I have a number of vegetarian and vegan fitness friends that are always looking for great ideas for recipes, new ingredients, etc. Because they’re into athletics and fitness, they need to find great strategies for fitness nutrition to keep their bodies fueled, energetic and strong. Naturally, protein always becomes a hot topic of conversation.
I also am part-time vegetarian. (Part-time because I don’t think I’ll ever give up chicken and fish! And… I love open-flame-cooked meat way too much.) I don’t have any “hard and fast” rules to share here here today about that kind of part-time vegetarian eating, I’ve just found ways that work for me. Maybe in the future I’ll share those?! In the meantime, just know I encourage people to turn to vegetarian patterns of eating for however little or long they’d like, especially when their body is feeling it (intuition), and when the season has a bounty of fruits and vegetables (seasonal). I love intuitive, seasonal eating. But I digress.
Today I wanted to share a few bits of information and a couple of resources for you today to help you in your vegetarian ways – even if you’re just as a part-time lover. (Stevie Wonder fans UNITE!)
Protein, protein, protein
When a fitness fanatic or athlete says they’re a vegetarian, their Cross-Fit friends look perplexed and say, “Well where do you get your protein?!” There are many ways to protein that you can get from plants. But in our country, it requires a little extra effort and a little recalibration of your idea of “fitness nutrition.”
So here is background for newbies to vegetarian/vegan eating or those needing a refresher course.
Definitions of vegetarian and vegan
Vegetarian – a person who does not eat meat but may consume different forms of animal byproducts such as eggs or cheese
Vegan – a person who does not eat or use animal products
When you don’t eat animal products, or you’re taking a “meat break” then you must get your protein from plant sources.All living organisms are composed of proteins, which are chains of specific groups of amino acids linked together by chemical bonds. This macronutrient is essential for muscles, the brain, the nervous system, blood, hair and nails and transporting all kinds of things through your body.
The body can produce most of the amino acids that make up proteins (non-essential), but there are 8 to 10 essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and must be consumed through diet. To find those essential proteins from food sources, the vegetarian/vegan turns to plants.
Amino acids are found in plant-based foods, including vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds. However, plant sources must be combined because they do not contain all the essential amino acids. Exceptions are soy, chia seeds along with quinoa, hemp and amaranth which are plant-based complete proteins. While chia seeds do contain all the essential amino acids, one tablespoon of chia only contains three grams of protein. When looking at that list, it is important to consider the total amount of protein as well.
Rice and beans
As mentioned, the catch with plant protein sources is that they do not always contain all the essential amino acids in required proportions, making most incomplete proteins. Variety is key. Eating a variety of plant protein sources—not necessarily at one meal but throughout the day—is a great strategy. When you eat a meal or snack, take a couple seconds to identify the protein in your meal, and if you can’t find any (essential or non-essential), then its time to add some in.
The best combinations to make complete vegetable proteins are:
legumes and grains (rice and beans)
legumes with nuts and/or seeds (falafel)
animal dairy products (eggs, milk, and other products) with any vegetable protein (parmesan crisps with pumpkin seeds! YUM!)
Here’s a great visual for plant-based whole-protein combinations:
Here are 2 great websites to help you find some great vegetarian dishes that include ideas for adding in some protein. The first is from Chef Jamie Oliver:
And the second is from Vega (performance, vegan eating):
When we think of performance eating or “fitness nutrition” we always turn to our eggs and meat for strength training and carb loading when we’re about to run a marathon or do our 3rd Iron Woman competition (endurance!). But for the vegetarian-vegan, it simply means getting a little bit more savvy about your commitment to this way of living, meat-free but full of sustainable energy for performance. Loosen up your “ideal” of however many grams of protein you’ve been told you need, and recognize that you’re gaining so many more building blocks for performance success with the amount of vitamins and minerals your getting. Keep protein levels up by having a nutritional plan for performance. Then execute that plan along with your training schedule! You’ll see amazing results & you’ll feel GREAT!!
Finally, here’s a quick & yummy whole protein snack I made up, just for you!
Parmesan Pepita Crisps
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Ingredients, 1/2 c Parmsean, 1-2 tbs roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas!)
Pour a heaping tablespoon of Parmesan onto a silicone or parchment lined baking sheet, sprinkle a couple of pepitas on the cheese mound, and lightly pat down. A silicone baking sheet is highly recommended. Repeat with the remaining cheese, spacing the spoonfuls about a 1/2 inch apart.
Bake for 3 to 5 minutes or until golden and crisp. Cool.
Happy eating and training to you!