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My Answers to 3 Questions about Protein, Avoiding Injury, and Vegan Cheese

A few months ago, I posted an interview with my friend Leo from Zen Habits, where we talked about creating healthy habits and his new fitness program, Simple Fitness Habit, which is unique in that it uses the principles of habit change to keep you on track.

As part of the program, each month one of the contributors (of which I’m one) does a live webinar, and another does a Q&A to answer questions submitted by members. This month was my turn for Q&A, and I figured it’d be useful to share some of those questions and my answers here. (Don’t worry, I got the okey-doke from Leo, so I won’t likely get kicked out for this.)

Hope you find my answers helpful!

Q: How much protein is REALLY necessary and what are the best vegan sources? I do find I work out better having eaten some type of meat than when I eat more vegetarian/vegan, but is that because my vegetarian meal is lacking something? Thanks!

I find that I do just fine with 10 to 15 percent of my calories coming from protein, and that’s in line with what just about any pro vegan endurance athlete I’ve talked to gets in his or her diet. As an example, if you’re eating 2,500 calories per day, that means 250 to 375 of those calories should come from protein, which equates to 63 to 93 grams of protein per day (since there are four calories in a gram of protein). These numbers seem low to many people, but if you plug your information into the USDA’s Dietary Reference Intake calculator, you’ll likely get back a similar figure for daily protein requirement.

It’s possible that bodybuilders and strength athletes can benefit from more protein than this, but for general health and endurance sports, 10 to 15 percent is a good number to shoot for.

My favorite vegan protein sources are lentils, chickpeas, black beans, a rice/hemp/pea protein powder blend, nuts and nut butters, tempeh, and tofu (see Leo’s excellent article on soy if you’re wary about soy). More than focusing on any particular protein source though, I just try to get a small amount of protein in each meal or snack I eat throughout the day, and that works out well.

As for your feeling better when you workout after eating meat than when you eat a vegetarian meal, it could be due to a variety of factors. First, while a little bit of protein is helpful in the pre-workout meal, I think it’s pretty unlikely that simply replacing meat with a similar amount of plant-based protein would negatively affect your performance. But if you’re referring to your general diet in the day or days before a workout, then it’s possible you’re not getting a good amino acid balance with your vegetarian meals, or most likely of all, that you’re just not taking in enough calories. A common mistake when people try a plant-based diet is not replacing the meat with enough food to make up for the lost calories.

For more plant-based protein info, here’s a good protein article that my friend Matt Ruscigno, a vegan registered dietitian, wrote for No Meat Athlete.

Q: I have 56 year old knees and some early arthritis (or so I’m told). I know that not exercising is not good for your joints; but how to exercise so that I’m not injuring them? I want to get back into running but I haven’t done more than 15 minutes at a time on grass.

I can’t claim to know much about arthritis or good exercises for those suffering from it, but I have heard many runners report that their knee pain from arthritis (and other ailments) improved or disappeared entirely when they started barefoot running or running in minimalist shoes.

Leo wrote a helpful guide about barefoot running, in which he stresses the importance of building up your mileage extremely slowly when you first get into it. And keep in mind that you don’t need to run entirely barefoot (or even in the most minimal of shoes, like Vibram Fivefingers) to get the benefits — there are some really good shoes out there nowadays that still have some cushioning in the sole but are built without the big drop from heel to toe or the excessive support that many claim is responsible for a lot of the injuries runners suffer. (Shoes like this are what I run in; recently I’ve been wearing the Brooks PureDrift and I absolutely love them.)

1101411D725.070defaultpdMinimalist shoes and barefoot running should get you to run with shorter, quicker steps, landing more towards your midfoot than on your heel, and keeping your weight over your feet instead of landing with your foot way out in front of you. All of this leads to smaller impact shocks through your legs, and puts your knees in a more supported position when you land. In theory, you could run with this type of form in traditional shoes and still get many of the benefits that barefoot running offers. The difficulty, of course, is breaking those bad habits, and minimalist shoes help with this.

But it’s important to note that minimalist running doesn’t work for everyone. It’s worth going to a good running store and having them take a look at your stride and asking if minimalist shoes are right for you. Most important, though, is that you try different shoes and find what works best for your particular body.

Good luck!

Q: Can you talk about cheeses? Giving up non-vegan cheese is tough. Recommendations for the best tasting vegan cheeses, and/or other substitutes? In particular parmesan cheese is a potent flavoring in many dishes; let us know if there is a great vegan parm or another great flavoring substitute in cooking. Thanks!

Cheese was a tough one for me too; for two years while I was vegetarian but not vegan, cheese was the only animal product I ate, and I was afraid to give it up! But once I made the decision to go vegan, giving up cheese wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

I have three cheese substitutes that I like to use for different purposes:

1) There’s a good vegan cheese substitute called Daiya, which you can get in most health food stores and some mainstream grocery stores. It melts like real cheese, and the flavor is pretty good too. I didn’t like it much at first, and I wouldn’t say it’s a health food, but it’s grown on me and now I love it for those times when I’m still craving pizza or shredded cheese in my bean and rice burrito.

2) Robin Robertson, in her excellent cookbook 1000 Vegan Recipes, gives a recipe for something she calls Parmasio that works pretty well as a replacement for grated parmesan (and is delicious in its own right). It’s simply a 50/50 mix of toasted sesame seeds and nutritional yeast, sprinkled with a little salt to taste and ground in a food processor.

3) You can also make a great, super-healthy cheesy spread from raw cashews. Soak a cup of them in water for 4 to 6 hours, then blend in a food processor with a tablespoon of lemon juice, a very small garlic clove (or more to taste), a quarter-teaspoon of sea salt, and two tablespoons of water (add the water a little bit at a time until you reach the consistency you want, adding even more if you want your cheese to be a “sauce” instead of a spread). Adjust any of the ingredient amounts for your particular tastes. I use this cheese for spreading on crostini, stirring into risotto or pasta dishes to make them creamy, or spreading or pouring as a pizza topping.

Great questions, everyone! I enjoyed answering these. Feel free to follow up; my Twitter handle is @nomeatathlete.

You can read the rest of my questions and answers, plus get monthly access to the expert webinars and Q&A’s, when you become a Simple Fitness Habit member. (And gold and platinum members get a free copy of the Marathon Roadmap ebook, too!) Click here to learn more.

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