For anyone who spends a fair amount of time on the saddle, carbohydrates aren’t the only macronutrient worth paying attention to when it comes to fueling. You also need plenty of protein. “We know that protein in the diet is important for the recovery process from exercise, including limiting sore muscles,” says Kayla Slater, MS, RDN, founder and owner of Plant-Based Performance Nutrition and Run Coaching. “It’s also essential to get enough to help build lean body mass—the more muscle you have, the stronger and more injury-resistant rider you will be.” Plus, you need protein for maintaining strong bones and connective tissues.

A 2019 sports nutrition consensus statement released by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) recommends endurance athletes consume between 1.3 to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (0.6 to 1.1 grams per pound)—on the higher end if you’re looking to build muscle mass.

Meat, fish, poultry, and eggs are often what come to mind for protein. And they are certainly high-quality sources that make it easier to take in enough of the macro. But it’s possible to pivot to plant-based proteins more often and still get what you need. “There is little credible evidence to show that active people who follow a well-planned plant-based diet that includes plenty of higher protein plant foods are at a performance disadvantage,” Slater tells Bicycling. And there could be some important health benefits of going bigger on plants and trading in beef for beans more often.

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For example, an analysis of data from more than 30 studies published in The BMJ linked higher protein intake overall, and plant protein specifically, to lower all-cause mortality risks. It’s worth noting that people did not need to be eating plant-only to boost lifespan, just eating more plant-based proteins than the typical diet. These findings were echoed by a European Journal of Epidemiology study, published in 2020, which also reported an inverse relationship between plant protein and all-cause mortality and premature death from heart disease.

“The benefits of including more plant-based proteins is they are low in fat, high in fiber, contain important vitamins and minerals, and provide antioxidants like phenolic acids which may help reduce the risk of conditions like heart disease,” Slater explains. She adds they are also typically a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable source of protein.

You don’t want to just stick with the same serving of beans or tofu every day, though, as a study in the Journal of Nutrition found that more diverse plant-heavy diets were better in quality overall. With that in mind, here are some of the better plant protein foods.

8 Plant Protein Foods to Add to Your Plate

1. Freekeh

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1/3 cup dry = 5 grams protein

While most people don’t consider grains to be a good source of protein, freekeh is higher in this macro than most others, even quinoa. Historically a popular whole grain in Middle Eastern nations, freekeh is a type of wheat kernel that’s harvested while still green or “young,” then roasted, dried, and rubbed resulting in a whole grain with a delicious smoky flavor.

The duo of protein and carbs in freekeh makes this ancient grain a great addition to a post-exercise meal to kickstart muscle recovery. Other nutritional highlights include high amounts of fiber—8 grams in a serving—and manganese, a micronutrient that the National Institutes of Health says is involved in immune function, bone formation, and carbohydrate metabolism.

Use cooked freekeh in salads, soups, grain bowls and as a stand-in for rice in burritos and even risotto.

2. Black Lentils

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1/4 cup dry = 13 grams protein

Lentils are a tiny member of the legume family, which also claims beans. Nicknamed “beluga lentils” because of the whale caviar they resemble, these legumes are less earthy tasting than other lentils. They are inexpensive and cook quickly because of their size, but they’re also packed with nutrition, including protein and fiber.

A systematic review published in 2021 showed that higher and more frequent intakes of pulses, which includes lentils, are associated with improved blood lipid and blood pressure numbers, less inflammation, and even healthier body composition.

Some research suggests that black lentils are also a source of anthocyanins, the same class of antioxidants found in some fruits and vegetables, including blueberries. “These antioxidants are important for athletes because it reduces oxidative stress in the body which can increase blood flow, thus increasing performance,” Slater says.

Because black lentils hold their shape well with cooking, they are a great addition to a variety of salads. Also, use them in soups, stews, tacos, burritos, and veggie burgers, too.

3. Edamame

plant protein foods
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1/2 cup cooked = 9 grams of protein

Edamame beans are whole, immature soybeans, and therefore still green. This gives them more of a vegetable-like flavor than other mature legumes. For a few calories (about 100 in a 3-ounce serving of shelled beans) you get a nutritional payload, including significant amounts of high-quality protein and dietary fiber (8 grams in a ½-cup serving). “This fiber is important for our gut health and helps us feel full for longer,” notes Slater.

The nutritional bounty also includes lofty amounts of folate, iron, potassium, and vitamin K. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, based on data from more than 50,000 people, found that those who ate more foods that are high in vitamin K had a lower risk for cardiovascular diseases related to atherosclerosis (or thickening of the arteries), compared with those who ate fewer foods rich in vitamin K.

You’ll find edamame in the frozen food section of most supermarkets near the subzero veggies. They come both in the shell and shelled, with the latter being easier to use. On their own, prepared edamame is a protein-packed healthy snack. But you can also use them in salads, noodle dishes, stir-fries, and dips (edamame hummus is good one).

4. Peanuts

plant protein foods
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1/4 cup shelled, raw = 9 grams of protein

Because peanuts are technically a legume, Slater says they provide more protein than tree nuts, such as almonds and pecans. And they cost considerably less, which is good to know if you’re struggling to keep your food budget under control.

A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2014 found that daily consumption of peanuts as part of the American Diabetes Association meal plan improved blood lipids, as well as the levels of unsaturated fat, vitamin E, niacin, and magnesium in the diets of participants with type 2 diabetes. Healthy athletes may experience the same nutritional boost by eating more peanuts.

Peanuts are also a surprising source of resveratrol, the same antioxidant compound found in red wine that may confer some benefits when it comes to heart health.

Peanuts fall into four basic types: Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia, with runner being the most common on store shelves. Each will have their own nuances when it comes to flavor and texture, but major nutritional differences are not known.

5. Hemp Seeds

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3 tablespoons = 10 grams of protein

Tasting like a combination of pine nuts and sunflower seeds, hemp seeds (also called hemp hearts) are a protein heavyweight in the world of seeds and nuts. Other nutritional virtues of hemp seeds include healthy amounts of omega-3s, magnesium, B vitamins, and energy-boosting iron.

In a study published this year, researchers from Pennsylvania State University determined an association between consuming more of the plant-based omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid, which is found in generous amounts in hemp, and a 10 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20 percent reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease.

You should know that the hemp seeds you find on store shelves contain virtually none of the psychoactive substance THC.

Adding more of this protein-rich food to your diet is as easy as sprinkling the seeds over cereal, yogurt, salads, and stir-fries. You can also blend them into a smoothie and use them in homemade energy bars and balls.

6. Tempeh

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1/2 cup = 17 grams of protein

Though generally less known than tofu, tempeh is a richer source of protein. “In general, soy proteins like tempeh typically have a higher protein content compared to other plant-based proteins,” says Slater.

Tempeh is made by soaking and cooking soybeans and then leaving this to ferment in the presence of bacteria for a number days. It’s then pressed into a firm meaty patty that delivers a punch of umami flavor.

Beyond protein, tempeh houses troves of nutrients including magnesium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and calcium. Though cooking tempeh (it should not be eaten raw) likely reduces levels of probiotics, research shows the fermentation process offers other benefits, such as improving nutrient bioavailabity and making the soy easier to digest.

You can treat tempeh like you would meat when cooking. Marinate and then grill the slab like you would steak or chicken. Or crumble it and use it to make meat-free meatballs, chili, and pasta sauce. You can also use it as a meaty filling for sandwiches.

7. Refried Beans

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1 cup, canned = 12 grams of protein

“Refried” doesn’t mean the beans have been fried twice. Instead, the word hails from the Spanish name for the dish frijoles refritos. Most often they are made from cooked and mashed pinto beans, which contain an arsenal of important nutrients. This includes fiber—a ½-cup of refried beans contains about 5.5 grams of fiber—iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and folate. According to the National Institutes of Health, we require adequate amounts of folate in our diet to produce genetic material like DNA and for proper cell division.

You can find cans of refried beans in virtually every supermarket, but you want to look for ones that are not packed with additional fat.

You can mix refried beans with some lime juice and any desired seasonings like chipotle chili powder for a quick dip. Spread it on wraps as a base for lunch sandwiches, quesadillas, and burritos. You can also use it as a base for homemade pizza instead of tomato sauce. Add it to the mix when making veggie burgers. Spread some on toast and top with a fried egg for a quick savory breakfast or postride nosh.

8. Seitan

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3 ounces = 21 grams of protein

Seitan, pronounced SAY-tan, is a chewy meat alternative produced from high-protein wheat gluten, which is made from wheat flour. (That means if you’re eating gluten-free, skip seitan.) Traditionally, it’s been used in Asian cooking, but long-time vegans have also used it as an excellent protein source long before the emergence of engineered plant-based meats on the market.

“The high levels of protein make it an excellent option after a hard workout to improve muscle recovery,” Slater suggests. Not only does it have a more favorable protein-to-fat ratio than many meats, meaning it contains a lot more protein than fat, seitan has a pleasant, mild taste and a beef-like chewy texture. Just keep in mind that because seitan is nearly pure protein, it does not provide the diversity of nutrition that other plant-based proteins will. But this can be remedied if served with items like vegetables and whole grains.

You can find seitan at most health food and some grocery stores, as well as online, where you can purchase plain or seasoned options that are cut into chunks or ground. Because it’s already cooked, you can simply give it a little sear in a pan to brown and then use it as you like in tacos, stews, stir-fries, sandwiches, pasta sauce, salads, and noodle bowls. It absorbs flavors very well, so any marinades, sauces, or herbs used for meats can also be applied to seitan.