Plant-based and vegan eating is an incredible way to fuel your body with powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory vitamins and minerals that can ward off disease and improve overall health. However, one of the most common questions I’m asked about plant-based eating, and admittedly the question I asked myself before transitioning to a plant-forward diet, is how will you get enough protein? What about the calcium and Vitamin B-12 found in dairy and meat products? As an athlete, can you sustain this lifestyle?
For a while, I didn’t think so. As someone who struggles with anemia, Iron was always a concern for me. As an athlete, so was getting enough protein. And as the daughter of a health coach, I knew my calcium and Vitamin B-12 levels could suffer on a vegan diet as well. But with the help of some intense research and supportive, similarly plant-based friends, I realized there are plenty of ways to get all the vitamins and minerals I may miss when limiting my consumption of meat and animal products. In order to feel like my plant-forward diet could be successful, I focused on cooking with foods rich in these vitamins and minerals:
Luckily, Iron is a naturally occurring mineral in a lot of great plant-based foods. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens have about 14–36% of the recommended daily value of iron in 1 cooked cup. These greens are so easy to throw in pasta dishes or smoothies and you hardly notice they’re there! They are also great in an egg, tofu, or egg replacement scramble.
Other foods rich in Iron include nuts, nut butters, seeds, grains (oats, quinoa, spelt), and dark chocolate. A hearty trail mix with cashews, almonds, dark chocolate, flax and pumpkin seeds is a great Iron-rich snack or smoothie bowl topper.
Meat replacements like tofu and tempeh are also full of Iron! These replacements are great because they easily soak up whatever flavors you marinate or cook them in. If you find yourself missing the taste of meat, a little tempeh marinated in barbecue sauce or liquid smoke and pan-fried substitutes as great vegan bacon!
Calcium is frequently found in animal byproducts, like cheese, milk, and cream. Calcium is essential to build strong bones, teeth, and muscle, so it’s key to ensure you’re getting enough, especially as an athlete. Calcium isn’t only found in dairy products, though! You can find it in beans and legumes, leafy greens like spinach, almonds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, edamame, tofu, and figs.
One of my favorite ways to get in some extra calcium is by topping a slice of avocado toast with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, chia seeds, salt, and chili flakes. It’s packed with a crunch of flavor and functions as a breakfast, lunch, or a snack. Seeds may be small, but they are incredibly mighty. One tablespoon of poppy seeds provides 13% of the recommended daily value of Calcium. Sesame seeds also provide 9% of the RDI of Calcium in one tablespoon. Sprinkling seeds on your toast, trail mix, smoothie, or in homemade granola is an easy way to up your daily calcium intake.
Getting enough protein was my biggest concern when transitioning to a plant-forward diet. As someone who was always taught that I couldn’t perform athletically without a large portion of meat at every meal, cutting out things like chicken breasts and hearty breakfast sandwiches concerned me the most. I couldn’t believe that vegetables and plants could pack as much protein as meat.
As long as you load up your plate with the right plant-based proteins, you’ll be getting just as much protein as you would be from meat sources, but they’ll be much cleaner protein sources and better for you overall.
I look to tofu, tempeh, and chickpeas as my main source of meat replacement because they all pack a huge nutritional punch. One half cup of tofu offers 10 grams of protein, while one cup of tempeh supplies 31 gram of protein. Chickpeas are a great addition to salads or as a replacement for chicken in dishes like Tikka Masala. They similarly offer an astounding 39 grams of protein per cup.
Beans, lentils, nuts, nut butters, quinoa, plant-based protein powder, and nutritional yeast are all also great sources of plant-powered protein that are probably already sitting in your pantry!
4. Vitamin B-12
Tempeh is also a great source of Vitamin B-12. If you're not familiar with tempeh, it's crafted using fermented soybeans and is celebrated for being a complete source of protein full of vitamins like B-12, which is essential for the development of our brains and nerves.
Vitamin B-12 is also prominently found in fish like salmon, trout, and tuna, which are great sources of omega-3s, protein, and iron, if you are not a practicing vegan and still enjoy seafood. If you are a practicing vegan, B-12 can be found in fortified foods like fortified nutritional yeast and fortified cereals. In this context, fortified simply means added vitamins and minerals.
If you still find you aren’t getting enough Vitamin B-12, or rarely eat any of the foods mentioned above, it's worth consulting your doctor for a blood test to see if you may need to take a B-12 supplement. B-12 is crucial in bodily development as well as daily energy, so if you find yourself feeling particularly sluggish or foggy, it may be worth a trip to your care provider.
Plant-based and dairy-free eating may seem daunting, especially if you’re an athlete worried about your performance, or if you’ve had vitamin or mineral deficiencies in the past.
Don’t let that completely scare you off! It is entirely possible to find all the necessary nutrients you need to function at your best on a plant-based diet. And if you find yourself still concerned, don’t be afraid to consult a nutritionist or your general care provider to check in about any nutrients you may be missing.
About the author, Kristin Yorke
Kristin Yorke is a writer, reader, and a lover of all things she can do outside, preferably with her Boxer, Luna. She received her bachelor of arts from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where she powered her collegiate lacrosse career on a dairy-free diet. She has been a dairy-free eater for 3+ years and is dedicated to exercising often and eating as many plants as possible.