The 9 best vegetarian foods for runners

Love the planet and fuel your runs with these tasty meat-free protein alternatives.
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Running is one of the best workouts you can do if you love to commune with nature, and eating a vegetarian diet is a great way to lessen your impact on the planet, what with the disastrous impact that factory farms have on our land, air and water supplies (not to mention the disastrous impact red meat has on your long-term health).

But whether you're running 5Ks or marathons, you need the right fuel to get you to the finish line. And if you've given up meat, that means paying particular attention to the best vegetarian protein sources you can find. Why? Runners' protein needs are higher than the average person's. This key nutrient helps preserve lean mass and build new muscle tissue after a strenuous run, which can cause microscopic tears and damage to muscle fibers. In fact, studies show that runners who consume the right amount of protein are less likely to get injured (because their muscles heal faster) than those who skimp.

High protein intake has also been shown to help maintain a strong immune system by stimulating white blood cells. This is important because after an intense bout of exercise, your immune system is weakened for about four to five hours, leaving you susceptible to infection. Protein is also essential if you're trying to lose weight; the nutrient takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, so you feel fuller longer. And it helps keep blood-sugar levels steady, so you don't get ravenously hungry and feel the need to overeat.

More: Super-healthy sources of vegetarian protein

Every day, runners need at least 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of weight. For a 150-pound person, that's 75 grams. Here are the best ways to meet that requirement without resorting to meat, which has high levels of saturated fat and a seriously large environmental footprint.

--Adapted from The Runner's World Cookbook, edited by Joanna Sayago Golub

1 of 11 Woman running (Andrew Rich/Getty Images)

Tofu

In addition to being rich in protein—a cup contains 10 grams—tofu is rich in isoflavones, which protect your heart. Just be sure to buy organic; nonorganic tofu is very often made with genetically modified soy and can be processed with hexane, a carcinogen.

More: 5 meatless recipes that will appeal to anyone

2 of 11 Tofu cubes (Jessica Boone/Getty Images)

Soymilk

If the texture of tofu turns you off, try soymilk instead. It has the most protein of any nondairy milk alternative, about 6 grams per cup, along with all the calcium and vitamin D you'd get from cow's milk. Again, look for organic brands, which aren't made with GMO soy.

More: Milk: Superfood or poison?

3 of 11 Soy milk (Getty Images)

Beans

To maximize your protein intake, load up on beans, which contain roughly 12 to 14 grams per cup, depending on the type. They also contain iron, which is needed to boost a runner's endurance.

More: 7 economical superfoods for everyone

4 of 11 Beans in a bowl (Martin Poole/Getty Images)

Greek yogurt

It's got twice the protein of traditional yogurt, plus calcium for healthy bones.

More: 5 yummy ways to cook with yogurt

5 of 11 Greek yogurt (Liv Friis-Larsen/Getty Images)

Seeds and nuts

Run next to congested roadways? These protein powerhouses are also rich in vitamin E; studies show this antioxidant helps protect your lungs from damage caused by running in hot, humid or polluted air. Seeds and nuts are also rich in fiber and heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

More: 6 superfoods you aren’t eating

6 of 11 Almonds (Razmarinka/Getty Images)

Ricotta cheese

Naturally lower in fat than other cheeses, ricotta is a rich source of whey protein, which is particularly good for muscle recovery after a run.

More: 5 healthy, great-tasting recipes using ricotta cheese

7 of 11 Ricotta cheese (iStock/Getty Images)

Eggs

Along with the 6 grams of protein you get in a single egg, yolks are rich in choline, which helps with brain health, and lutein for eye health.

More: 7 best eggs you’re not eating

8 of 11 Woman holding eggs (Mike Harrington/Getty Images)

Spinach

While not exactly a protein powerhouse, spinach is one of the richest vegetarian sources of iron, which runners need to maintain their endurance. If you pair vegetarian iron with vitamin C–rich foods, such as red bell peppers in a spinach salad, you boost your absorption of the iron.

More: 5 easy recipes for winter greens

9 of 11 Spinach (Kyoko Hasegawa /Getty Images)

Whole grains

Many grains, particularly quinoa (which is technically a seed but treated as a grain) and farro, are surprisingly high in protein. They're also good sources of quality carbohydrates that will fuel your run.

More: The grain guide: Easy recipes for the healthiest whole grains

10 of 11 Whole grain bread (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)