Power plants

Meat-free alternatives that pack protein to fuel and rebuild your muscles – without unhealthy fats.

by Jessica Girdwain

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Runners need more protein than couch potatoes (obviously) and more even than strength-based athletes (surprisingly). ‘Protein is broken down into fuel during long runs and used to repair muscle damage after workouts,’ says nutritionist Dr Janet Brill. But if you’re vegetarian, packing your diet with protein can be problematic. And even if you’re not, with studies showing that the saturated fats and cholesterol in diets heavy in red and processed meat are associated with heart disease and cancer, lining up some go-to veggie protein sources is a smart move.

Plant-based diets can reduce your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. So runners, and even committed carnivores, should try to eat more veggie protein sources such as soya and legumes. This will also sneak in additional carbs, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Seeds and nuts

‘There’s good reason chia seeds are the new nutritional superstar,’ says Brill. They pack 6g of protein and 10g of fibre into two tablespoons. You also get 5g of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which has been linked to reduced heart disease risk. Flaxseeds are also rich in ALA. And both are excellent sources of manganese, which helps convert fat and carbs into energy. Make nuts your post-run snack of choice. ‘Nuts offer varied nutritional profiles – some rich in calcium and magnesium; others, potassium – so they replace the electrolytes lost through sweat,’ says nutritionist Kristine Duncan.

Eat It 

Chia seeds expand and become gel-like when wet. Make a tapioca-like pudding by mixing with water and then topping with fruit, honey and cinnamon.


Tofu is made from soya milk curd and is pressed into a block. The smooth, soft texture handily adopts the flavours of sauces and spices. And for every 88kcal, it offers 10g of protein (and a modest 5g of fat). Tofu is also rich in heart-protective compounds called isoflavones, which US research from Columbia University found may produce enzymes that create nitric oxide, which keeps blood vessels healthy, boosts blood flow and improves muscle function. Isoflavones also speed recovery by reducing free-radical damage in muscles.

Eat it

Use silken tofu instead of ricotta cheese in lasagne, says Duncan. Or grill cubes of the firmer stuff with your favourite spices.


This nutty-flavoured meat substitute gets its chewy texture from cooked and fermented soya beans. It’s less processed than tofu, so it retains more nutrients, such as protein and fibre, explains Brill. You’ll find 23g of protein per 100g, plus 5g of fibre and 10g of fat – an ideal trio for keeping appetite at bay. Tempeh also packs a hefty calcium hit, and research in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition has found that the body absorbs calcium from tempeh just as well as it does from milk.

Eat it

Like tofu, tempeh will soak up the flavours it’s prepared with. But unlike tofu, which you can eat uncooked, it’s best heated. Brill suggests chopping it into bite-size pieces and using in a stir-fry.

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