When I became vegetarian, I felt amazing right away. But then something happened.
I got lazy.
At first, I ran better than ever, qualifying for the Boston Marathon and running my first 50-mile ultramarathon, thanks largely to a lighter frame and more energy that allowed me to train and recover like I never had before.But with this energy and these accomplishments came the idea that my diet, by virtue of being plant-based, was exempt from traditional sports nutrition rules. I concluded that we don’t need nearly as much protein as the people in charge would have us believe.
This caused me to let my diet slip, loading up on carbohydrates and slacking on the effort I once made to include protein in every meal.
And — surprise, surprise — my performance suffered. Not just in running, but in my day-to-day activities too.
Fortunately, I recognized what was happening and addressed the problem. But had I been a new vegetarian when this happened, it might have led me to conclude that “a vegetarian diet doesn’t work for endurance sports,” and I never would have made gotten all the benefits of this incredible diet and lifestyle.
If you’re that new vegetarian, here are five signs that — just once — you need to listen to the critics when they say you need more protein.
1. You’re tired when you shouldn’t be.
Most vegetarians will tell you they have more energy now than when they used to eat meat. If you experience less energy, it’s possible that a lack of protein is the cause.
I’m not talking about feeling groggy when you wake up. I mean wanting to take a nap in the middle of the day or evening when you never used to. And it doesn’t have to be just physical—a mental lack of motivation is also sometimes associated with protein deficiency.
2. You’re weak when you lift weights, run, do yoga, or do any other strenuous activity.
When you don’t get enough protein, your muscles aren’t able to repair themselves after a workout. In such a case, strenuous exercise can actually be counterproductive—you aren’t able to rebuild what you tear down, and you actually become weaker.
3. You’re flabby where you used to be muscular.
It’s not just the performance of your muscles that declines when you’re protein-deficient: Their appearance and size does, too.
Why? If your body can’t find enough protein in your diet to sustain itself, it takes it from wherever it can find it. And wouldn’t you know it, your muscles, not your bodyfat, are where the protein is.
Bottom line: If you don’t give your body enough protein, it’ll cannibalize its own tissue to get what it needs.
4. You’re getting injured and not recovering quickly.
Slowed recovery doesn’t just apply to rebuilding muscles after a tough workout—when you’re injured and protein deficient, your body will take longer to heal.
Again, it’s pretty logical. Protein is necessary to build new tissue, so if it’s not available, your body can’t rebuild itself.
5. Your hair is falling out.
Seems like a weird sign of protein deficiency, doesn’t it?
What’s going on here is that when you’re not getting much protein, your body goes into conservation mode. Among other things, it stops spending valuable protein on the production of things like hair and nails.
The result: Hair in your shower, broken, brittle nails, and other pleasantries.
What to Do About It
So while the protein question is fair, there are plenty of good answers to it for vegetarians and vegans. Here’s what to do if you think you’re not getting enough.
If you’ve been reading my emails, you know that I don’t really like to get caught up in nutrition numbers, even when it comes to protein. Instead, I prefer to simply make sure that I include one good source of protein in every meal or snack I eat.
But if that’s not your style, and you want more concrete evidence that you’re getting enough each day, here’s what I suggest.
To figure out how much protein you should be getting each day, take your body weight in pounds and multiply by 0.4. Make sure to get that many grams of protein every day. That’ll get you slightly more than the U.S. recommended daily allowance. As an athlete, you may find you need to up that number; pay attention to how you feel and the warning signs above, and adjust accordingly.
There are plenty of fine non-animal sources of protein, even if you’re not down with eating soy at every meal. My favorite sources are beans of all kinds, but you’ll also find a good amount of protein in nuts, grains and seeds like quinoa, and even vegetables like spinach and broccoli. (Vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke has a great list of vegan protein sources on his website.)
Supplementing is another option. I find that starting the day with a smoothie with protein powder helps me ensure I get enough. Hemp protein is my favorite, but pea, rice, and soy protein powders are all viable vegan options.
Finally, make sure you’re getting all the essential amino acids. If you rely too heavily on a single protein source, it’s likely you won’t be getting all the amino acids you need. So vary your sources as much as possible. (You don’t have to worry about combining all the amino acids in the same meal.)
So the next time someone asks you the protein question, don’t just blow them off. They have a point; protein should be a concern for vegetarians and vegans. But it’s absolutely not something you can’t overcome if you’re committed to experiencing all that this diet has to offer.
Talk to you soon,
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*This article is adapted from one that I wrote as a guest post for Daily Garnish. See the original here.