in a caloric surplus at that point, so it’s easier to hit your macro targets.
The Most Essential Protein Sources for Vegan Athletes
Getting a high level of protein is more challenging as a vegan. In most situations, you’re going to have to make use of one or more of the following:
- Vital wheat gluten – Essentially a protein powder extracted from wheat that’s used to make seitan (what many mock meats are made of). It’s extremely high in protein, but obviously not appropriate for those with celiac’s disease. See my page of seitan recipes if you’d like to learn more.
- Tempeh – Made from soybeans just like tofu, but with a much lower water content.
- Tofu – While the amount of protein per 100 grams doesn’t look amazing at first, that’s because it has so much water. If you press out the water (which most people do to improve the texture), it’s a great “lean” source of plant protein.
- Vegan protein powder – While there are reasons you don’t want to solely rely on protein powder, having a shake or two per day makes it a lot easier to hit any protein targets. Here’s a list of my vegan protein powder recommendations if you need one.
- Seeds – Honestly, just put these on anything that you’re eating when possible. It’s hard to eat a lot of them, but they have a good amount of protein and some healthy fats. Hemp seeds are the best for protein, but all seeds are decent. Keep in mind that only hemp, flax, and chia seeds have good omega 3 to 6 fat ratios, so limit your intake of others.
- Oats (if bulking) – In terms of grains, oats are the best for protein and they’re easy to eat a lot of. They also have a decent nutritional profile with quite a bit of iron.
Other High Protein Foods Vegan Athletes Should Eat
You should look to find recipes with the foods above that also combine other high protein plant foods that are in the table below.
I’ve reproduced our table of the best vegan sources of protein for convenience:
|Food||Protein (g) per 100g||Protein (g) per 100 calories|
|Vital wheat gluten||75.2||20.3|
|Wheat flour (whole-grain)||9.6||2.9|
|Lettuce (red leaf)||1.3||10.3|
|Red bell pepper||1.0||3.8|
|Green bell pepper||0.9||4.3|
After ignoring the protein sources we already looked at above, 3 types of foods are clearly the next best plant protein sources:
- Legumes (beans, lentils) – Legumes do have quite a few carbohydrates, but they have a decent amount of protein both per 100 calories and per 100 grams, and a ton of minerals like iron. I typically eat at least a few cups of these per day. Most legumes have a similar amount of protein in them, you can see my bean nutrition comparison if you’re curious.
- Nuts – Nuts are good sources of protein, but you can’t rely on them too much. For one, they have a lot of calories, which isn’t great if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight. Secondly, most nuts have poor omega 3 to 6 fat ratios, so you typically want to limit your intake of them.
- Leafy greens – Per calorie, leafy greens like spinach, seaweed, and lettuce have a great amount of protein and other nutrients. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a lot of protein from these vegetables because you’d have to eat giant bowls of them. So while you should still eat them, it’s pretty difficult for them to be anything more than a secondary protein source that contributes 10-20 grams of protein per day.
Meals High In Protein and Calories for Vegan Athletes
Now that you know which foods to focus on to get enough protein as a vegan athlete, it’s time to find recipes that you can make.
In order to make this a bit easier to start with, see my page of over 150 high protein vegan recipes. You can even filter them by having or not having a particular protein source.
That should get you going for the foreseeable future, and then you can search for more recipes on your own once you’re more comfortable.
Risks for Vegan Athletes: Creatine
The one final thing I wanted to touch on in terms of athletic performance is that dietary creatine comes from meat.
While some can be made endogenously (in the body), vegans are more likely to have lower stores of muscular creatine.
If you’re not familiar with creatine, it’s a crucial organic compound needed for high intensity activity. If you play any sport that involves sprinting, consider getting a creatine supplement (most happen to be vegan).
I’ve written a more detailed guide on whether vegans should take creatine if you’d like the full story.