Champaign, IL—Vegetarian athletes are often concerned with getting enough protein. Since endurance athletes have higher protein needs, sprinkling a few chickpeas on a salad or crumbling a little tofu into a vegetable stir-fry won’t get the job done. According to Suzanne Girard Eberle, author of the forthcoming new edition of Endurance Sports Nutrition (Human Kinetics, 2013), most female endurance athletes need 65 to 90 grams of protein a day, and active males typically require 95 to 120 grams daily.
“Keeping up with your protein needs requires a two-pronged approach: Eat a variety of plant foods daily and consume enough calories to maintain your weight,” says Eberle, a former champion runner who represented the United States on three national teams. “Consuming too few calories means that protein gets used for energy rather than for building, repairing, and maintaining body tissues, including muscle.”
Because plants contain low levels of one or more essential amino acids, grains, dried beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and vegetables are considered lower-quality protein sources than animal sources, which provide essential amino acids that the body constantly recombines to create the new proteins. “Soybeans, however, are the exception,” explains Eberle. “They contain certain amino acids in higher amounts than found in other beans, so ounce for ounce, soybean protein is equivalent in quality to animal protein.”
In the past, vegetarians were advised to combine specific plant foods, such as rice and beans, within a meal. When eaten together, these foods would complement each other by providing all the essential amino acids needed to build new complete proteins. “Today we know that combining plant foods at the same meal isn’t necessary. The body can assemble its own complete proteins from a small pool of free amino acids that it maintains for this purpose,” says Eberle. “If you are a vegetarian, however, this system is effective only if you eat a variety of plant foods, as well as enough calories, every day.”
To boost protein intake and avoid the carb-overload trap, Eberle advises including a protein-rich food at all meals and snacks. “A good strategy is to ensure that you don’t eat your grains plain,” Eberle advises. “Smear nut butters, low-fat cottage cheese, or hummus on a bagel. Vary your pasta toppings by using canned spicy beans one night and a vegetable and tofu stir-fry another.”
According to Eberle, vegetarians who eliminate animal foods without substituting traditional vegetarian staples have the most trouble meeting their protein needs. “A good rule to follow is to eat dried beans, peas, lentils, and soy foods daily,” Eberle says. “Quick-fix beans like precooked canned varieties and meat substitutes made from soybeans are easy ways to get the protein that you need.”
Packed with nutrition plans for short-range, long-distance, ultraendurance, and multiday endurance events, Endurance Sports Nutrition, Third Edition, addresses the nutrition needs of runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes, and more. For more information on Endurance Sports Nutrition or other nutrition resources, visit www.humankinetics.com/nutritionandhealthyeating.