Everything you need to know about protein if you’re a plant-based athlete.
Been plant-based for over 10 seconds? Then you've probably been asked at least twice where you get your protein. This happens so much that it’s an ongoing joke in the plant-based and vegan community. The good news is the answer is quite simple: from plants! But don’t worry; if you are still unsure about where vegans get their protein, we will cover that, plus all of your other protein questions answered, like:
- Are vegans protein deficient?
- Do plant-based athletes need extra protein to build muscle?
- Can you be a plant-based athlete and get enough protein?
- How much protein do I actually need?
- What are the best plant-based sources of protein?
- Should I be supplementing with a protein powder?
On this page:
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 get 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.
What is protein and why do I need it?
OK, before we break down why you don't need vegan protein shakes, let's do a quick review on what protein is exactly.
Your body puts protein to work in nine essential ways:
- to grow and repair tissue
- to aid important biochemical reactions
- to facilitate communication between cells
- to act as a structural framework within your cells
- to regulate proper pH balances within your blood
- to maintain your body’s fluid balance
- to transport and store nutrients
- to form antibodies to fight infection
- and (last but not least) to give your body energy.
Protein has also been linked to weight loss through improved metabolism and reduced appetite.
Only 3 percent of America is protein-deficient, and those people are calorie-deprived, meaning they are not eating enough food.
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.
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.
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 — most people who eat the Standard American Diet are currently getting too much protein.
Too much protein, even from plants, can accelerate the aging process and cause disease. Lucine and methionine, two amino acids found in both plants and animal products, but more abundantly in animals, are responsible for driving cellular aging.
An overconsumption of animal protein leads to fatal diseases, particularly cancer, while an overconsumption of plant protein does not. (And considering the high fiber content in most protein-rich plant foods, you’d be uncomfortably full before you ever got close to dangerous levels of protein intake).
Not to mention, 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!
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. Whole foods like brown rice and whole wheat are always better than refined foods like crackers and white pasta. They contain more nutrients, more protein and more fiber.
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.
Many popular protein powders contain whey and casein; both are animal products derived from cow's milk. Too much whey can lead to digestive issues and acne, while casein is linked with cancer.
And protein powder often contains fillers, gums, high amounts of processed sugar, and empty calories. This can lead to fat storage in the body, spiked glucose levels, and inflammation (which is the LAST thing you want as an athlete or if you're trying to lose weight!).
And for those who think your vegan protein powder is healthy, studies find that whey and sugar aren't the only toxin added to these protein powders:
“Earlier this year, a nonprofit group called the Clean Label Project released a report about toxins in protein powders. Researchers screened 134 products for 130 types of toxins and found that many protein powders contained heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury), bisphenol-A (BPA, which is used to make plastic), pesticides, or other contaminants with links to cancer and other health conditions. Some toxins were present in significant quantities. For example, one protein powder contained 25 times the allowed limit of BPA.”
- Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School
Try this instead: the ultimate whole food plant-based protein shake recipe
Boost your workout with plants, no processed powders. This whole food plant-based protein shake recipe contains 35 whopping grams of vegan protein per serving — no casein, no whey, no toxins!1 ½ frozen ripe bananas (peel, chop, and freeze after buying)
3 Tablespoons of all natural peanut butter
3 Tablespoons of hemp seeds
1 teaspoon of flaxseed
1 ½ cups of unsweetened soy milk
2 dates (pitted, soak for a smoother texture)
1 cup of raw spinach
Blend ingredients until smooth. Blend an additional 30 seconds.
Excellent Source of Dietary Fiber, Excellent Source of Protein, Excellent Source of Vitamin A, Excellent Source of Vitamin C, Excellent Source of Calcium, Excellent Source of Iron
Even though it's delicious, you don’t really need that 35g protein shake because as we've already said, you're probably getting plenty of protein already.
Want to compare? Here’s what plant-based athlete Jamie eats in a day to meet her protein requirements:
Weight: 120 lbs
Endurance athlete (3-5 times a week)
Protein minimum: 65g-108g
Breakfast - Oatmeal: 29g
1 cup of oats, ½ a cup of blueberries, 1 sliced banana, and 1 cup of soymilk.
Lunch - Tahini buddha bowl: 26g
1 cup of cooked lentils, 1 cup of brown rice, 1 diced red pepper, 1 tablespoon of tahini.
Dinner - Black bean tacos: 25g
4 corn tortillas, 1 cup of black beans, ½ an avocado, 1 tomato, lettuce and green onion.
Total: Looks like we ended up with a whopping 80g of protein! And that doesn’t even include snacks.
- Protein is important, and if you eat enough food you won't be deficient.
- If you’re worried about plant-based protein, there are plenty of vegan foods that are protein dense like beans, nuts, tofu, seeds and leafy greens.
- While endurance plant-based athletes may need a bit more protein than the average vegan Joe, they don't need that much more – and chances are you're probably getting plenty if you eat a well-rounded plant-based diet.
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.