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It keeps your energy up, builds muscle, and keeps you satiated, but it can be a nutrient some vegetarians lack in their diet: protein.
In general, female athletes are more likely to miss the mark on their nutritional needs than male counterparts, says Yasi Ansari, national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. That is especially true for runners who restrict their food intake, putting themselves at risk for low protein intake.
“In the work that I do, it’s really important to encourage my athletes to be eating enough to ensure they are meeting their nutrition needs from all their macronutrients,” she says.
Eating the right amount of protein plays a significant role in an athlete’s diet. It helps repair muscles after a rigorous workout. It also builds and maintains muscle mass, which boosts performance. And it helps to support the immune system. “Protein plays many other roles as well,” says Ansari. It aids in cell turnover, for example, “the structural component of the body and makes up enzymes and some hormones while playing a role in a variety of physiological functions.”
“Hemoglobin is also a protein that carries oxygen,” she adds. “Without enough protein we are also at risk of fatigue which can lead to poor performance and low energy.”
Dave Scott, six-time IRONMAN champion, works with many athletes to make sure they consume the right balance of nutrients to avoid any issues during a competition. He outlines six warning signs that it might be time to up your protein intake:
- Restless sleep
- Lack of clear cognitive thought process
- Loss of muscle tissue or changes in body composition
- Brittle nails and hair
- Feeling lazy, sluggish, or generally fatigued
- Low libido
Ansari recommends checking with a registered dietitian to dial in on your precise protein needs. But as a general rule, you may need more protein if you’re at risk of energy deficiency, have recently increased your workouts, are pregnant, are recovering from injury, or are an older adult.
Everyone should be including protein in every meal. “Several studies agree that evenly distributing protein at about 25-35 gm of protein per meal, throughout the day will also help optimize muscle protein synthesis compared with an uneven distribution of protein,” says Ansari.
Some tips to do so: Sprinkle protein powder in your oatmeal, smoothie, coffee, or yogurt parfait in the morning. Eat beans at lunch or dinner, and snack on high-protein foods in between meals (like nuts or peanut butter and crackers).
While vegan and vegetarian athletes may be at higher risk for low protein intake, Ansari is a firm believer that it is possible to have a solid nutritional game plan: “If you are following a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern you can meet your protein needs.”
For vegetarian or plant-based diets he recommends Nori seaweed or tempeh. Other great protein sources include beans, lentils, soy milk, tofu, nuts, seeds, quinoa, and certain breads. Processed protein shakes, powders, and bars are also an option.
“Consistency is key,” says Ansari. “See which protein sources work best for you and how/when you can add more protein to your plates.”
Ansari adds the encouragement that you likely already know if you’re getting enough protein in your diet based on how you feel. “If you’re an athlete who is meeting their needs through consistent and adequate nutrition, you are likely meeting your protein goals,” she says.
From Women’s Running