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!

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