Can you be a vegetarian or vegan athlete and meet your protein needs? It is an outdated myth that it is difficult to meet protein requirements from plant sources. Choosing your individual approach to eating needs to fit your lifestyle, whether that’s for your individual health needs or other personal reasons. Additionally, your eating preferences do not need to be labeled. Everything in moderation, right?
No one right way to eat.
The next diet fad may seem enticing but over all nutrition is individualized and there is no one right way to eat for everyone. Always take into account your personal food preferences, health needs, activity level, cooking skills, schedule, and allow the experience of eating to be enjoyable as well. If you have been considering eating a plant-based diet, just as your physical training needs a plan to best meet your goals, so does your eating plan. Meal planning can be a challenging task because eating is an ongoing and constant need. We cannot just go to the grocery store once, cook one meal, and eat one time. Whether omnivore, carnivore, or herbivore, nutrition is about meeting your individual needs. Planning is required for any individual’s dietary intake and going the vegan or vegetarian route does require some extra consideration for meeting protein needs.
What is protein and why is it needed?
Protein is one of the most abundant substances in our cells after water, and has almost endless functions in the body. They account for the tough fibrous nature of hair, nails, and ligaments, and for the structure of our muscles (including our heart). Protein functions to build and maintain body tissues and structures and is involved in the synthesis of enzymes and hormones.
The greatest amounts of protein are needed when the body is building new tissue (increasing muscle mass) and when loss of protein occurs from injuries, infections or other causes. In addition, proteins are needed for forming antibodies that will protect the body from harmful infections.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The body uses 20 amino acids to build the proteins it needs. There are 9 essential amino acids (our body can not make them so must consume them from food) and 11 nonessential (our body is able to make them). (Note: Sources can differ on how many of the amino acids are considered essential, ranging from 8-10, based on factors such as age or health status.) The endless combinations of amino acids make up thousands of different proteins in the cells of our body.
How much protein is really needed?
Well, that depends. There is no research that a vegetarian or vegan athlete has higher protein needs than someone consuming a mixed diet. However, consuming the variety of foods, complementary proteins, and essential amino acids must be taken into account for an overall balanced intake. According to the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), the average person needs 0.8 grams/kilogram a day of protein.
An active individual has increased protein needs. Exercising or training five or more days per week requires 1.2-1.7 g/kg per day. With higher intensity exercise there is increased protein utilization for protein development and tissue repair. This roughly equates to 82-116 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person.
There has to be adequate carbohydrate and overall calorie intake for the muscles to utilize protein as well. Not consuming enough carbohydrate and fat will also force the body to break down protein for energy. However, protein is not our bodies preferred energy source and should be reserved for its main functions of building and repairing tissues.
If too much protein is consumed, as with any other nutrient, the excess is stored as fat. It is not about one nutrient but the whole picture of our intake. Consuming extra protein does not allow the body to store more protein. All extra amounts of food (more than needed) are stored as fat regardless of the nutrient it is consumed from.
Can I get enough protein from plants?
An emphatic YES! Protein deficiency is rare in the average American population. Vegetarian and vegan athletes can consume adequate protein intake through consumption of a variety of foods such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy products.
The bioavailability of protein (lower in essential amino acids) may be lower in some plant foods such as cereals versus beans and soy foods. Encouraging a variety of sources for protein intake, as with any diet, is key to adequately meet dietary needs.
We previously believed that in order to get adequate amounts of protein from a plant-based diet that complementary proteins (pairing of foods that made up all the essential amino acids such as rice and beans) needed to be consumed. However, as research has advanced that is not the current case. Consuming a varied diet throughout the day and evenly spreading protein between meals and snacks will allow for adequate protein intake.
Plant-based Protein Foods
- Legumes (beans, peas), ½ cup 7 grams
- Tofu, 1 cup 20 grams
- Edamame, ½ cup 8 grams
- Tempeh, ½ cup 15 grams
- Rice, ½ cup 2-3 grams
- Quinoa, ½ cup 4 grams
- Most nut butters, 2 TBSP 8 grams
- Hemp seeds, 2 TBSP 7 grams
- Most nuts, 2 TBSP 7 grams
- Steel cut oats, ½ cup 4 grams
As a registered dietitian, I encourage people to eat food. Explore your tastes, how a food smells, the level of energy you feel after consuming it, and do so without guilt. Get away from focusing on the numbers and enjoy your food. As with any eating style, some planning is needed. This is especially true for those pursuing plant-based diets.
Keep it simple. If you already consume a plant-based diet then build your variety and explore new recipes. If you are thinking of incorporating more plants into your diet then you do not have to go all in at once. Small steps make the biggest impacts. Beans and legumes are a great place to start. Swap one meal a week and go with what you already know, like, and are comfortable with cooking. Try swapping your taco meat out for beans and lentils. Keep all of your yummy sides of avocado, salsa, peppers, tortillas, and leafy greens for a tasty, satisfying, and nutritionally balanced meal.
Vegetarian and vegan athletes, like any athlete or individual, would benefit from working with a registered dietitian to be educated on consuming a variety of foods to meet their needs (lifestyle, preference, health, activity, and cooking skills).
Clark MA, Sutton BG, Lucett SC. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, 4th ed. rev. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2014.
Duyff RL. American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide 4th ed. John Wiley and Sons, 2012.
Rosenbloom CA & Coleman EJ (Eds.) Sports Nutrition A Practice Manual for Professionals. 5th edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago, IL; 2012.
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, http://ndb.nal.usda.gov