Vegans are sometimes stereotyped as thin, anemic weaklings who don’t get enough protein or vitamins. But eating meat and dairy isn’t necessary to be healthy, strong and full of energy. There are many foods that provide short term energy and long-term health benefits that are 100% plant-based.
Here are 11 high-energy foods for vegans:
- Macadamia Nuts
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Sweet Potatoes
Before I explain more about the energy benefits of each food, and how you can incorporate it into your diet, here are the criteria I used to select the foods on the list:
- High energy-density—the food needs to pack a lot of energy potential as measured by nutritious calories. High energy-density foods are those with a greater number of calories per the same weight of the food. For example, lettuce, at 4 calories per ounce, is less than a third as energy-dense as an apple, at about 14 calories per ounce.
- Junk-free—of course, more calories are not necessarily better. To be energy-giving, calories must be from high-quality nutrients; not from added sugar, unhealthy fats or refined grains like white flour.
- Contains high-quality carbs—if the goal is quick energy, carbs have to be a part of the equation, because they are what your brain and muscles use first for energy. In addition, carbs from whole grains like brown rice include fiber, which slows down digestion. Fiber prevents glucose from spiking rapidly and keeps your energy levels on an even keel.
- Contains protein—your body prioritizes protein for making hormones, muscles, and other biological equipment. But protein can also be used for energy when carbs and fat are in low supply; and like fiber, it helps slow digestion and minimizes short-term glucose spikes.
- Contains a small amount of healthy fats—fat also slows digestion, helping you feel fuller longer. We’re aiming for heart-healthy monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat.
- Contains key vitamins and minerals—many vitamins and minerals are essential to energy production. The B vitamins and magnesium are especially important to cellular metabolism. When it comes to high energy foods, nutrient density is integral to energy density.
Quinoa acts like a grain, but it’s really a seed. It’s gluten-free and has a relatively low glycemic index; it won’t sky-rocket your blood sugar. It provides steady energy and is high in fiber, keeping hunger pangs at bay. It contains all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), including more lysine than wheat or rice. Quinoa also rocks iron, copper, thiamine and vitamin B6. It cooks up in just 12-14 minutes. Or you can buy it in pre-cooked, microwaveable packets that can be ready to eat in just a minute or two. Try the red, white and black varieties. Use it whenever you would use rice. It’s great in cold salads, too.
Lentils, part of the legume family, are about 25% protein, making them a good meat alternative. Unlike meat, they’re also high in fiber and chock full of B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron and potassium. They offer slow-digesting carbs for extended energy. The brown and green varieties cook more slowly than yellow or red, but all can be ready quickly—from 10-20 minutes. Pair them with quinoa for a super-energy-giving meal. Lentils also are great cold in salads. Add them to red pasta sauce for a plant-based version of Bolognese sauce.
All beans are high in protein, fiber and are energy-supporting nutrients like the B vitamins, potassium and iron. They are also high in other minerals that most Americans don’t get enough of, like copper, phosphorus, manganese and magnesium. Chickpeas, AKA garbanzo beans, are among the energy-densest of all beans and are incredibly versatile. They are tasty hot or cold. Add them to salads or eat them pureed as hummus. .They can take hours too cook from scratch, but are readily available and delicious pre-cooked in cans or packets. Look for non-BPA packaging and no or low-salt brands.
Oatmeal is high in fiber, B vitamins, and minerals, giving you steady, immediately-available energy. It’s also a great source of beta-glucans, which improve blood sugar levels and heart health. All forms of oats are whole grain: groats are the least processed and take the longest time to cook; steel-cut oats are groats that have been cut in pieces for quicker cooking; and rolled oats have been steamed and flattened, for still quicker cooking. But you don’t have to cook steel-cut or rolled oats. Just sprinkle them directly into hot or cold nut milk, yogurt or smoothies, and eat immediately. And oats aren’t just for breakfast anymore! They can take the place of any grain, like rice, in most savory recipes.
Peas are among the highest-protein vegetables—perhaps because they’re really a legume, like lentils and beans. But they are used like a veggie and are a high-fiber, low-glycemic carb. They’re also a great source of iron and vitamin C. They can be eaten hot or cold and added to salads, pasta, omelets, casseroles or grain dishes. You can make a hummus out of them; try half chickpeas and half green peas for a doubly good energy food. Keep a bag on hand at all times n the freezer. Peas cook quickly in the microwave or on the stove.
6. Macadamia Nuts
All nuts are energy and nutrient-dense. They are high in protein, fiber and healthy fats. They are a good source of vitamin E, which helps with exercise recovery. And don’t worry too much about the calories. Studies show that nuts don’t contribute to weight gain, possibly because their calories aren’t all absorbed, or because they decrease appetite for hours after eating. Macadamias as among the most energy-packed nuts. They have over twice the heart-healthy monounsaturated fat as cashews. And they are high in energy-supporting nutrients like vitamin B1 and magnesium. They are delicious raw, roasted or as nut butter.
7. Pumpkin Seeds
Seeds contain all the nutrients that a new plant needs to grow; they are energy powerhouses. They are an excellent source of protein, fiber, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals including manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Zinc is needed for the production of hormones in the body that affect energy and mood; it also helps muscles recover after exercise. While chia and flax may be the most nutrient-dense seeds, you can’t easily eat them by themselves. But pumpkin seeds, AKA pepitas, are a great snack to eat out-of-hand, plain or roasted, mixed into trail mix, or as a topping for salad or cereal.
8. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a high-fiber, complex carbohydrate with a low glycemic load, so they provide immediately available energy without a blood sugar spike. They are also impressively high in vitamin A, necessary for mitochondrial metabolic health—and therefore your high energy levels. They are brimming with many additional vitamins and minerals that will keep you humming along for hours. Eat them as you would a white potato—bake, boil, microwave. You can mash them, eat them as oven “fries,” or dice them up in curries, pasta or soup.
Most fruits are an excellent source of quickly available energy because of their naturally occurring fruit sugars. Bananas are relatively low among fruits on the glycemic index, so the energy they provide is lasting. It is one of the best fruit sources of vitamin B6, key to energy production. They are a good source of pectin fiber, which slows digestion. And the greener bananas are full of resistant starch, which helps you feel full longer. Bananas are of course super portable, with no washing or paring knife required. Eat them whole or sliced up in cereals, smoothies or nut butter sandwiches.
Leafy greens can be energy-boosting too! Just ask Popeye. Spinach is high in folate, vitamin C and iron, which work together to help your cells create energy. Spinach also boosts your production of nitric oxide, which widens blood vessel walls for better blood flow and improved cardiovascular health. As if that wasn’t enough, spinach is one of the highest vegetable sources of tyrosine, an amino acid that helps you feel focused and alert. Spinach is another food that is great hot or cold. Add it to omelets, soups, pasta, salads or blend a few leaves into your fruit smoothie (you won’t taste it).
A 100% whole grain, popcorn is high in fiber and slow-digesting carbs. It gives you quick but long-lasting energy. Just make sure you don’t cover it in butter, salt or sugar, and you have one of the healthiest snacks around. Popcorn is a great source of B vitamins and many minerals that support energy production. Make it with an air popper or a small amount of olive oil on the stove. Top it with nutritional yeast, which provides a satisfying, parmesan-like flavor and even more B vitamins. You can put pretty much any herb or spice on popcorn. Spray it lightly with water first to help seasonings stick.
How do I make popcorn on the stove?
To make popcorn on the stove, place 3 TBS of olive oil in a pot with 1/3 cup popcorn kernels. Cover and heat on medium, for about 3 minutes until the popping stops.
Are sweet potatoes and yams the same thing?
No, sweet potatoes and yams are unrelated plants. Sweet potatoes originated in South America and are sweeter and have more moisture than yams. Sweet potato flesh color can be orange, light yellow, white or purple. Yams originated in Africa and Asia and they are drier and starchier than sweet potatoes. The flesh color of yams can be white, yellow, pink or purple. True yams are hard to find in U.S. grocery stores. Sweet potatoes are often mislabeled in stores as yams, adding to the confusion. Both tubers score high on the nutrition scale, but sweet potatoes have a higher concentration of most nutrients.
What do vegans eat for breakfast?
Vegans have many delicious options for breakfast including: oatmeal, whole-grain cereal, protein pancakes, smoothies, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, tofu scrambles omelets and quiches, avocado toast, bean breakfast burrito, beans and toast. See many great recipes at this popular vegan blog: https://itdoesnttastelikechicken.com/30-vegan-breakfast-recipes-that-arent-smoothies-oatmeal-or-energy-bars/.
Read my exclusive round-up of the healthiest breakfast cereals here.
Can you afford to be a vegan? Get answers here.
Giving tofu a try? Read about what types to use, and when, here.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Database: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html
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