- Gary A. Vasquez / Reuters
- In the documentary “The Game Changers” on Netflix, vegan athletes including UFC fighter Nate Diaz seek to dispel myths that plant-based diets lack the protein to fuel strong athletes.
- It’s true that some of the best sources of protein are plant-based.
- Here are some of the top vegan sources of protein, including for elite athletes.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more.
When people go vegan, they’re often asked: “How do you get enough protein?” That’s especially the case for vegan elite athletes like UFC fighter Nate Diaz who need lots of the nutrient to build their muscles and fuel their sports.
The new Netflix documentary “The Game Changers” (produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, and James Cameron) suggests plants are in fact the best source of protein and plant-based diets might even be better for peak performance.
While no one diet is right for everyone, experts agree that plants can be a great source of protein, even for serious athletes, who can require as much as twice the recommended 0.7 to 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight daily, according to the International Association of Athletics Federation.
Here are some of the best plant foods for athletes in terms of nutrition, at between 5 to 20 grams per serving.
Beans and other legumes are a foundation of healthy vegan diets.
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Legumes (also know as pulses) are a plant-based food group that includes beans of all kinds, chickpeas, and lentils. Some of the top protein-packed legumes (per cup, according to the US Department of Agriculture) include:
- Lentils: 17.9 grams
- Split peas: 16.3 grams
- Pinto beans: 15.4 grams
- Kidney beans: 15.3 grams
- Black beans: 15.2 grams
In addition to protein, legumes are also high in fiber, which is essential to healthy digestion.
Venus Williams, who was previously a raw vegan to treat an autoimmune disorder, has since said adding more legumes, and especially lentils, to her diet has helped her fuel an intense training regimen.
Tofu is a protein-packed and versatile substitute for many meat-centered dishes, since it is naturally mild-tasting and absorbs flavor well.
Because soy is so nutrient-dense, there’s good reason to include it in a plant-based diet to acquire nutrients like B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and sometimes calcium.
Still, many people, including Diaz, avoid tofu and other soy products due to their purported high amounts of estrogen, a reproductive hormone associated with women. Some believe eating soy can have an adverse effect on men’s testosterone levels.
But the truth is that while soy products do contain phytoestrogen, a plant-based compound similar to estrogen, research has shown it has no significant effect on testosterone levels. However, studies on soy’s other health effects, including on postmenopausal women, have been mixed.
Elite personal trainer Azad Singh is one of many who include tofu in their vegan diets.
Seitan is a soy-free meat substitute made from wheat gluten.
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Seitan (pronounced “say-tahn”) is wheat protein, otherwise known as gluten, made from kneading wheat flour and rinsing it to remove the starch.
If you’ve ever eaten mock chicken, duck, or pork, perhaps at a Chinese restaurant, you’ve eaten seiten.
Seitan is often used as a meat substitute because its dense, chewy texture holds up well in recipes that call for chicken or pork, such as fajitas, stir-frys, and even sandwiches and burgers.
If you’re gluten-free, however, you’ll want to avoid it, since it’s literally made of gluten.
Grains like quinoa, spelt, and amaranth provide a surprising amount of protein.
- Gloria Cabada-Leman
People don’t typically think of grains as high-protein foods, but that’s because refined grains in typical Western cuisine have protein-dense bran and germ stripped away in the milling process.
Whole grains and grain-like seeds like quinoa are naturally high in protein. Some of the top nutritious grains (per cup, according to the USDA) include:
- Amaranth: 9 grams
- Quinoa: 8 grams
- Wild rice: 6.5 grams
- Couscous: 6.1 grams
Whole-wheat pasta can also be a good source of protein, at 7 grams per cup.
Whole grains are also a good source of complex carbohydrates, which are key to fueling the body during long workout sessions, according to dietitians.
Oats are a standout whole grain for protein as well as fiber and other nutrients.
Oats are a protein superstar, even among other high-protein grains. One cup has more than 20 grams of protein along with nutrients like folate, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron.
They’re liked to a wide variety of health benefits like lower blood sugar and reduced risk of heart disease, and come complete with an array of vitamins and antioxidants as well as protein and fiber.
Vegan NFL player Andre Patton swears by oatmeal for breakfast, he told Chargers podcast. Elite marathoners also told Insider they swear by their countries’ version of oatmeal – types of porridges – for their pre-race meal.
Seeds and nuts provide healthy fat in addition to protein.
Nuts and seeds are nutritional powerhouses, full of protein as well as fiber and vitamins. The high-protein varieties include, per ounce:
- Hemp seeds: 9 grams
- Pumpkin seeds: 8.5 grams
- Peanuts: 6.9 grams
- Almonds: 6 grams
- Flax: 5.2 grams
- Chia seeds: 4.7 grams
Nuts and seeds are also a major sources of healthy fats, linked to lower “bad” cholesterol and better heart health. These include omega-3 fatty acids, often found in fish, but are available in vegan form in walnuts, chia, and flax seeds.
Vegan supplements and shakes can help round out plant-based protein needs.
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Plenty of protein shakes and bars are available in vegan varieties.
While whey protein, made from dairy milk, isn’t vegan, many popular supplement brands offer plant-based blends made from peas, pumpkin, brown rice, or hemp.
They can be mixed with water or plant-based milk substitutes for a quick post-workout boost, or a snack between meals.
You can also include protein supplements in pancakes, oatmeal, and other creative recipes.
Just keep an eye on the label to make sure you aren’t getting too much sugar, artificial ingredients, or other unwanted additives along with your protein.
Mac Danzig, another vegan mixed martial arts fighter, has said he’s a fan of vegan protein shakes, among many other foods on this list.