Spring is a great time to freshen up your diet, leaving behind some of the heavier options of winter months. Eating more nutrient-dense plants is one way to be a stronger athlete, and plant-based foods have a significantly lower impact on the environment than many animal-based choices. Sketching out a plant-based diet is a great reminder that protein, whose main functions are to build and strengthen muscle, is available without animal sources.
What is protein? On the most basic level, it’s one of the three macronutrients (along with fats and carbohydrates) we need to maintain a balanced diet. Protein is made up of long chains of amino acids, some of which are provided by our body, and others we must consume in our food. These nine “essential” amino acids are present in most animal-based protein sources, but not always in plant-based protein—which poses the main challenge with plant-based diets.
It’s true many plant proteins are “incomplete,” but current science indicates that eating various plant-based proteins throughout the course of the day is often adequate—our bodies can create complete proteins from all sorts of different amino acid sources. To get a complete protein profile as a plant-based athlete, eat with variety, include high lysine foods, and know your rough protein needs. The optimum daily protein intake for athletes who have a goal of weight maintenance or weight gain ranges from 1.3 to 1.7 g/kg BM/day.
Here are a few totally awesome plant-based protein sources you should keep stocked up in your pantry. They can be used in endless recipes and combinations:
- Lentils: 1 cup dry = 49.5 g of protein, and dense in vitamins and minerals.
- Tempeh: 1 cup = 30.8 g of protein.
- Chickpeas: 1 cup = 15 g of protein, and a wallop of 13 g of dietary fiber.
- Chia seeds: 1 oz = 4.4 g of protein. These little wonder seeds are easy to sprinkle on a variety of dishes.
- Seitan: 1 serving made from 1 oz vital wheat gluten = 21 g of protein.
- Black beans: 0.5 cup cooked = 7.62 g of protein, and calcium, iron, magnesium, and fiber.
- Pumpkin seeds: 1 cup = 12 g of protein. High in antioxidants and magnesium.
- Sweet potato: 1 medium potato has 2.20 g of protein and insane amounts of vitamin A.
Keep reading for some tasty recipes straight from the kitchens of the culinary wizards making plant-based eating healthy and easier than ever.
Lemony Red Lentil Soup from Thug Kitchen
First, a twist on a classic. As the always-colorful and brilliant authors of Thug Kitchen say, “this isn’t that boring brown lentil mash you find in places where food goes to die.” Indeed, this soup is light, filling, and protein-packed. Eat it for breakfast after a workout, lunch before a workout, or dinner before a restorative, muscle-rebuilding sleep.
- 1 tsp olive or coconut oil
- ½ yellow onion chopped
- 1 fist sized russet potato, peeled and cut into cubes about the size of dice
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 cups red lentils rinsed
- 6 cups vegetable broth
- ½ tsp lemon zest grated
- 1 tbsp lemon lemon juice
- ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
Steps (Again, from Thug Kitchen:)
- Grab a pot and heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and let it saute for about three minutes, until it starts getting all soft and vaguely golden. Yea, that’s right, “vaguely golden.” Now add the potato and carrot. Saute another two minutes, then add the garlic and spices. At this point, your place should start smelling choice. Saute for another 30 seconds and then add the salt, lentils, and broth.
- Let the lentils simmer, uncovered, until they’re soft and kinda falling apart, 15 to 20 min. Stir this every now and then. Add the lemon zest and juice and turn off the heat. Now you can stop if you prefer a chunky lentil soup, or you can blend half of it for a creamy, chunky hybrid thing. It’s your soup, so own that sh*t. The blended soup will thicken up if you throw it back on the stove with some low heat for a minute or two, just watch. Magic, b*****s.
- Serve warm, topped with some chopped cilantro if you want.
Southwest Sweet Potato Black Bean Dip from the Minimalist Baker
Next up is a southwest sweet potato black bean dip from the Minimalist Baker and her cookbook, Minimalist Baker’s Everyday Cooking. I’ve made this one over and over — for lunch, for parties, for quick dinners, etc. We chop up a bunch of spinach to add and eat it like a salad, or you can serve it with tortilla chips and scoop it up. With the sweet potatoes, avocado, and black beans, it’s packed with all sorts of minerals and vitamins (not to mention protein).
- 2 medium to large organic sweet potatoes cubed, skin on
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- ¼ tsp each sea salt, chili powder, ground cinnamon, and ground cumin
- 1 cup whole corn kernels
- 1 cup chopped cilantro
- ½ cup diced red onion
- 1 15 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 ripe avocado
- 1 tbsp olive or avocado oil
- 1 lime juiced
- 1-2 tbsp maple syrup
- Pinch each sea salt and black pepper
- Preheat oven to 375 F/190 C
- Lightly grease rimmed baking sheet and add sweet potatoes, olive oil, maple syrup, salt, chili powder, cinnamon, and cumin and toss to coat (I do this in a bowl first).
- Bake for 20 minutes or until soft and lightly browned, stirring halfway through.
- In the meantime, prepare the sauce: mash/mix avocado, olive oil, lime juice, maple syrup, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.
- Add corn, cilantro, onion, black beans, and roasted sweet potatoes to the sauce and toss to combine (I add spinach here).
- Serve at room temperature with tortilla chips (or a fork), and store leftovers covered in the fridge for two to three days.
Best Banana Bread from The 100 Best Vegan Baking Recipes by Kris Holechek
Finally for dessert, I’ll wager your non-plant based friends will prefer this plant-based version of banana bread over the classic egg version. I’ve done blind taste tests, and it’s true! You can change this recipe up by adding walnuts for some long chain omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fiber, and potassium. Or, try adding vegan protein powder, chia seeds, grated coconut, or hemp hearts for great texture and additional nutrients.
Note: I regularly sub ⅓ cup maple syrup for all of the sugar, and use olive oil or rapeseed oil. And if I’m being honest, I’ll often add vegan dark chocolate chips as well. It’s good pre- or post-workout, and I watched one marathoner actually carry some and eat it during his race!
- 1.5 cup flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat pastry flour)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- .5 tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp salt
- ⅓ cup oil
- ½ cup brown sugar (I always use ⅓ cup maple syrup)
- 1 cup mashed bananas (about 2 bananas)
- ⅓ cup milk (I use flax, soy, or oat all plain)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 9×5 loaf pan with olive oil.
2. Combine all dry ingredients in a small bowl. In a large bowl, combine mashed bananas, milk, and maple syrup. Add dry to wet and mix until just combined.
3. At this point you can add nuts, chocolate, coconut, or whatever you like!
4. Spread in the pan and bake 43 to 48 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan then remove it, and eat it. If you want to cut back on the sweetener, this bread is still tasty, and makes a great breakfast pre- or post-workout.
Remember, food is a lot more than just its macronutrients. Eating a wide variety of plants offers an immense array of vitamins and minerals. If you’re interested in some of the amazing properties of plants, check out Eating on the Wild Side for insights into some of the history of plants and the disease fighting, health enhancing properties they’ve brought us for generations.
Hopefully these recipes have inspired you to go outside your comfort zone and freshen up your meals this spring. Each of the sources we featured can give you a wealth of further ideas, many of which are perfect for fueling your workouts! Try them out and get ready to feel stronger, faster, and healthier than ever.