If you still think vegans have a hard time being fit and healthy, it’s time to get with the program. Whether they’re smashing world records in endurance or weight lifting, winning bodybuilding competitions, or taking home UFC titles, the verdict is in: Muscles don’t need meat.
You might even say the question has become not if you can improve muscle and performance on a vegan diet but how. Well, the jigsaw puzzle of sports nutrition has a lot of pieces, but probably none is as important as the post-workout meal. (It’s like that really big corner piece.)
“A 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein has been proven to be really efficient for replenishing amino acids and repairing the muscle that’s been broken down during strength training,” says Rachel Berman, a registered dietician and director of health content at About.com. The basic gist is that during exercise, you use up your glycogen (the energy stored in your muscles). After sweating it out, carbs will help to replenish this energy, and the protein enhances this process, explains Elizabeth Jarrard, a dietician who consults for plant-based supplement company Vega.
But protein and carbs aren’t all we need after a workout. “While exercise suppresses inflammation in the long term, the act of exercise damages your muscles. That’s why it’s always a good idea to include foods that support inflammation reduction, like those rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids,” Jarrard says. “But that said, you don’t want too much fat in the post-workout meal, because it’ll slow your digestion.”
So a lot of carbs, a decent amount of protein (Berman says 6 to 20 grams is plenty), lots of antioxidants, and little fat? If that isn’t what vegans do best, we don’t know what is. The next time you want to feed your muscles right, you can’t fail with one of these recipes approved by Berman and Jarrard.
Made from buckwheat, soba noodles not only have that 4:1 ratio, but they’re also a complete protein. Pair the Japanese staple with teriyaki mushrooms for a rich, satisfying, meaty dimension, as well as broccolini and chilis, which have anti-inflammatory properties.1
- Cruciferous vegetable intake is inversely correlated with circulating levels of proinflammatory markers in women. Jiang Y, Wu SH, Shu XO. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2014, Mar.;114(5):2212-2672.
Popular as it is, the 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein isn’t gospel. Some people prefer something closer to 2:1 or 3:1, and there are others who think you’ll recover just fine with only carbs and no protein at all.1
Lentils have about 2.2 grams of carbs for every gram of protein, and this Mediterranean soup combines them with tomatoes and spinach for added vitamins and minerals, in addition to about 12 grams of protein per serving.
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Kerksick C, Harvey T, Stout J. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2008, Oct.;5():1550-2783. Carbohydrate co-ingestion with protein does not further augment post-prandial muscle protein accretion in older men. Hamer HM, Wall BT, Kiskini A. Nutrition & metabolism, 2013, Jan.;10(1):1743-7075.
With their dietitian-approved 4:1 ratio, steel-cut oats are an awesome choice, despite their lengthy prep time. That’s where the magic of the slow cooker comes in. This recipe is perfect post-workout thanks to the combo of cocoa powder, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, and cherries, which help reduce post-workout muscle soreness.1
- Health benefits of cocoa. Latif R. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 2014, May.;16(6):1473-6519. Recovery facilitation with Montmorency cherries following high-intensity, metabolically challenging exercise. Bell PG, Walshe IH, Davison GW. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquée, nutrition et métabolisme, 2014, Nov.;40(4):1715-5320.
With its commendable focus on beans, peppers, onions, and antioxidant-rich herbs, authentic Mexican food can be pretty vegan friendly (just hold the cheese, of course, and make sure the beans and tortillas aren’t prepared with lard). This recipe puts a fresh twist on a traditional Southwestern dish with the addition of trendy quinoa, which, when combined with protein-rich black beans, has a pretty great balance of carbs and complete protein.
Pea protein is fast becoming a popular supplement for vegans and non-vegans alike due to its high levels of branch chain amino acids and the fact that it’s lactose and gluten free, making it easy to digest and allergy friendly.1
In their non-powdered form, peas have a 3:1 carbs-to-protein ratio, and this simple, low-fat soup is overflowing with antioxidants from asparagus, spinach, and garlic. It’s also ready in 30 minutes—bon appetit!
- Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2015, Jan.;12(1):1550-2783.
Tiny as they are, chia seeds are a complete protein, and although they may contain more fat than the ideal post-workout snack (there’s about twice as much fat as there is protein), they’re still a good choice. More than half of the fats are omega-3 fatty acids, and Berman says that while humans have a harder time absorbing plant-based omega-3s than those found in animal sources, chia seeds are still a terrific anti-inflammatory food.1
- alpha-Linolenic acid supplementation and conversion to n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in humans. Brenna JT, Salem N, Sinclair AJ. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and essential fatty acids, 2009, Mar.;80(2-3):0952-3278.
Edamame—those immature, undeveloped, can’t-believe-they-still-have-a-curfew soybeans many people eat before sushi—are about equal parts protein and carbs. This salad increases the latter with a vibrant combination of broccoli, peas, and raisins. Double the portion for a satisfying yet light meal.
A good, old-fashioned sandwich is Jarrard’s post-workout weapon of choice since it’s so simple to make and pack in a gym bag. This one gives PB&J a run for its money with a colorful, flavorful, health-boosting mix of hummus, sunflower seeds, avocado, and tomatoes.
Tempeh has about twice as much protein as carbohydrates, so crank up your carbs with the addition of butternut squash. The warming spices in the tempeh pair perfectly with the squash’s sweetness. And don’t skip the homemade salsa verde: It’s packed with spicy antioxidants from tomatillos, onions, jalapeño, and cilantro.
An indispensable staple of a nation with more than half a billion vegetarians, this thick, protein-rich soup is made from masoor dal, or red lentils. These cook quite a bit faster than the green kind, but the nutrition profile is roughly the same. Dal is beloved as a comfort food in part because it’s usually made with a generous amount of ghee or fat. To keep things animal free, this recipe uses coconut milk, which means your meal should digest a little more quickly if you use the light version.
What ode to the post-workout meal is complete without a protein shake? Smoothies are a really easy way to cram a ton of foods with different health benefits into one easy-to-guzzle package, and this recipe doesn’t disappoint. It has anti-inflammatory benefits from ginger, and the calcium from kale and parsley may help with fat loss and boost muscle-building testosterone.1
It’s tough to nail down an exact macronutrient ratio for a shake since it depends largely on the kind of protein powder you use, so it’s worth experimenting with different recipes to find your favorite go-to combo.
- Alkaloids and athlete immune function: caffeine, theophylline, gingerol, ephedrine, and their congeners. Senchina DS, Hallam JE, Kohut ML. Exercise immunology review, 2014, Jul.;20():1077-5552. Effect of calcium from dairy and dietary supplements on faecal fat excretion: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Christensen R, Lorenzen JK, Svith CR. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 2009, Jun.;10(4):1467-789X. Testosterone levels in athletes at rest and exhaustion: effects of calcium supplementation. Cinar V, Baltaci AK, Mogulkoc R. Biological trace element research, 2008, Dec.;129(1-3):1559-0720.
This hummus recipe relies on tahini, lemon juice, and roasted red pepper for its flavor. Not only is tasty produce whizzed right into the hummus itself, but it’s also a perfect dip for just about any vegetable (if you want to increase your antioxidants) or pita bread (if you’d like to complete your protein and add some extra carbs).
No meat doesn’t mean no chili for vegans. This rich, thick, creamy, spicy, and sweet concoction hits all the right notes, and although black beans have fewer than 3 grams of carbs for every gram of protein, that just means you have a license to indulge with that warm, comforting sweet potato.