How to get enough protein as a vegetarian or vegan athlete

Everyone is different – so Real Insurance recommends that you seek advice from a qualified professional before making any changes to your diet based on the information below.

Vegetarian and vegan diets are gaining in popularity, with many celebrities1 and athletes2 committed to living an animal product-free lifestyle. For some this is a moral decision, however for others it’s a health choice. Some studies have linked vegetarian diets with a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer3.

“How can I get enough protein?” is a common question for those on plant-based diets and it’s often the foremost concern for those thinking of becoming vegetarian. Here, we take you through how much of this vital macronutrient you need and how to get enough of it in a vegetarian or vegan diet.

How much protein do you need?

How much protein you need depends on your life stage and gender4. Infants and children need less, while the elderly will usually need more than the average adult4 to counter the loss of muscle mass that comes with advanced years5. Men need more protein than women and athletes might also need more6, along with pregnant and breastfeeding women4.

  • Adult men under the age of 70 are recommended to have 64 grams a day (or 0.84 grams per kilogram of body weight)4.
  • Adult women under the age of 70 are recommended to have 46 grams a day (or 0.75 grams per kilogram of body weight)4.
  • If you’re a male professional athlete, you might need to have anywhere from 1.0 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, female athletes might need 15% less than the estimates for men6.

Ways to increase your protein intake

1. Eat high-protein plant-based foods

lentils and beans

The traditional western diet features a main meat dish with accompanying vegetable sides, but many people are diverging from this and instead eating high-protein ingredients such as lentils, quinoa, and seeds for meatless dishes. These plant-based foods are nutrient dense and will pack a serious protein punch:

  • Lentils – Lentils are a nutritional powerhouse, with 9 grams of protein in just half a cup of cooked lentils7. Lentils are also rich in folate, fibre, copper and other essential vitamins and minerals 13.
  • Beans – Beans are a high protein food that can help you easily achieve your daily protein targets. The best known beans include white, adzuki, pinto, kidney, black, navy, garbanzo and lima beans. These popular beans have an average of 15 grams of protein per cup8.
  • Quinoa – This popular grain provides 8 grams of protein in one cup7 and is rich in other nutrients including magnesium, antioxidants and fibre. Quinoa can be eaten plain, like rice, or it can be added to soups, served like oats as porridge and even used to make healthy puddings and desserts14.
  • Peas – You might not know it, but the humble pea is high in protein. Delivering 8 grams of protein in just one cup, peas are rich in the essential amino acid leucine, which is less frequently found in plant-based foods7.
  • Hemp seeds – Hemp seeds are filled with healthy fats and just three tablespoons will provide 13 grams of protein7.
  • Chia seeds – This popular super food offers 5 grams of protein in two tablespoons.
  • Pumpkin seeds – This delicious seed is rich in iron and magnesium and offers 8 grams of protein per ¼ cup7.
  • Tempeh – Tempeh is a fermented soy product that’s rich in probiotics and protein. Tempeh delivers 12 grams of protein in one cup7.
  • Tofu – Providing 10 grams of protein per cup, tofu is one of the most widely known vegetarian-friendly foods and is widely available7.
  • Almonds – Almonds are one of the healthiest nuts (along with Brazil nuts and walnuts) they provide 7 grams of protein per cup7.
  • Chickpeas – Whether used in a creamy hummus or a delicious curry, chickpeas provide up to 8 grams of protein in just ½ cup7.
  • Nutritional yeast – Just two tablespoons of this nutrient-dense food gives you 8 grams of protein7. You can use this in a bake, for a cheesy sauce or in a non-dairy dip.
  • Spirulina – This super food is rich in iron and protein, with 4 grams in every tablespoon7.
  • Greens – Don’t overlook your greens when it comes to protein. Spinach, broccoli and asparagus each offer around 4 to 5 grams per cup, while green beans provide 8 grams per cup7.

2. Incorporate protein throughout the day

As well as eating high-protein foods, you might be able to maximise absorption by improving your eating habits. For example, spreading out your protein intake supports continuous muscle synthesis9. Therefore, you should be looking at incorporating smaller amounts of high-protein foods by snacking throughout the day, rather than having one or two protein-dense meals in each day7.

3. Supplement with protein powders

protein powders

Many professional athletes consume protein powders in the form of shakes because meals take a lot longer to digest. For post-workout recovery, a protein shake is ideal because it can reach the muscle in as little as 30 minutes after you drink it10. Protein powders have the added benefit of delivering as much as 30 grams of protein in a single shake, depending on type and brand. You can even add protein powders in your cooking for a protein-rich version of your favourite pancakes, muffins, slices and other baked goods.

Vegetarian-friendly powders that are naturally produced are widely available. Choose from popular ones such as rice, pea and hemp proteins. Soy proteins can have certain limitations11, so you might want to avoid them. Look for one that’s extracted without chemical solvents and combine rice with pea or hemp for a complete protein12.

High-protein snack and meal ideas

Preparing your own high-protein snacks at home is easy. Prepare bean dishes, no-bake bars in bulk or healthy dips and pack them for on-the-go snacking and meals.

Snacks

Take advantage of these easy-to-prepare snacks and keep up your protein intake throughout the day:

  • Dips – Hummus, white bean, and minty pea dip can make a quick and convenient protein-based snack when paired with toasted flat bread or wholegrain crackers.
  • Protein bars and slices – Make your own high-protein, no-bake bars and slices with healthy grains such as oats. Combine with your choice of seeds and nuts and then bind with ingredients such as maple syrup, applesauce, almond butter and coconut oil.
  • Chia puddings – Combine chia seeds with almond or coconut milk, berries and chopped fruit and allow it to set. Top with nuts and fruit for a great snack.

Meals

These high-protein meals are easy to prepare; they can be served alone, with a salad or on toasted bread for a quick main meal:

  • Protein soup – Add a cup of chickpeas, beans and/or peas to your favourite vegetable soup for a delicious protein-rich meal.
  • Quinoa fried rice – Use quinoa instead of rice for a delicious and healthy fried rice.
  • Vegan chilli – Delicious served with rice, quinoa, or bread, vegan chilli can be made with beans for a hearty meal.
  • Bean salad wraps – Add beans to your favourite salads for a dense and filling meal, or wrap in toasted pita bread for a tasty lunch.
  • Bean and nut burgers – Beans and nuts (such as walnuts) can be added to burger patties for a delicious ‘meaty’ vegetarian meal.
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