Whether you are interested in following a strict vegan diet, or are looking to include more plant-based foods in your omnivore diet, it can be a challenge as an endurance athlete to keep a variety of nutrient-dense snacks on hand. Long training sessions and stressful work days deplete your energy stores, so when you are experiencing these together as your training load increases, you are likely always on the brink of an energy deficit - so eat up!
But before you rip open that bag of chips, grab an extra slice of pizza, or munch on handfuls of trail mix to get those extra calories, you may want to plan a little more carefully to ensure that you are getting enough protein.
How much protein do you need?
For most questions related to nutrition, the answer to this question is complicated, but several studies suggest that athletes get 1.6-2.2g of protein per day, per kg of body weight. Furthermore, if your diet is on the far-end of the vegetarian or vegan spectrum, you should be at the higher end of this range, as plant-based protein is slightly less bioavailable than animal-based protein.
Interested in how much protein you need? Here’s a simple calculator - just enter your weight (in lbs) in the highlighted cell.
Why is there so much excitement for plant-based proteins?
Plant-based protein is gaining a lot of attention from athletes to its myriad health benefits, which include
Support for cardiovascular health
Increase of glycogen storage due to consumption of high-quality carbs
Reduction of inflammation due to foods high in antioxidants
Increased immune function due to the consumption of a variety of vitamins and minerals
Easier weight loss due to high-fiber foods that fill you up
However, one of the biggest arguments against plant-based diets is that plants do not provide a complete protein, the way that animal proteins do, but this is not entirely true.
What is a complete protein? Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids. Some amino acids are “essential,” meaning that we need to get them from our diet because our bodies don’t produce them. Some amino acids are “non-essential” meaning that our bodies produce them so we don’t need to get them in our diet.
Most animal proteins have a “complete protein” profile, which means that they contain all 9 of the essential amino acids in a single protein type. Plant-based proteins are different, as most plant-based proteins do not contain all 9 essential amino acids in a single protein type. There are some exceptions to this, including edamame, tempeh, quinoa, and chia seeds. However, getting a complete protein profile in a single meal is quite easy as a vegan athlete - you will just need to fill your plate with a variety of proteins.
12 Plant-Based Protein Snacks
Now that you know how much protein you need, and have some motivation for eating plant-based, we are back to our original dilemma - what exactly are you going to eat? Here are some ideas for boosting your protein throughout the day. The main criteria for these snacks is that they provide at least 10g of plant-based protein, and they are simple to prepare or grab-n-go. I don't get paid by any of these companies to promote these products (although I did sneak a referral code in to Four Sigmatic below), they are just my staples.
Seitan is vital wheat gluten. It has a chewy texture and can be added to any meal, as you would add a meat. However, for a snack, I really like the flavored seitan from Uptons Naturals. Try the Chorizo Seitan.
1 serving: 17g protein, 100 calories
ProBar Core Bars
There are endless options for protein bars, but I really like the Coffee Crunch Core Bar from ProBar as a plant-based option. It has 20g of soy protein (a complete protein), it is sweetened with old-fashioned sugar which I prefer to artificial sweeteners, and also contains flax and chia. There are some emulsifiers and preservatives as you would find with many packaged foods, which can be gut irritants, but as an occasional snack, this one ranks high for me.
1 bar: 20g protein, 280 calories
Kite Hill Greek Style Yogurt
If you eat dairy, Greek yogurt is a great protein snack, but if you are plant-based or lactose intolerant, many of the soy, almond, or coconut yogurts available offer the tangy experience of a dairy yogurt, but fall short on protein… until… Kite Hill Greek Style Almond Milk Yogurt! I don’t find this one stocked very often, but when I do, I buy it up. Get the plain one with no added sugar, and add your own fruit.
1 serving: 11g protein, 160 calories
Tempeh is fermented soy beans and grains. You can flavor it with just about any marinade or spice mix you can dream up, and then pan-fry it lightly or bake it. Try Lightlife Three-Grain Tempeh. I usually slice up a couple packages, marinade for 30 min, bake for 20 min at 350-degrees, and then store in the fridge to have on hand for salads, sandwiches, or for a snack.
1 serving: 16g protein, 170 calories
Mary's Gone Crackers with Hummus
If you need something with a crunch, then this is the snack you are looking for. There is so much goodness in all of Mary’s products, but I suggest trying the SuperSeed Crackers with the hummus of your choice. The ingredient list is 100% understandable (brown rice, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds) and packed full of all the stuff that athletes need - protein and otherwise.
1.5 serving of crackers + 2 Tbsp hummus: 10g protein, 295 calories
You may see some fancy marketing labels on packaged greens that claim “supergreens” or “protein greens,” but there is nothing added to these seemingly magic greens. Greens - spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, chard - are packed with protein. 4 cups of raw spinach contains 3.6g of protein, and 1 cup of cooked spinach has 5.3g of protein. These may not seem like Popeye-sized servings of protein, but you would be surprised how much 4 cups of spinach disappear in a smoothie, or in a salad, or alongside your snack of crackers and hummus, or tempeh, or seitan. Greens are a powerhouse to add to almost every snack to increase your protein intake as well as your nutrients.
4 cups raw greens: approx. 4g protein, 30 calories
1 cup cooked greens: approx. 5g protein, 40 calories
Grains & Beans
If you are one to do some meal prep for the week ahead on Sunday night, then make yourself a big batch of grains and beans, lightly salt it, and then store it in 10-12oz sized tupperware containers so you can grab it any time you need a snack. By combining the grains and legumes, you’ve created a complete protein. Brown Rice & Black Beans and Quinoa & Lentils are two of my staples. Either can be flavored with spices, dressings, nuts, seeds, and veggies. My simple go-to is a cup of quinoa & lentils with salt, cumin, nutritional yeast, and sriracha.
1 serving (1 cup): 13g protein, 220 calories
Amy's Quarter Pound Veggie Burger
I put frozen veggie patties in the same category as protein bars. I don’t recommend eating a lot of them, but they can be a quick and easy snack when you need one (or fully dress it to make a meal if you need something more). Amy’s is one of my favorites because the ingredient list is 100% understandable and I find that the Quarter Pound Veggie Burger is the just the right size for a snack (without a bun).
1 patty: 19g protein, 210 calories
Smoothies are pure perfection for athletes needing highly nutritious, high calorie foods. It is not uncommon for me to be too lazy to cook dinner, so I fill the Vitamix with fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and plant-based milks. I have experimented with many plant-based proteins and my favorite is the Four Sigmatic Unflavored Plant Protein, which I buy directly from Four Sigmatic on a monthly subscription. (Here’s my one plug! Use this referral code if you are interested in trying any Four Sigmatic products out.) My pro tip is this: when making a smoothie, always add a fat to it - nuts, nut butter, seeds, coconut milk. It will make it creamier, and it will also enable you to absorb any of the fat-soluble vitamins in the fruits and veggies.
1 serving: 18g protein, 120 calories
For an extra protein boost, I suggest trying Califia Farms Ubermilk Oatmilk (8g protein) or Ripple Plant Based Milk (8g protein). (Also pictured is the Califia Farms Coconut Almond Milk - not a high protein source, but delicious, nonetheless!)
Kashi Plant-Power Bowl
If you’re in need of a quick mini-meal following a workout, and don’t have time for any prep - other than hitting a few buttons on the microwave - Kashi has a new plant-powered frozen bowl. There are Pesto Chickpea, Sweet Potato Quinoa, and Chimichurri Quinoa options. I’m partial to the spicy Chimichurri Quinoa.
1 bowl: 10g protein, 240 calories
Ezekiel Sprouted Grain Tortilla
Sprouted grains have received attention over regular whole grains because of their dense nutrient content and lower starch content, which makes them easier to digest. Grain - sprouted or not - are a great source of protein and the products from Ezekiel are a great option. Spread a tortilla with hummus or nut butter and you’ve got a great plant-based protein snack.
1 tortilla + 2 tbsp almond butter: 14g protein, 340 calories
1 tortilla + 4 tbsp hummus: 10g protein, 260 calories
Adding this reference to combat my bias. This study showed that plant protein was not as effective in repairing muscles (MPS, muscle protein synthesis) as animal protein. However, the researchers concluded several means for plant-based protein to provide the same benefits as animal protein, including some of the ideas discussed in this article - eat a variety of plant proteins, and eat more of them.
Stephan van Vliet, Nicholas A Burd, Luc JC van Loon, The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 145, Issue 9, September 2015, Pages 1981–1991, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.204305
21 High Protein Vegan Snacks : If you like to cook, check out this article with more vegan protein snacks. They all look yummy, but require some prep time in the kitchen.
This 8-week study compared the difference in physical adaptations obtained from whey protein (derived from animals) vs. pea protein (derived from plants) and did not show any significant differences between the two. Banaszek, A.; Townsend, J.R.; Bender, D.; Vantrease, W.C.; Marshall, A.C.; Johnson, K.D. The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study. Sports 2019, 7, 12.
Here’s a great podcast from Training Peaks, with Dr. Stacy Sims, researcher and exercise physiologist, about the importance of eating protein after exercise.