The plant-based movement is picking up steam, especially among outdoor enthusiasts who want to minimize the impact of their diet on the planet. If you’re curious or interested in transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, you may wonder if you can feel good and energized as a plant-based hiker. Will you have enough energy on the trail? Or will you wither away into a beanstalk unable to carry yourself up the mountain? And how will you get enough protein for strong muscles?
I’ll admit when I first switched to a plant-based diet, there was a learning curve. Sometimes when I was hiking, I felt more tired than normal. I found myself getting hungry and crashing mid-climb. Because I am committed to a plant-based lifestyle for health and environmental reasons, I wanted to learn how to do a vegan diet the right way, so I got a certificate in Plant Based Nutrition from eCornell. I learned a lot in that program about protein requirements and how to get the proper nutrition to fuel my outdoor adventures, and now I want to pass that on to those of you interested in becoming plant-based hikers.
I hope this blog post helps clear up some of the misconceptions and concerns you may have around protein specifically and gives you some tips for maximizing your energy on the trail.
Get tips for plant-based hiking and getting enough protein in your diet for an active lifestyle.
*Reminder: As you all know, I’m not a doctor and none of this should be taken as medical advice. I’m simply sharing what I learned while getting my Plant Based Nutrition Certificate, as well as my personal experiences as a plant-based hiker.
How much protein do you really need?
A common misconception about a plant-based diet is that it’s impossible to get the protein we need without consuming animal products. However, what most people don’t know is the average American consumes way more protein than is needed or healthy. Too much protein in the diet, especially animal protein, has been linked to a variety of diseases and cancers¹.
According to Dr. Michael Greger, “people [in developed countries] are more likely to suffer from protein excess than protein deficiency.”²
For the average adult, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is only 0.36 grams of protein per pound of your body weight (0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight).
So your recommended protein intake is = 0.36 x your weight (lbs)
If you weigh 140 pounds, that’s 50 grams of protein.
If you weigh 200 pounds, that’s 72 grams of protein.
The RDA also suggests that for the average person, only ~10% of our total calories need to come from protein³.
If you are consuming an adequate amount of calories on a whole-food, plant-based diet that includes legumes, vegetables, and whole grains, you can absolutely get enough protein to meet your daily needs.
The above numbers are based on a 2000-2500 calorie per day diet. So what about those with an active outdoor lifestyle, like endurance runners and avid plant-based hikers? It doesn’t mean you need to go scarfing down a bunch of high protein energy bars or protein powder. Instead, for more energy, you should consume more calories overall by eating more whole, plant-based, foods.
Eating more of these healthy, nutrient-dense foods provides all of the necessary macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), while still maintaining their proper proportions in our overall diet.
What are good sources of plant-based proteins?
Before we dive into good protein sources for plant-based hikers, let’s talk about what a whole foods plant-based diet (WFPB) is. It’s really quite simple. A WFPB diet avoids all animal products, including meat, cheese, and all other sources of dairy, eggs, and butter. Cutting out all animal products is similar to a vegan diet, but WFPB is a little bit different in that on a WFPB diet, you mainly rely on whole, unprocessed plants. This includes whole grains, beans, greens, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and minimally processed soy products like tofu and tempeh. You also try to cut back or avoid oil (even olive oil, which is not healthy like we’ve been taught to believe).
Now, I won’t pretend we personally don’t eat chips, bars, Beyond Meat, and other vegan snacks that come in a box on occasion (aka I’m not perfect), but as much as it’s practical, I’m striving to consume most of my food in its natural, unprocessed form.
Here are some examples of whole plant-based foods that contain high levels of healthy protein that you should be regularly consuming to support an active plant-based hiking lifestyle.
- Whole grains: barley, quinoa, brown and wild rice, oats, whole wheat, millet, farro, etc
- Legumes: beans, lentils, peas, soybeans (tofu/tempeh)
- Leafy Greens: Spinach, beet greens, collard greens, kale, mustard greens,
- Vegetables: Brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, corn, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, artichokes
- Seeds: chia, flax, hemp, sesame, pumpkin
- Nuts: avocado, pistachios, almonds, cashews, walnuts
- Nutritional yeast
Not only do the above foods contain plenty of protein, but they also provide way more vitamins and anti-inflammatory antioxidants than meat and dairy, which help with recovery after hiking.
How much of these foods do I really have to eat to get adequate protein?
Personally, I was surprised to learn that a medium sized russet potato has 5 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. Or that 1 cup of cooked spinach has 5.3 grams of protein!
That’s great, but, how much of these foods do you need to eat to meet your protein requirements for an active lifestyle? I get that no one wants to knock back pounds of beans and Brussels sprouts at every meal or especially in the morning before a hike. Also, some of these foods are really impractical to bring on a hike. However, maintaining energy on the trail isn’t just about what you eat during your hike, it’s about what you eat in your daily life, including before and after your hike.
Let me put all of this into context and show you how quickly protein can add up on a vegan diet:
- Breakfast: High-fiber oat bran hot cereal with 1.5 tbs of hemp seeds, 1 tbs of cacao powder, ¼ cup of walnuts, and ¼ cup of raspberries = 19 grams of protein
- Lunch: Vegan chickpea salad in a whole wheat tortilla with shredded carrots and spinach = 21 grams of protein
- Dinner: Quinoa bowl with ½ cup of black beans, tofu, corn, sauteed kale, and broccoli = 32 grams of protein
- Snack: 2 slices of whole wheat multigrain bread with 2 tbs of peanut butter = 15 grams of protein
The total from the above example is 87 grams of protein which is more than adequate for an active lifestyle and exceeds the RDA for the average adult. Furthermore, if you are hiking and exercising a lot, you’re going to be snacking more than once a day, meaning there are even more opportunities to get the protein you need.
We’ve been taught to believe that meat and protein powders are the only way we can build muscle, and it’s simply not true. Of course, there are healthy vegan and unhealthy vegan diets. The grocery stores these days are filled with delicious vegan junk food, and it’s easy to fall into that trap of eating a lot of processed vegan foods. If you’re relying on these boxed foods rather than the whole foods listed above, you could be falling short nutritionally.
How can I maintain energy on the trail as a plant-based hiker?
As I said in the intro, when I first started eating vegan, I often found myself tired. That caused me to examine what I was eating and see if I could change some of my habits in order to have more energy.
Here are some of the factors I’ve found to be really important to maintaining energy on the trail:
1. Eat a high quality breakfast
I’m a sucker for a bagel in the morning, which is fine when I’m sitting at my desk all morning, but it’s mostly empty calories and really doesn’t provide much in terms of nutrients. On days I’m going to be hiking, a bagel doesn’t cut it at all. About an hour into my hike, my stomach starts to grumble and my energy levels drop.
I’ve found it’s very important to eat a high-quality breakfast – which means both carbs and protein. A few options I like are:
- Oatmeal with fruit
- The high-fiber oat bran breakfast I mentioned above
- Coconut chia pudding
- A quinoa bowl with fruit and nuts
- Tofu scramble with brown rice and veggies
All of these are much better options. Or if I am going to eat a bagel, I better throw some nut butter on and eat a banana on the side.
2. Snack often on the trail (and make sure snacks are substantial)
Since transitioning to a vegan diet, I feel like my body works and burns calories more efficiently. As anecdotal evidence, I’ve lost at least 10 pounds without making any other changes to my lifestyle.
With this, I’ve found that I get hungry more often, especially when I’m hiking. In order to feel good, I need to snack often and on something of substance, like trail mix, dried (or real) fruit, nut butters, vegan jerky, PB&J, etc. Because I like to eat frequently, I want my snacks to be easy and convenient to eat as well. Something I can throw in my mouth without having to take a long break or preparing it mid-trail.
Bars are good too. I just look at the ingredients and make sure I can pronounce everything and try to stay away from bars that are super processed. Ryan and I might try making our own energy balls soon, which I’ll be sure to share if we do!
3. Stay Hydrated
While this also applies to meat-eaters, staying hydrated before and during my hikes is crucial for feeling good on the trail. I also find it helpful to bring some electrolyte tablets with me.
What about backpacking on a plant-based diet?
Backpacking on a vegan diet might have been hard 10 years ago, but today there are a growing number of delicious freeze-dried backpacking meals that are lightweight and easy to cook on the trail. Check out our blog post on the Best Vegan Backpacking Food Ideas for inspiration. Plant-based hiking has never been so easy!
I need more proof that it’s possible to be athletic on a plant-based diet
For proof that you can get enough protein from a plant-based diet, just look at the plant-based athletes who have dominated their sports. Inspiration includes Scott Jurek (one of the greatest runners of all time), Rich Roll (who completed five back-to-back Ironman competitions in one week), or Venus Williams (a tennis star who we all know). Oh and don’t forget Arnold Schwarzenegger who is still lifting weights at age 73.
These are just a few examples to show that it’s possible to get the protein you need and to thrive on a plant-based diet.
What about Protein Powder?
Hopefully, the information I’ve provided above shows you that you don’t actually need protein powder as long as you consume a variety of legumes, whole grains, and vegetables.
However, people with particularly active lifestyles may be tempted to supplement with protein powders. I personally have used protein powders in the past, but based on what I learned while getting my plant-based nutrition certificate, I will not be consuming them in the future.
Studies show that protein powders (plant-based or not) may actually do more harm than good. The protein powder industry was worth almost $18 billion in 2019 and has been built on unproven health claims, excellent marketing, and a society that is confused about protein requirements for a healthy lifestyle.
A recent study by the Clean Label Project of the top 130 selling protein powders found that 75% had measurable levels of lead, 55% contained BPA, and they also found elevated levels of mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and other contaminants⁴. These contaminants were found in both organic and non-organic products, as well as plant-based protein powders. Unfortunately, these protein powders are not regulated by federal agencies, so their safety is not guaranteed.
What other questions do you have about plant-based hiking and how to make sure you are getting the protein and other nutrients you need to stay fueled? Leave a comment below!