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Is It Possible to be an Athlete on a Plant-Based Diet?

February 14, 2014

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As a competitive swimmer for 15 years, I’ve heard my fair share of nutritionists and physical therapists lecture me on the importance of getting enough protein in my diet. Of course, that often meant adding more red meat and poultry to my mostly veggie- and fish-based meals. But as I began to add portions of meat and poultry back into my diet, I began to feel tired and sluggish, and eventually replaced a majority of them with beans and legumes.

The myth of meat being the best source of protein for active people has been propagated for ages. While animal proteins can be beneficial in giving athletes the combination of protein and fat they need to build lean muscle and aid in recovery, it is not necessarily the only way to get enough of these macronutrients.

In fact, many world-class athletes are strict vegetarians, including a few that are competitors in the Sochi Olympics this year. American skier Bode Miller, who has been a vegetarian for life, and American snowboarder Hannah Teter have both credited their plant-based diets for giving them the energy needed to compete at the highest level. There is also Alexey Voyevoda, a bobsledder and Russian arm wrestling champion, who is a strict raw vegetarian, and favorite in the upcoming bobsled competitions.

The key to being a successful and (most importantly) healthy plant-based athlete is getting enough B-vitamins, iron, and muscle-building protein from plant and non-meat sources. If you’re looking to switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet, check out some of these high-protein alternatives to meat:

Greek Yogurt: Considered a superfood by some, 6 ounces of Greek yogurt provides the same amount of protein as 2 or 3 ounces of lean meat. It also has bone-building calcium that may actually help muscle recovery when eaten after a workout.

Quinoa: Quinoa is a fantastic plant-based source of protein, boasting over 8 grams in a cooked, one-cup serving. It is also high in iron, fiber, and magnesium—all nutrients that are crucial in muscle recovery.

Avocado: While avocados are a fantastic source of healthy fats, they are also a great source of vegetarian protein, providing all 18 essential amino acids necessary for a complete protein. There is also tons of fiber in avocado, making the protein easier for the body to absorb.

Almond Butter: Nut butters are a popular and easy way to include protein in your diet. While peanut butter is often the king of nut butters, almond butter provides nutrients such as vitamin E, magnesium, and iron. When selecting a nut butter, the key is to choose the least processed product (read: fewest ingredients).

What are you favorite plant-based protein sources?