As May comes to an end and we head into June, celebrate Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month by learning how plant-based foods can help us reach our fitness goals. If you were aware that May was National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, maybe you got into a new workout routine and are looking to significantly up your game. (If not, don’t fret! It is never too late to start becoming more active.)
Protein is the macronutrient responsible for building and maintaining lean muscle. We can get our protein from animal products like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. Animal protein is very healthy for us because these sources contain all nine essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein in the body.
Unfortunately, if you are not consuming lean animal proteins these foods can be higher in saturated fat, which can contribute to weight gain and high blood cholesterol levels. The good news: there are plenty of plant-based protein foods that provide many additional vitamins and minerals.
However, these sources are not complete proteins (except for soy and quinoa). For this reason, it is important to consume a balanced blend of animal and plant-based proteins.
So what are your best options when it comes to choosing plant-based protein foods? Here are my top 10 plant powered proteins to include in your diet, especially on days you exercise:
1. Soy. As noted, soy is a complete plant-based protein, so it is a great option for vegan and vegetarian athletes as a way to get those essential amino acids that animal proteins provide. Soy is also an excellent source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. B vitamins, iron, and zinc are also found in soy. These powerful antioxidants combat oxidative stress that can result from exercise. Try including soy in your diet by eating tofu, tempeh, miso, and soy milk.
2. Chia seeds. Did you know that chia seeds were a “super seed” for the Aztecs and Mayans to increase their energy levels? That’s right, the nutrients found in chia seeds were incredibly helpful to ancient warriors and runners by improving their stamina. Chia seeds contain 5 grams of protein in each two-tablespoon serving. Add them to smoothies, oatmeal, salads, or sprinkled on top of pancakes or waffles with some nut butter for the ultimate protein-powered meal before or after a workout.
3. Ground flaxseeds. These powerful seeds and not only contain protein but omega 3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation. When we exercise, we bring about oxidative stress on the body as well as inflammation. Adding flaxseeds to smoothies after a workout is one great way to reduce that inflammation. Another delicious way to use flaxseeds is in homemade chicken nuggets. After dipping a raw chicken breast in an egg wash, coat both sides in a mixture of crushed crackers and flaxseeds before baking. You won’t even taste them.
4. Lentils. Many people do not think of lentils when they think of plant-based protein, but believe it or not a one-half cup serving of lentils contains 12 grams of protein. Paired with 32% of your daily fiber needs, the protein in lentils will be sure to keep you full and satisfied after exercise. In fact, when lentils are eaten with a whole grain (e.g. farro, brown rice) they provide the same quality protein as animal meat.
5. Peanuts. Per ounce, peanuts contain a whopping 7 grams of protein. You can also get this much protein from peanut butter, just be sure to choose one with few ingredients and minimal added sugars. Peanuts are also excellent sources of healthy fats, containing 12 grams of unsaturated fat per 30 ounce serving. This is great for heart health since unhealthy fats are linked to heart disease.
6. Almonds. While peanuts contain the most protein, almonds are right behind them with 6 grams per serving. Almonds are also packed with vitamin E and iron, nutrients that are important for battling oxidative stress and transporting oxygen, respectively. One delicious snack idea is dark chocolate coated almonds: dark chocolate is an antioxidant and coupled with the nutrients found in almonds, this post-workout snack will also satisfy your sweet tooth in a healthy way.
7. Chickpeas. Eaten alone, on top of salads, or as hummus, chickpeas are an awesome source of protein. Per ounce serving, chickpeas contain 3 grams of protein. In fact, they contain all the essential amino acids except one, which is why they are considered a higher quality plant-based protein. With all the protein and fiber chickpeas contain, they are low in calories which helps contribute to weight loss or weight maintenance.
8. Red kidney beans. An exceptional source of plant-powered protein providing almost 9 grams per 3.5 ounce serving red beans re also a very affordable protein option, making it easier for many people to consume high quality nutritious foods. Pair red kidney beans with a whole grain like brown rice in a burrito bowl filled with veggies and there you have a complete protein.
9. Quinoa. Along with soy, quinoa is the only other complete protein coming from plants. Compared to other cereal grains, quinoa is quite high containing 4.4 grams per 100 grams of cooked quinoa. It can be used as a base in salads, to thicken soups, added to chilis, or as a breakfast dish similar to oatmeal.
10. White Potatoes. They’re not one of the most common protein-packed foods, but 4.3 grams of protein are found in one baked potato. White potatoes have also not been thought of as a healthy food, as many people commonly consume them in the form of chips and French fries. However, white potatoes are filled with antioxidants and nutrients like vitamin C and potassium. Try eating potatoes baked and topped with Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, herbs and spices, or air fried in avocado oil.
There are amazing sources of plant-based protein that will help you recover from your workouts. Next time you’re figuring out your post-workout meal, try including some of these plant proteins as a way to vary your diet and also consume some very important nutrients.
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