Protein is one of the most controversial subjects when it comes to plant-based diets. As soon as you tell people that you've cut out animal products, everyone is suddenly worried about your protein needs. We've written before about how yes, you can indeed get enough protein on a plant-based diet...we do hear from athletes all the time wondering if the same is true for them. Does a plant-based diet for athletes make the cut?
Before We Begin: Get All The Nutrients You Need As a Plant-Based Athlete
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Protein is one of the three major macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fat. There are twenty amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and their role is fundamental for building and repairing cells, creating antibodies and enzymes essential for a healthy, strong body. Out of the twenty amino acids, eight are known as essential, as we cannot synthesize them, which means that we need to obtain them from food.
Contrary to popular belief, all plant-based foods have protein, but the quantities vary depending on the type of food and its composition.
So can you get enough protein on a plant-based diet for athletes?
There have been many studies demonstrating the importance of protein in metabolic adaptation, muscle building, and recovery. However, over the years, the fitness industry has created a protein obsession, leading to a number of misconceptions around protein requirements, sources, and quality. Because of these misconceptions, specifically that animal protein is superior, the world was taken by surprise when plant-based athletes grew in numbers over the last five years or so, demolishing false perceptions about plants and protein.
First, let's talk about what you actually need when it comes to protein.
The World Health Organization recommends 0.66 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This roughly translates to about ten percent of total daily calories for the general adult population (19-59 years old). Or, if you want a real concrete number, here's a handy protein calculator to help you figure out your unique protein needs.
For athletes, things are a bit different though. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests a protein intake of 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for athletes, depending on the nature of exercise (endurance, strength, etc.). Keep in mind, however, that this recommendation is for people who exercise regularly, on a professional or elite level. Your average gym-goer is unlikely to need that much protein for lifting weights three times per week.
Can You Have Too Much Protein?
Unfortunately, while folks are usually worried about their protein intake, no one seems to be aware of the negative consequences of an excessively high-protein diet. Yep! You can indeed have too much – in fact, most who eat the Standard American Diet are currently getting too much protein.
Too much protein, even from plants, can accelerate the aging process. Lucine and methionine, two amino acids found in both plants and animal products, but more abundantly in animals, are responsible for driving cellular aging.
In addition, an excess of protein leads to fat accumulation in the body, leading to obesity and obesity-related disorders.
Did a well-meaning friend tell you animal protein is of a higher quality than plant-based protein? While it is true that protein found in animal products has a higher digestibility (more than 90 percent, in comparison with plant protein averaging a 60 percent digestibility), it is crucial to consider what each type of protein comes with when it enters your body.
Animal protein comes with saturated fats, cholesterol, sometimes antibiotics, and toxins, increasing the risk of a vast array of life-threatening disorders including heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and cancer.
Plant protein on the other hand, comes with an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and health-promoting compounds. The only thing you have to do? Consume a bit more plants than you would if you were depending on animal products for your protein needs!
The truth is, for most people, even athletes, if you consume enough calories and eat a well-rounded plant-based diet, you don't have to stress over protein. That said, it's still nice to know which plant-based foods are high in protein. And if you're a high performance athlete, as noted earlier, you'll want to eat a bit more of these foods.
Great Sources of Plant-Based Protein:
- Firm tofu: 10 g of protein per half cup.
- Edamame beans: 8.5 g of protein per half cup.
- Tempeh: 15 g of protein per half cup.
- Cooked lentils: 8.84 g of protein per half cup.
- Cooked chickpeas : 7.25 g of protein per half cup.
- Peanuts: 20.5 g of protein per half cup.
- Cooked quinoa: 8 g of protein per cup.
- Hemp seeds: 5 g of protein per tablespoon.
- Protein is important for athletes as it is vital for building muscle and recovery...and you can definitely meet your needs on a plant-based diet!
- Protein requirements are the same for males and females, but slightly higher for high performance athletes.
- Plant protein has a lower digestibility but higher quality than animal protein but animal protein has more health risks.
- A well-designed diet centered around protein-rich plant-based foods, hitting the caloric targets of your metabolism is perfect for meeting your protein requirements as a plant-based athlete.
Rafaela Michailidou is a Vegan Lifestyle Coach, and a freelance health and wellness content writer, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.