Plant Based Athletes Are Thriving: Here’s How They’re Getting Their Protein
It’s undeniable in 2021 that you can be a world class athlete while being a vegan or vegetarian. Professional tennis player Venus Williams, world champion endurance mountain biker @sonyalooney, ultra runner Rich Roll, NFL player Cameron Newton, and one of the greatest ultra runners of all time, Scott Jurek are only a few examples of plant-based athletes excelling in their sports. The list is long. Despite this, there are still concerns among athletes about not being able to meet high quality protein needs while on a plant-based diet. Let’s put those to rest.
- Protein basics
- Combining proteins
- Building muscle: What the science says
- Soy and hormones
- Practical plant based food ideas
- 5 plant based proteins for athletes
- 5 high leucine plant foods & combinations
- 5 meal ideas with 20-40g plant protein
- 5 high protein plant-based snack ideas
- 5 low fiber plant-based pre-race meals
- High fiber intake for athletes
- Daily protein – the big picture
- Tips to get started on your plant based journey
One of the main reasons people argue that plant-based proteins are insufficient, is that some plant proteins have lower concentrations of one or more of what’s called the essential amino acids (there are 9). Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in the body. There are 20 amino acids in total. Essential amino acids are termed as such, because unlike the others they can’t be made by your body and you need to consume them through your diet. A complete protein contains all of the essential amino acids. If you visualize a complete protein as a circular chain made from links, each link will represent an amino acid and the chain would represent the complete protein.
Many common animal foods like milk, meat, casein and eggs are complete proteins containing all of the essential amino acids in optimal amounts. Although all plant foods also have all of the essential amino acids, many have lower levels than are optimal. Plant proteins such as soy are complete proteins while others run close such as peas and quinoa. It’s important to note that although different plants may be lower in different amino acids, you can overcome these differences by combining a variety of different plant foods or by eating more of a particular plant protein, leaving you with an enhanced essential amino acid profile over a 24 hour period.
Combining plant based foods
Examples of combining foods would include complimentary brown rice and beans, since grains tend to be lower in lysine and legumes in methionine and cysteine. Whole grain bread and peanut butter is another good combination. You’ll notice these are both very economical examples, which bode well for both your budget and meeting carbohydrate needs for those intense workouts.
Keep in mind, you don’t have to stress about combining proteins perfectly at every meal. Try to picture all the links of the chain being put into your body, and then your body collecting the necessary links (amino acids) and make the chains (proteins) over the course of the day. Just get the foods in there, your body is brilliant at working things out. Think about protein intake in the context of a day or two as opposed to ‘per food’ or ‘per meal’ as this is a limiting way to think about it. It’s also natural that we will eat a variety of foods throughout each day, and our bodies don’t operate on a 24 hour clock.
By consuming a variety of plant proteins in the optimal quantities throughout the day, your body will be supplied with the building blocks to make the complete proteins you need. Spread your meals out every 3-4 hours as you would to optimize muscle protein synthesis from any protein type and you’ll be off to the races.
Since many plant foods tend to be lower in calories than their animal counterparts, you can also consume more of them and increase the consumption of those which are highest in all of the essential amino acids, such as soy, while not increasing your caloric intake and still meeting your protein needs. Of course as athletes, there are also times where you would want to reach for calorically dense plant based options when energy needs are higher, since meeting energy needs is an important piece of a well rounded nutrition plan for athletes.
Meeting vegetarian or vegan protein needs has become significantly easier with the convenience of plant-based milks and protein isolates and concentrates. Some plant based protein powders make a point to increase leucine content in their products, an essential amino acid known to drive muscle protein synthesis.
Additional benefits of plant based nutrition
Non-essential or conditionally essential amino acids also contribute to our health and are abundant in plant foods. Let’s not forget that protein aside, there are many additional health promoting nutrients found in plant foods, including but not limited to phytonutrients and antioxidants. For athletes, the high carbohydrate intake that comes more naturally with a plant based diet is also optimal for replenishing glycogen stores. In addition, plant foods and their added fiber can contribute to a more diverse gut microbiome and improved gut health, which has far reaching health benefits including supporting our immune systems.
What Does the Science Say?
Let’s talk about the role of protein in building muscle and how plant-based proteins stack up against animal derived proteins.
A new study out of McMaster University investigated two groups who underwent a 12-week diet and resistance training program. Both groups met optimal protein needs of 1.6g/kg of body weight per day. One group, who were already vegans for over one year, consumed a vegan diet plus a plant-based soy protein supplement and the other consumed an omnivorous diet (mixed diet) and whey protein supplement. Everyone followed the same 12-week supervised resistance training exercise protocol twice per week. What were the results? There were no differences in muscle mass or strength gains between groups, when both groups met their protein needs of 1.6g/kg of body weight through either diet.
These quality long term (6 weeks or longer) resistance training studies are a good way to examine strength and lean body mass changes when comparing groups, since these changes in muscle take time to occur. Acute studies which often measure changes in muscle protein synthesis for up to 5 hours post exercise, may not capture the entire picture, as we know that muscle protein synthesis can be elevated above resting levels for up to 48 hours post exercise. For this reason the results of a recent meta-analysis looked at 9 studies (266 people) with training programs over 6 weeks in duration, that measured strength and lean body mass changes are important. In these studies, participants in the groups consumed either soy or animal-based proteins from either whey, beef, milk or dairy. The results of the meta-analysis showed that people consuming soy and animal protein had significant increases in strength and lean body mass, with no differences between groups. In other words, both types of protein resulted in the same strength and LBM increases. Consuming soy protein to increase your strength and lean body mass is a sound nutrition choice.
It’s been well established that leucine, one of the branched chained essential amino acids, is key in activating muscle protein synthesis as well as being a building block for protein. (When you train as an athlete, you are essentially damaging muscle proteins and when you consume optimal protein intake, this allows you to replace damaged proteins with new ones, which we refer to as muscle protein synthesis).
It’s been established that our muscles have a leucine threshold or trigger, referring to the leucine content in muscle, which when met, maximizes your muscle protein synthesis by saturating muscle protein synthetic response more so than lower leucine doses. Trained athletes have a lower protein/leucine threshold needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Athletes also have a greater stimulation of protein synthesis than their more sedentary counterparts. Lastly, older people may require more leucine to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and therefor protein quality and leucine content may become more important in older age.
When it comes to leucine, plant-based concentrates such as soy, pea or rice, have lower leucine content than animal based whey concentrates. (On the contrary soy has two to threefold the amount of arginine and glutamine as well as other non essential amino acids which play important roles in our health). Despite these leucine differences, when we look an an entire plant based diet, we see that these discrepancies can be overcome when meeting optimal protein needs of 1.6g/kg of body weight, through a variety of plant based foods, in addition to a plant based protein supplement, while on a vegan diet.
Soy protein and hormones
I asked my colleague Nanci Guest, PhD, RD, CSCS, plant-based dietitian and University of Toronto nutrition researcher, to clear up some misconceptions about soy and hormones:
“Concerns that the phytoestrogens (isoflavones) in soy may feminize men continue to be raised despite the totality of evidence in human studies showing otherwise. Soyfoods contain biologically active components called isoflavones. These molecules were thought to act as endocrine or hormone disruptors in animal studies in the 1990s. After extensive review, the evidence does not support classifying isoflavones as endocrine disruptors at all. Human studies do not show that soy negatively impacts breast tissue or estrogen levels in women, or testosterone or estrogen levels, or sperm or semen parameters in men.
Further a recent meta-analysis showed neither soy protein nor isoflavone ingestion affects total testosterone, free testosterone, or estrogen levels in men. Lastly, isoflavones are very low in soy protein isolate or concentrate (used in plant-based protein powders, veggies burgers, energy bars and other food products) because during processing as much as 90% of the isoflavone content is eliminated, compared to tofu or soymilk.
Although soy is one of the few plant-sourced complete proteins, some individuals would still prefer not to use soy products. For other plant-based protein powders (pea, hemp, rice, potato etc.), I recommend using your favorite brand and adding 2-3 g of fermented leucine or a BCAA supplements (5-6 g) to ensure an optimal profile of amino acids.”
Practical plant-based food ideas
Now let’s look at the more practical side of plant based protein and nutrition. I reached out to Sports Nutritionist, former pro cyclist and coach, Jackson Long (@jacksonlong), who has been eating a vegan diet for nearly 7 years, to contribute to this article by sharing some practical ways you can add more plant-based foods into your diet, as well as some of his favorite plant based meals and snacks for athletes. Here’s what Jackson had to share:
5 plant-based proteins for athletes
- Tofu & tempeh: A staple for plant-based athletes, soy is a high quality and versatile protein source. If you’re concerned about the health or environmental effects of soy, don’t fret. Soy has been shown to be incredibly health promoting and the myths around promoting estrogen and feminization in males is simply that – myth. From tofu scramble to tempeh tacos, the opportunities are endless.
- Plant based milks (soy and pea)
- Soy milk: When making the switch from dairy to non-dairy milk options, many immediately go for almond or oat milk because of their popularity. While these are great, they lack nutritional value. Soy milk contains around 8g of protein per cup.
- Pea Milk: Ripple makes a great pea milk at 8g of protein per cup as well for those who want a non soy source.
- Lentils + lentil pasta: Lentils are quite simply an exceptional food. High in protein (9g protein per 100g), fiber, and iron, rotating them into your diet should be a priority as an athlete. Lately, lentil based pastas have been popping up that can boost your protein intake as a swap for traditional pasta. One of my favorite kinds has 13g of protein per serving!
- Hemp seeds: I sprinkle hemp seeds on everything: oatmeal, toast, salads, smoothies, etc. Nuts and seeds are a staple for plant-based athletes, and hemp seeds contain about 10g of protein per 3 tablespoons. They’re also a complete protein.
- Black beans. My preferred legume, but any and all beans are incredible for meeting protein needs.
5 high leucine plant based foods
- Tofu: ~1.2g leucine per 100g
- Rolled oats: ~1g per cup
- Edamame: ~1.2g per cup whole beans
- Navy beans: ~1.5g per cup
- Yogurt: ~0.8g per cup
5 plant-based meal ideas: 25-40g protein
- Loaded oatmeal: rolled oats with soy milk, walnuts, frozen berries, and almond butter.
- Tofu scramble w/ black beans, potatoes, avocado, and spinach
- Red lentil pasta with chickpeas or plant-based sausage
- Smoothie bowl with bananas, berries, dates, spinach/kale, hemp seeds and plant-based protein powder.
- Tempeh burritos: baked tempeh, pinto beans, brown rice, romaine lettuce, avocado/guacamole, salsa, and fajita veggies.
5 high protein plant-based snacks:
- Steamed edamame
- Whole grain toast with hummus or smashed chickpeas
- Non-dairy yogurt like Kite Hill Greek Style with berries
- Ripple chocolate milk and piece of fruit
- Almond butter and an apple
5 low fiber pre-race plant based meals
- Sweet breakfast rice: steamed white rice w/ maple syrup, banana, soy milk, and cinnamon.
- Simple tofu saute: baked or sautéed tofu cubes, with spinach, potatoes, and bell pepper. Serve over white rice and eat with avocado and soy sauce.
- Toast whole grain toast with peanut butter, banana, and sprinkled hemp seeds.
- Quick overnight oats: quick cooking oats soaked in soy milk overnight with frozen berries, maple syrup, and hemp seeds.
- Low fiber granola or cereal with pea, soy, or oat milk, sliced banana, and pumpkin seeds.
High Fiber Intake for Athletes
There are a few things to keep in mind as you add more plant based foods to your diet or if you’re already a plant based athlete; one of those things is fiber intake. Although one benefit of a plant based diet is the high carbohydrate intake that tends to occur naturally due to food choices, these carbohydrate choices include fiber, typically leading to an overall increase in fiber intake. On a day to day basis this is great and can help you to curb feelings of hunger. But for some athletes this can be a double edged sword. For example, if you’re an endurance athlete, it’s likely your calorie demands are high due to large energy expenditures from training and competition and a high fiber diet can leave you feeling full, before you’ve met your calorie needs. It’s important to be mindful of this and when your energy needs are higher, to include some additional calorie dense foods and some foods lower in fiber which can include dates, potatoes, nuts and seeds, whole grain toast and nut butters and even PB and J sandwiches.
Non plant-based athletes can run into this same problem. Maybe you have a big salad with grilled chicken leave you feeling “full,” yet you’re not meeting your energy needs. Writing in a food journal or working with a qualified sports nutritionists can help you to get a better understanding of whether or not you are meeting your energy needs.
Lastly, consuming a high fiber meal close training isn’t recommended and for some athletes is very problematic for gut discomfort. Make sure to create some lower fiber pre training and race meals and test them during your training sessions. Jackson gave some examples above.
Daily protein – the big picture
When planning protein intake as an athlete, it’s important to look at the big picture of your overall daily protein needs, regardless of what type of protein you choose to consume. Aim to consume 20-30g of protein per meal or 0.25-0.3g/kg and a daily intake of 1.2-2g/kg of body weight, which could increase in situations of restricted energy intake or high training load/intensity. Spread your protein intake throughout the day with meals every 3-4 hours, including around training sessions. By consuming a variety of quality plant proteins in these quantities, you’ll be on a level playing field.
Tips to get started on your plant based journey
If you want to add more plant-based nutrition to your regime, try starting slowly. Pick a day a week, like Mondays, where you’ll create a plant-based meal for dinner and maybe even another meal or snack. Spend some time learning a few flavorful recipes and exchanging ideas with teammates or friends. I started with a simple yet delicious recipe like this 5 Minute Chick Pea Curry from The Happy Pear. It actually is quick and is now one of my favorite go to meals. Jackson’s favorite website is The Minimalist Baker, where you can select vegan or vegetarian options.
New habits often succeed when they’re small enough to generate early success. These small successes build momentum and a belief in yourself that “you can be that person.” Better that you nail meatless Mondays then attempt suddenly going one hundred percent meat free, and then feeling disappointed when you find yourself eating a chicken sandwich on Tuesday. Once you’ve mastered a day, or a meal, extend it. Consider connecting with friends who want to do the same or talk to vegan/vegetarian friends who are supportive with great ideas to share. There are also lots of great plant-based communities online including programs from @sonyalooney and @richroll who you can learn more from here on Prokit too.
If you’ve been on the fence about adding more plant based protein, hopefully this article will help ease your concerns. Check out some of the references for more detailed insights. Jackson recently did a podcast on plant based nutrition here, and Nanci Guest PhD, was recently a guest on the Plant Based Canada podcast which you can listen to here.
Stay tuned and follow me here on Prokit for more articles and check out my podcast Imperfect Progress for awesome conversations about sports science, sports nutrition and mindset. You can also find me on Twitter or IG. Until next time, keep the rubber side down, keep moving and fuel the work.
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