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Topic: Nutrition - April 28 2024
Your Guide to Plant-Based Proteins

Navigating the world of plant-based proteins can be tricky. VIS Expert and Sports Dietitian, Kaylee Jacks, discusses how to make sure our body is getting the necessary nutrients if we choose to turn to meat alternatives as our protein choice.

By: Krystal Clark

VIS Creator

& Kaylee Jacks, MS, RD, LD, CSSD

VIS Expert

Topic: Nutrition

April 28 2024

Years ago, getting all the nutrients we needed as athletes through plant-based nutrition felt like a far-off dream. But today, with more resources available, going vegan or vegetarian is more accessible than ever. 

But it still comes with its challenges. Kaylee Jacks MS, CSSD, RD, LD, and VIS Expert, sat down with us to dive into how to make sure we are getting the most out of our food to fuel our bodies for activity.

How Do Plant-Based Meat Proteins Compare to Traditional Meat? 

Plant-based alternatives go through more processing than traditional meat products, and through this processing, several key nutrients are lost. This means that the plant-based alternatives need to be fortified with different ingredients. Jacks says the added processing often adds sodium to these alternatives, too. “Generally, meat alternatives do not have as much protein as traditional meat,” she says. “Vitamin B12, for example, is only naturally found in animal proteins, so it would need to be fortified into plant-based meats.” 

Iron and amino acids are other key nutrients found in greater amounts in traditional meat, so these are also often fortified into plant-based meats. “Alternatively, traditional meats will not have the fiber content of meat alternatives,” Jacks points out. “Additionally, some traditional sources of meat such as ribs are likely going to be higher in saturated fat.”

Which Meat Alternatives Have the Best Levels of Protein?

Jacks says that the best meat alternatives are the ones minimally processed and highest in protein. But she acknowledges that there is no one size fits all. “Determining which is healthiest among all the brands is difficult and would depend on the person. For example, black bean alternatives are higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat but also lower in protein than soy or pea protein,” she says. Both soy and pea proteins have their own pros and cons. For one, soy is better as a protein source and bioavailability, while pea protein has higher leucine content, which helps muscle growth and repairs. 

Looking at protein levels, here is how different plant-based sources stack up:

  1. Tofu (~32g/cup)

  2. Tempeh (~20g/cup)

  3. Lentils/edamame (~18g/c)

  4. Black Beans (15g/c)

  5. Soy and pea mile (~8g/c)

  6. Quinoa (~8g/c)

“When comparing meat alternatives, the healthiest options are going to be the ones minimally processed and highest in protein.”

Kaylee Jacks, MS, CSSD, LD, VIS Expert and registered dietitian

Other Things to Consider

As well as protein levels, Jacks says we also need to consider Vitamin B12 in our meals. Important for energy metabolism, Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. Vegans or vegetarian athletes will need to obtain this through fortified foods or NSF and physician-approved supplements. 

Another key nutrient to look at as athletes is iron. Animal proteins are a rich source of this vital nutrient.  “Make sure to consume plenty of plant sources, such as leafy greens, and find foods fortified with iron,” Jacks says. “If that is not enough, a supplement might be required.” 

Special attention also needs to be placed on iron while in our menstrual cycles, as we lose a substantial amount of iron each cycle. 

A tip for women athletes: when consuming iron, avoid caffeine and make sure to pair it with a piece of fruit or a rich vitamin C source. This is because Vitamin C helps absorption, while caffeine prevents it. Jacks says other nutrients to incorporate into our nutrition include zinc, vitamin D, the nine essential amino acids, and calcium.

Ensuring we are nourishing our plant-based bodies and not depriving them of any of the invaluable nutrients we need will allow us to push our bodies to new heights, both on and off the field. 

Take Action

If you want to learn more about being a plant-based athlete, check out our article Being a Plant-Based Athlete and Are We Getting Enough Protein, or set up a Session with Jacks on the VOICEINSPORT platform to meet with her directly.