Best of 2016: Best vegan protein sources for triathletes, runners, bikers and more | SummitDaily.com

Best of 2016: Best vegan protein sources for triathletes, runners, bikers and more

Editor's note: Every Tuesday, we print articles from a rotating corps of health and wellness columnists. They cover everything from Fourth of July Bowl to mental health to the Zen joys of fly-fishing in Summit County, and I enjoy the variety they bring to a mountain-town sports section. Local personal trainer Julie Wilson is back in 2017 with her "Surviving Summit" series, filled with useful tips for triathletes, skiers on a beach vacation, vegans and more.

It's easy to see why many athletes today are opting for whole food and plant-based diets, as there is increasing proof of the many benefits found with these foods. While many athletes are often skeptical about getting enough protein through a plant-based or vegan diet, you'll find it's a lot easier than you think!

Why are these diets just now catching on? Simple: Athletes are thinking outside of the meat cooler. Even plants contain protein: One cup of green peas contains 8 grams — about the same as a cup of milk — and eating moderate amounts of nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables, fruit and whole grains is enough to maintain muscle mass for the average person.

Active people need more protein, so athletes might need to add high-protein foods, such as soy, hemp seeds, quinoa or a vegan protein shake. Athletes should make sure to get enough protein, as it promotes muscle healing and lessens injuries. Protein is also essential for a strong immune system and can help you maintain proper body weight, as it usually makes you feel fuller for longer.

This is not to say meat and animal proteins are bad for you, but there are other ways to get the protein you need. Many of us have animal protein three meals a day, and athletes are often told they can't have enough.

But, for multiple reasons, many are seeking out other sources: for health reasons, for animal-cruelty issues and even for environmental wellness. These alternative sources give you a variety of carbohydrates, vitamins, fiber and phytonutrients, plus protein. They are also lower in saturated fat and easier to digest than meat.

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Here are five vegan protein foods I can't live without:

1. Chia seeds

Chia seeds are a complete protein that comes loaded with calcium, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation and help speed muscle recovery. They are nutrient-dense and filling. They also expand to a gel when mixed with to cleanse your digestive system. With 6 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons, they are a great addition to oatmeal, cereal, smoothies, salads and baked goods — all your favorite things.

2. Nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is a low-fat superfood grown on cane or beet molasses under carefully-controlled conditions. It is rich in B vitamins, including B12, which is difficult to obtain from non-meat sources. In just 2 tablespoons it contains 8-10 grams of protein depending on the brand, along with 4-5 grams of fiber. Its nutty, cheesy taste is popular with vegan and vegetarian athletes and can be a great cheese substitute. Sprinkle the flakes on casseroles, kale chips and baked cauliflower, stir them in vegan cashew queso or use to make "cheesy" biscuits.

3. Vegan protein powders

Vegan protein powders are a must for fitness freaks — I drink vegan chocolate shakes almost daily. Most use a combination of hemp, rice, pea, chia and/or soy protein. For a delicious post-workout recovery meal, blend vegan protein powder with a frozen banana, unsweetened almond or hemp milk, a little almond butter and ice. This tastes like a dessert and gives your body everything it needs to recover from an intense workout.

My favorite is a hemp powder, as it is a complete protein that is easily digested and contains omega-3s, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is one of the finest sources of protein in the plant kingdom, and it requires no pesticides in its production making it very environmentally friendly.

4. Quinoa

Quinoa has become one of the world's most popular health foods. This versatile, gluten-free crop contains 8 grams of protein per cup, including all nine essential amino acids the body cannot make on its own and yet needs for growth and repair. It also is loaded with antioxidants, fiber, magnesium, healthy fats and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.

Quinoa is great in soups, tossed with veggies for spicy stir-fry or a refreshing salad, or used in ground form as a flour substitute in any cookie or muffin recipe. You can even buy quinoa noodles for your favorite pasta recipe.

5. Beans

Beans, beans and more beans — you simply can't go wrong. These low-fat and high-fiber foods are highly nutritious, not to mention ideal for the waistline. One cup of kidney or black beans contains 15 grams of protein, and chickpeas or garbanzo beans have 14 grams. Soybeans are one of the best vegan protein sources, as tofu has 20 grams and tempeh has 30 grams per cup. That's more than five eggs or a double hamburger patty.

Beans are delicious in veggie burgers, hummus, vegetarian chili, burritos and much more.

You can definitely meet your optimal health and fitness needs by focusing on plant-based foods with natural sources of protein. It might take careful planning to make sure you get enough protein with this type of eating, but many famous and successful athletes thrive off plant-based protein foods, including IronMan champ Dave Scott and Texas Rangers star Prince Fielder.

Whether you're looking to lose weight, build muscle, or just improve your health, why not try a week without meat and see how your performance might soar?

Julie Wilson is an ACE certified personal trainer and fitness nutritionist based in Dillon. She loves to be active in the mountains and help others with their health and fitness goals.