Can A Plant-based Athlete Get Enough Protein?

I bet you’ve noticed protein is a hot topic in the fitness and nutrition industry these days.

It seems like everything you see on the shelves these days says something like more grams of protein per serving than ___.

The benefits of higher protein intake are pretty established from a scientific perspective, and over the last decade, a lot of the old protein myths have been dispelled.

I’ll tell you right away, the most enduring misconception I encountered in my research was: you cannot get enough protein without eating meat.

With me switching to a plant-based diet—and therefore plant-based protein sources—this was of course an issue of concern. I am an active guy. I love being active. The idea that I’m not properly fueling my body is something to think about.

My research led me to conclude that it is just that: a misconception. But it is easy to just make the statement and leave it at that!

And since I value authenticity and the sharing of knowledge, I set out to understand protein a little better and answer questions like…

  • What would it take to get sufficient protein intake and nutrients to perform my best?
  • Can a plant-based diet (vegetarian diet specifically) provide complete proteins?
  • What protein supplements, if any, might be needed?
  • What is the overall risk of protein deficiency for someone both highly active and a plant-based eater?
  • Can you get too much protein?

And of course, I’ll be sharing my findings and experiences with you!

Protein: The Straight Deal

If we want to really answer the above questions, the first thing to cover is a short breakdown of what protein actually is and what it’s meant for.

Protein is an essential nutrient for the human body (and just about every other living thing). It’s one of the three “macronutrients”, alongside carbohydrates and fats.

And it is way more than something you eat just to build muscle mass. Protein is used to create and repair muscles, transport molecules, clot blood, build neurons and immune cells, enzymes, and much much more.

Proteins themselves are made up of small building blocks called amino acids. So think of it like highly, highly specialized Lego. The body breaks down any protein we ingest into these amino acids and then re-builds it into whatever is needed.

What Are Essential Amino Acids?

The argument that you need to eat meat in order to get enough protein is partially based on if you are getting enough of what are called essential amino acids.

To put it simply, you can divide amino acids into four different kinds…

  • Non-essential (amino acids our body can make by itself)
  • Conditional (our body can make them under special circumstances)
  • Essential (our body can’t make these, so they’re a big part of eating healthy)
  • Branch-Chain (basically essential amino acids that are more important)

Proteins that have all the essential amino acids are called “complete proteins”. Meat, eggs, and milk are all good examples of a complete protein; they’ve got all the essential and branch-chain amino acids.

Protein Intake: One Size Fits All?

It’s obvious that, for example, an Olympic powerlifter will have protein needs that would leave regular folks dizzy. But what do the rest of us—who don’t need to lift 800 pounds—require?

What I’ve found is that there isn’t a one size fits all solution to meeting protein needs. The main factors that influence protein absorption and consumption really depend on 3 things: your individual body, goals, and preferences. 

An athlete’s needs, your needs, and mine will uniquely affect how much protein our body breaks down into amino acids to repair muscles and recover from exercise. It is wiser to start with the base level requirements.

So let’s look at first the benefits of enough protein, follow that with the base-level requirements, then compare plant-based protein sources with animal sources of protein so we can see what getting enough might look like for you.

The Benefits of Enough Protein

Let’s be honest: you’re probably here because you are curious and want to see if the plant-based diet might work for you. Part of the success of plant-based meals is dependent on getting enough protein overall; if we solve for that, we’re golden, and here’s why.

Getting more protein can help with…

  • Muscle repair and recovery speed
  • Body composition (levels of fat vs muscle)
  • Appetite control (since protein increases satiety, you eat less)
  • Lowering blood pressure and cholesterol
  • A tougher immune system

Here’s the starting point for how much protein you need for either maintenance (keeping your body up and running), or looking to build some muscle.

  • Sedentary: You’ll need at least 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight
  • Athletes: 0.55 to 1 gram/pound will do for maintenance, but you’ll of course need more if you’re really pushing it.
  • Adults Over 65: Interestingly, there’s growing evidence that a higher intake is helpful; at least 0.55-0.91 grams/pound.
  • Adults Looking to Build Muscle: 0.75 grams of protein per pound. Minimum. Aim for something like 1.5 grams/pound.

These are starting points and of course, your needs will vary based on your unique situation. That being said, these baseline levels are well established.

So Am I Getting Enough?

One of the things many first-time plant-based dieters struggle with is getting enough protein. They’ve nailed down the varied diet, but the dependence on animal sources is a hard habit to break!

With protein playing such an important part in bodily function, not getting enough can cause a whole range of symptoms for plant-based eaters and meat-eaters alike, from healing slowly and slow workout recovery to irritability and a poor immune system.

And of course, a drop in muscle mass.

Sounds dire? It doesn’t have to.

If, like me, you’re on the plant-based journey and worried your protein intake is too low, there are a few solutions. The easiest is vegetarian or vegan protein powder.

These can be either single-source protein powder (like pea protein or brown rice) or multi-source (usually a mix of chia seeds, sprouted grains or beans, hemp seeds, and other complementary protein sources).

If you’re not on any particular diet or just want flexibility, whey protein powder is also an excellent bet. It is also a complete protein on its own.

Check Your Sources

I want to be clear though, protein powders are supplements. They’re engineered to fill in the gaps and help your body maximize the potential of your diet, plant-based or not. Someone living on nothing but whey? No whey.

The other solution is to find more plant-based protein. There are some great plant foods out there, such as…

  • Seitan
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Spelt or Teff

These do double duty as vegan protein sources, so for those of you on vegan or strict vegetarian diets, enjoy!

Animal Protein Vs Plant Protein

Remember complete proteins? Plant sources of protein are less likely to be complete, and we need those essential amino acids, hence the argument that animal protein is “better”.

This is a frequent criticism of the vegan diet, vegetarian diet, and vegan foods in general.

But! All this really means is that in order to eat healthy, plant-based, and get all essential amino acids, you need a more varied diet using plant foods that complement each other. A classic (and delicious) example of this is mixing black beans with rice.

All this being said, unless your protein intake is extremely low, you’ve probably passed your baseline requirements, and as long as you’re higher than the minimum, incomplete proteins probably won’t be an issue.

Bioavailability

Another argument I have found to support the idea that animal protein is better than plant protein is founded on bioavailability—the % amount of a protein your body can break down into amino acids.

While it is true that the most bioavailable sources of protein are animal sources, there are a number of protein-rich foods that are entirely plant-based, like the ones listed above.

Keep in mind, you’ll likely need slightly more grams/pound than if you were taking in animal proteins.

The truth is, if your plant-based diet is well thought out, you’re probably getting more than enough protein to fuel recovery after a workout. However, if you’re looking to build more muscle or reap the benefits I listed above, you’ll obviously need more protein, so include a higher level of complementary plant-based proteins in general.

Tolerance

As I crawl the internet, I see a lot of blogs kind of gloss over the importance of your body’s tolerance to certain proteins. It’s great that vegetarian protein powders exist, but what if you’re allergic to one of the ingredients?

For example, I have a number of friends who simply can’t do whey protein due to stomach issues, but plant proteins are just fine.

Pay close attention to nutrition labels to make sure you’re not taking in something your body might, uh, “take issue” with. This is especially true for more processed plant foods.

And, pay especially close attention to the real protein content, aka “protein per serving”. If a scoop of delicious vegan protein powder is 30 grams, but there are only 13 grams per scoop, try and confirm that the rest of the scoop is other nutrients and not just filler, sweeteners, and other stuff you might not need.

Other Common Misunderstandings

Like I said, there are a number of myths about protein, and they come from all sides. Most of these are based on nothing more than old science, but let’s cover some quickly.

Misunderstanding #1: Protein gives you energy throughout the day.

Like a lot of things, this only sort of true. The body prioritizes the other macronutrients, only burning proteins (in noticeable amounts) for energy when things are really dire or there is an underlying disease or genetic issue.

While eating plant-based for the past two weeks, I have had a boost in energy, but I can guarantee that is from the additional carbohydrates and healthy fats.

Misunderstanding #2: You need to eat complementary plant proteins at the same time.

As long as they’re eaten within 24-36 hours, it’s fine. If you have beans for lunch and rice for dinner, they’ll still fill in the gaps.

I don’t understand why you wouldn’t mix them for the same meal, because they’re delicious, but the fact remains.

Misunderstanding 3#: You Can Have Too Much Protein

This is a tricky one. Some studies have demonstrated that even having massive amounts of protein (we’re talking 4.4 grams/pound of body weight) didn’t have any negative effects, even after several months.

The only issue with this is that at that level, you’ll likely be taking in a lot of calories, which might make it difficult to lose weight.

Ultimately, unless you have an underlying kidney issue, there doesn’t seem to be any negative, lasting impact from excessive protein intake.

Week Two: The Biggest Lesson

After two weeks of adhering to a plant-based diet, you’d think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is how complex the plant-based eaters’ protein journey might be!

But honestly, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is this: Simply being mindful about what I am eating is most important.

Mindfulness applies to what I am eating, when I am eating (nutrient timing), and how I am cooking my meals.

Mindfulness helps ward off things like analysis paralysis and decision fatigue, two subtle but significant hurdles to healthy eating.

Analysis paralysis is when there’s too much data; you fall down the rabbit hole of research and are left unable to make a decision. Over time, this can lead to resignation or worse, backsliding, because your brain is looking for something “simpler”.

Decision fatigue is when your brain is exhausted from constantly having to choose. Over the course of a day, our brain tires out and looks for shortcuts in thinking. Again, it looks for something simpler.

So you don’t have to go 100% “clinical nutrition”, measuring nut butters with surgeon-like precision and counting chia seeds one by one! That will burn you out.

Nor should you quit thinking after the phrase “I will no longer eat meat”. You still need to make clear decisions on which plant foods you need to include, what amino acids you might be missing, how many grams of protein are you getting per day, et cetera.

So make your plan and stick to it, take your time, and maintain awareness. Also, don’t stress when you stumble. It happens!

And don’t forget: you can always email me with questions!

Making Mindful Eating Easier

I’ve been really enjoying the boost in energy thanks to a more balanced plant-based diet, and that is largely thanks to being mindful and planning out my food. It’s also been great to meet my protein needs in a way that’s tasty.

There are a lot of tools and options out there that can help keep your eating mindful or at least eliminate some of the decisions you need to make. Here are some that have been key for me…

  • An Air Fryer – It uses less oil, so I don’t have to worry so much about overdoing fat intake.
  • Recipe Books and Websites – The Internet is chock full of inspiring and creative recipes; few things are more motivating than straight-up deliciousness.
  • Healthy Cooking Oils – Avocado oil, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil are all great. Side note, you don’t need to worry a ton about saturated fat levels so long as your fat intake is balanced and comes from a healthy source.

What are some tools you’ve used? I’d love to hear from you!

Final Thoughts

So we’ve done a pretty deep dive into plant-based foods, amino acids, plant protein versus animal protein, how much protein should you be getting? And so on.

To sum everything up, mindfulness is important no matter your diet. But for those of us focusing solely on plant protein or avoiding animal products, we need to focus on getting varied sources (gotta catch all those amino acids!)

If you’re looking to build muscle, getting more protein is important, and doubly important if your intake is exclusively plant protein.

I’ve got to be honest, I am so grateful for the opportunity to write about this and share both my findings and experiences with you. That alone is a huge energy boost.

Before I finish this off, I want to share the incredible recipe I and my partner used to celebrate Mother’s Day: TACOS. It’s another great find from SkinnyTaste.com.

The spices are great, and sauteeing them with the beans and the onions fills your home with the best aroma.

Except for the cheese, this recipe is 100% plant-based food. Protein content is solid thanks to the beans, and the fats from the avocado are healthy and satisfying.

As always, thank you for reading. I hope you’re enjoying what I’m putting out there. If you’ve got comments or questions or want a deeper dive, don’t hesitate to let me know.

On to week 3 and if you’d like to learn more about my switch to plant based nutrition, click here to receive weekly emails with recipes and tips to boost energy and reach your goals!

5 Types of Plant Based Diets

Have you always believed that you had to constantly be eating meat to get enough protein?  Yep, me too. 

It has been a long-held belief in both the fitness and nutrition industry that an athlete must rely on animal foods to get enough protein in their diet to recover, rebuild, and refuel muscles after a workout. Makes sense.

But is it actually true?

If you saw my email last week, you know that my partner and I were watching Game Changers, a documentary about plant-based nutrition for athletes and non-athletes alike. 

The message resonated with us so much that we both decided to dive all in to boost energy, perform our best, and recover better from our workouts.

After all, the best way to see if something works for you is to just try it, right?

I’m dedicated to sharing my plant-based journey here, step by step. Along the way, I’ll provide as much info as I can; the science, potential health benefits, tips and tricks, and of course, whether or not it is actually working for me.

What’s A Plant-Based Diet Look Like?

The first week had me asking a lot of questions. Eating habits can be pretty tough to break, so I wanted to really understand what a plant-based diet would look like for me individually.

What are my options? Will I have more energy or less at the start? Should I cut out all refined sugar or just lower it? Are whole grains worth it?

Does bathing in coconut milk give me bonus points? (Ok, maybe not that last one.)

I sought out a lot of information, turning to my nutrition certification resources at Precision Nutrition, and consulted with other nutrition and fitness-focused colleagues. Here are the first two lessons I learned.

Lesson 1: You’ve Got A Lot Of Plant-Based Options

The first thing that stood out to me? There are many different definitions of a plant-based diet. It’s easy to think that a “plant-based” diet means absolutely no meat intake, but it’s not necessarily true! Plant-based just means mostly plants, not plants only.

Lesson 2: A Plant-Based Diet Is Not A Magic Bullet

I want to remind you of something important. All five of these plant-based diets can be a healthy diet. They can also be un-healthy. It all depends on…

  • How mindful you are of what you’re taking in.
  • The ratio of whole foods versus things like refined grains and processed foods.
  • Leveraging a healthy diet by living a healthy lifestyle.

Plant Foods = Healthy Foods?

Imagine a plant-based diet, but it’s only sweet potato, brown rice, and other starchy vegetables. Doesn’t seem like a great idea. A vegan diet that relies a little too much on french fries and does not get the exercise the body craves? Not ideal either.

Each plant-based diet above requires extra care if you want to make sure you’re getting the right levels of essential nutrients and cooking with healthy fats, for example.

With all of this in mind, here’s a basic look at five different plant-based diets and a quick look at some pros and cons. I’ve ordered them from most strict to least.

#1: Vegan

A vegan diet is obviously on the list; no animal products here! Strict vegan diets fall into the “plant-based” bucket because the “plantiness” of their diet is 100 percent.

Pros

Research shows that a strict vegan diet has some positive effects on blood sugar, kidney function, heart disease, and even arthritis. Plus, the high intake of plant foods bumps up nutrients like potassium, folate, and several vitamins.

And while it used to be that a vegan diet had barely any options, that’s changing! Plant-based milks, plant-based protein, nut-based cheeses, and more allow for a wider variety than ever. Just make sure to keep whole foods as your staple.

Cons

Without proper nutritional planning, vegan diets might not provide enough vitamin B12, EFAs (essential fatty acids like Omega-3), and other nutrients. If you go this route, again, focus on whole foods (and possibly supplementing with a good multivitamin).

#2 Vegetarian

Vegetarian diets eliminate meat and seafood, but they do sometimes consume animal products such as eggs, dairy, and honey. Though their food choices are less plant-focused than a vegan’s, they’re still plant-based eaters.

Pros

You get solid variety, which helps simplify your meal plans. You’ll also enjoy some of the health benefits a vegan diet might provide, since plant-based foods are still the majority source of nutrients (take that, cardiovascular disease!)

Cons

Thanks to the rise of plant proteins, plant-based recipes, and new ways of processing food, there’s a ton of heavily processed food that qualifies as vegetarian, but could actually carry the same health risks as animal-based foods. Take a cue from vegans, and aim for minimally processed plant foods; whole grains, whole foods, think “whole” as much as you can.

#3 Flexitarian

Also known as semi-vegetarians, or part-time vegetarians, this is a vegetarian diet that consumes meat and seafood occasionally (or just in small amounts). But because they eat more plants than meat, they still fall into the plant-based bucket.

Pros

Flexitarians get to balance the lowered risk of chronic diseases that vegetarians get with a wide culinary variety.

Cons

I don’t know about you, but for me, allowing too much variety in my diet sometimes creates pressure to make hasty decisions when I shop; analysis paralysis is a real thing.

You also may find yourself “falling off the wagon” slightly more often, which of course could minimize (or even cancel out) the many health benefits of a more strictly plant-based diet.

#4 Pescatarian

This is an easy one: A plant-based diet also rich in fish or seafood. Dairy and eggs are optional, and many pescatarians opt to keep them in for variety’s sake. The bulk of their diet, though, is still plant-based.

Pros

It’s been established that fish can be a significantly healthier alternative to red meat. Some studies also indicate that the gut microbiome—the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut—help ward off obesity when they digest polyunsaturated fatty acids; the kind you find mostly in fish!

Cons

The biggest con here is ethically sourcing your fish and seafood. If you watched Seaspiracy or read The Outlaw Ocean by Pulitzer prize winner Ian Urbina, you’ll know the health of our ocean ecosystems is reaching critical mass. There are also studies on the horizon detailing how microplastics in the ocean are affecting nutrient levels in fish.

#5 Mediterranean Diet

People who follow Mediterranean (or Paleo) diets might eat meat as often as every day. But they also tend to also eat a lot of whole plant foods. These are low-carb diets and focus on eliminating processed foods and refined sugar and replacing them with healthy fats.

As long as plants make up a significant portion of what they eat, we can consider them plant-based too.

Pros

It’s not just buckets of olive oil; this plant-based diet offers a ton of variety. I include Paleo because the macro ratios (percentages of fats, proteins, and carbs) are similar. By focusing more heavily on healthy fats, Mediterranean and Paleo diets can also help regulate hormone levels.

Also, strict Mediterranean diets are associated with a significantly lower risk of cognitive impairment with age.

Cons

Honestly, your mileage can vary. I’ve had clients try both Mediterranean and Paleo diets, and while they enjoyed the variety, the higher fat intake seemed to be hard on their digestive system.

In addition, many of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet are also tied to a Mediterranean lifestyle (aka walking in a hilly environment, getting a lot of sun, etc.) which may not be as easy to achieve where you live.

Link to more in-depth research here 

What I Chose

What I found that fits with my philosophy best is #2, a vegetarian diet. This means I intend to occasionally include eggs and cheese but stay away from red meat, poultry, and fish. 

Eggs have been a consistent item in my nutrition program because they are the most closely related protein to what the human body produces to repair muscles after a hard workout.

Bonus, the choline found in egg yolks is a building block of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential for memory.

And cheese? Don’t get me started.

Next Steps

So I did the research, I chose the plant-based diet to try, I have a wonderful partner to help hold me accountable on the journey. All that is left is to get cooking and see how I feel!

And after a week of exploring the culinary side of a vegetarian diet, I learned a few more lessons.

Lesson 3: Plant-Based Diets Don’t Have To Be Bland!

I’ll admit that when I started this adventure, my (and my partner’s) mental image of a plant-based diet was pretty bland.

Sure, I had my nutrition training to help us understand all the health benefits, but when it came time to actually cook, we had never fully explored my options.

Our plan was to begin by choosing plant-based or vegetarian recipes the next time we cooked together, which is usually Thursday and Saturdays each week.  On Thursday, it is my night to select the recipe, shop for the ingredients, and set us up for success. 

Rice Noodles with Tofu and Veggies

Dinner #1

So for this first week, I chose a SOBA NOODLE VEGGIE STIR FRY dish from skinnytaste.com.  Here is the link to try it yourself!

Along the way, we made some adjustments to the cooking recipe to make it fit our preferences better.  We chose to swap out the soba noodles for rice noodles and add in tofu for extra protein.

It turned out great!  The egg and the nut butter (yes, you read that right) give it richness, and the sriracha gives it kick. So satisfying.

Here’s a pic of the result of our efforts!

The only drawback to the recipe is how long the prep time was. The rice noodles needed to rest in cold water, which added another 30 minutes to our prep time. Nevertheless, it was not a difficult recipe.

I thought at first the dish wouldn’t make enough food to be filling, but the fiber in the vegetables filled us up quickly. The original recipe has 18.5 grams of protein per serving, but the extra tofu bumped that up, making for a dish that was satisfying as it was tasty—and nourishing for the body.

We had plenty for leftovers which you can see portioned out below for easy grab-n-go lunches!

Mixed Greens Salad with Baked Tofu Chili and Gluten Free Cornbread

Dinner #2

Later on in the first week, my partner chose “The Best Vegan Chili Ever”, a recipe from It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken. And, with gluten-free cornbread to compliment the dish!  We both agreed that this was one of our favorite dishes we’ve had together; vegetarian, vegan, or not!

Again, time was the only real drawback.  The tofu takes 45 minutes to cook, and the chili itself once brought to a boil was another hour simmering on the stove! 

That being said, the effort was totally worth the wait, as we both loved the chili with cornbread. Honestly, with all the other great flavors dancing in this chili, it’s impossible to tell the difference between baked tofu and ground chicken.

Here is the recipe with images below of how it turned out!

Plant-Based Eating: How Do I Feel?

It is all well and good to write about science, recipes, plant-based meals, and how amazing baked tofu is. But we still have not covered the final piece of the puzzle: How have I been feeling?

I Feel Great

With 100% adherence to a new plant-based, vegetarian diet, I genuinely feel a lot of energy while performing my best. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a slump in the mid-afternoon.

This first week, I powered through two intense jiu-jitsu classes.  Near the end of the second class, our coaches opened up the mats to students who wished to spar more.  I powered through 3 more 5-7 minute rounds with teammates with energy to spare!  

I’m going to be 100% honest: I wasn’t expecting to have the energy to do that!

Final Thoughts On Week One

Overall, my first week of eating plant-based was a wonderful experience, with the boost in energy I was looking for while filling in the gaps in my previous nutrition program with fiber, nutrient-dense carbohydrates to fuel performance, and recover from workouts better than ever.

I’ve also discovered it’s a diet rich in variety and flavor, even if things take a little longer to cook.

Healthy habits can be hard to maintain though, so I am looking forward to seeing what challenges, questions, and successes the next week brings.

And as always, if you’re looking for support in your own journey toward a plant-based diet, sign up for free emails below. I’ll be happy to share what I find with you!

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