Going meat-free can be challenging, especially if you’re an athlete. Protein-dense meals and snacks are essential to keep you feeling full and energized and help you build and maintain muscle. For those athletes who follow a plant-based diet, we’re here to help make things easier with a massive list of the best vegan or vegetarian protein sources for athletes.
What are the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet for athletes?
Many athletes choose to eat a plant-based, vegan or vegetarian diet. These diets prioritize eating primarily or only plants instead of meat and other animal products. Aside from personal taste preferences, athletes might choose to follow a plant-based diet for one or more of the following reasons:
- Health benefits: Although the nutritional specifics of plant-based diets can vary greatly, several studies have found that they are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular outcomes and other risk factors, especially when they’re rich in high-quality plant foods, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. It can also help promote weight loss and healthy weight management, stabilize blood sugar, and provide healthy energy levels.1
- Religious beliefs: Certain religions highly stress kindness and non-violence toward all living things, including animals. Additionally, other religions, like Islam, don’t allow the consumption of certain animals deemed “unclean.”
- Environmental and ethical reasons: Raising and killing animals for meat is particularly expensive and carbon-intensive. It also produces immense amounts of farm animal waste and contributes to antibiotic resistance in the general public.2 Following a vegan or vegetarian diet can help the environment by reducing our overall usage of precious natural resources, ultimately slowing the harmful effects of climate change.
Why is protein essential for athletes?
Although protein deficiency is relatively rare in the general population, it’s an essential molecule, and we all need it—including athletes! Protein plays many vital roles in the body, including protecting you from infections and building and maintaining the strength of your hair, nails, ligaments, and muscles. Protein is especially important when you’re working to increase your muscle mass and recovering from an injury or illness.3
Athletes also benefit from a high-protein diet because the more active you are, the more energy your body needs, and the more hungry you feel. Protein-dense foods help you feel full longer, which reduces hunger and unhealthy snacking. It also helps boost your metabolism, enhancing your body’s ability to burn calories more efficiently.3
20 high-protein vegetarian and vegan foods for athletes
Protein is made up of amino acids. Although our body can make many of those amino acids internally, we must get the others from the food we eat. If your body lacks enough protein, it will have to break down muscles to get the amino acids it needs to function, which is bad news for everyone, especially athletes trying to build or maintain muscle mass.
So, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you might wonder, “What are the best vegan or vegetarian protein sources for athletes?” The following high-protein foods are excellent options!
One cup of cooked edamame contains 18.5 grams of protein, making it an excellent protein-dense food choice for athletes.4 They’re also gluten-free, low-calorie, and high in iron and calcium.
Avocados are creamy, delicious, and packed with healthy fats. One cup of sliced avocado also contains 2.92 grams of protein.4
3. Pumpkin seeds
Just ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds has 9.75 grams of protein.4 These little seeds also boast a decent amount of magnesium, zinc, and omega-3s to help you stay healthy and fight off sickness.
4. Chia seeds
Despite how tiny they are, chia seeds pack quite a punch in terms of protein density. One ounce of chia seeds contains 4.68 grams of protein and is easy to incorporate into various healthy recipes.4
A one-ounce serving of cashews has 5.16 grams of protein. It also provides a good amount of magnesium and vitamin K, which are essential building blocks for your bones.4 Magnesium also helps curb sugar cravings and ease muscle soreness.
A single ounce of almonds contains a whopping 6 grams of protein.4 These delicious nuts can also help lower your cholesterol and improve your gut health and are high in Vitamin E, Vitamin B2, and magnesium.
Peanuts and peanut butter are not only delicious, but they’re also one of the best vegan or vegetarian protein sources for athletes. One ounce of peanuts contains 7.31 grams of protein and is delicious on its own or cooked into a variety of recipes.4
8. Nut butter
Two tablespoons of most nut butters will have about 8 grams of protein for a satiating and versatile snack that pairs well with just about anything.3
9. Brussels sprouts
In addition to providing a hefty dose of potassium and Vitamin K, a single cup of raw brussels sprouts provides 2.97 grams of protein.4 Research indicates these little green veggies can help protect you against cancer and combat common health issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes.5
One cup of raw broccoli has 1.95 grams of protein in it.4 It’s also a fantastic source of fiber, and it pairs well with just about any entree, so you can’t go wrong with a dark green vegetable like broccoli.
A 100-gram serving of baby spinach offers 2.85 grams of protein.4 While you can easily throw a handful of spinach into any smoothie or salad, by eating cooked spinach, you’ll absorb higher levels of vitamins A and E, protein, fiber, zinc, thiamin, calcium, and iron.
Beans are also some of the best vegan or vegetarian protein sources for athletes, and they’re often an easy substitute for meat. A half cup of beans packs about 7 grams of protein.4
One cup of cooked lentils has 17.9 grams of protein.4 They also have the benefit of lowering your cholesterol and boosting your heart health by reducing the risk of heart disease.
14. Steel-cut oats
Oats are an excellent addition to many meals and recipes and a standard breakfast staple for many athletes. Not only that, but 100 grams of uncooked steel-cut oats contains 12.5 grams of protein, making them an excellent dietary choice.4 So definitely grab a bowl of oats before hopping on your indoor trainer or treadmill with Vingo!
Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) are incredibly tasty, and you can add them to salads and soups or even make homemade hummus with them. A one-cup cooked serving of these little guys contains 14.5 grams of protein and 12.5 grams of fiber.4
A cup of cooked quinoa has 8.14 grams of protein and is also gluten-free for those with gluten intolerance. It’s also a great source of other vital nutrients, including fiber, folate, magnesium, zinc, and iron.4
17. Wild rice
This one might surprise you when it comes to the best vegan or vegetarian protein sources for athletes. However, a one-cup serving of cooked wild rice contains 6.54 grams of protein, offering a tasty and satiating addition to any meal.4
18. Hemp seeds
Whether you eat them lightly toasted or raw, hemp seeds’ pleasantly mild and nutty flavor is an excellent addition to smoothies, baked goods, granola, and even salads. Just 3 tablespoons contain 9.48 grams of protein, and they’re also packed with heart-healthy fats.4
19. Soy beans
Each serving of soy beans provides around 20 grams of protein, making them a great choice for athletes who are looking to build muscle or recover from a strenuous workout. In addition to their high protein content, soybeans are also a good source of fiber and vitamins, making them a nutritious addition to any diet.
About 100 grams of cooked tempeh contains 19.9 grams of protein. It’s also a good source of protein, iron, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium and is low in carbs and sodium.4,6
Key Takeaways:There are plenty of excellent meat-free sources of protein for vegan and vegetarian athletes. With proper meal planning and a healthy and diverse diet, you can get all the protein you need to sustain your athletic activities from the above plant products.
- Satija, A., & Hu, F. B. (2018). Plant-based diets and cardiovascular health. Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine, 28(7), 437–441. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tcm.2018.02.004
- The ethical arguments against eating meat | University of Oxford. (n.d.). https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/arts-blog/ethical-arguments-against-eating-meat
- Bailey, E. (n.d.). Protein for Vegetarian and Vegan Athletes. https://blog.nasm.org/fitness/protein-vegetarian-vegan-athletes
- FoodData Central. (n.d.-c). https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html
- Health Benefits of Brussels Sprouts. (2019, August 29). WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/health-benefits-brussels-sprouts
- Link, M. R. S. (2021, August 9). Why Tempeh Is Incredibly Healthy and Nutritious. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/tempeh