Could You Be at Risk for Protein Deficiency? 6 Simple Rules for Protecting Yourself

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Post written by Susan Lacke.

The doctor with the disheveled hair leaned in, inches away from my face:

“To be honest, Susan, I’m not really sure what to make of this.”

In her hand, she held the results of my lab tests. A lot of things were out of whack.

I had been feeling like absolute crap lately, but chalked it up to a heavy load of work, school, and Ironman training. All of a sudden, it looked more serious than that.

In the past, I had some major health problems, which contributed to my decision to become vegetarian, quit my unhealthy habits, and start running. As I sat in the doctor’s office that day, I began to question that – had all of my healthy activities been pointless? I considered picking up a pack of Marlboro Lights and a giant jug of wine on my way home to tell my partner, Neil, I was dying.

The doctor ordered more tests and told me to stop being a drama queen – it wasn’t time to jump to conclusions just yet.

The two words every vegetarian dreads

When I went back to the doctor the following week, I got the verdict: I wasn’t dying. But my diagnosis still didn’t give me much cause for celebration.

I had extreme protein deficiency.

Shit.

Instantly, I heard the voices of the peanut gallery rise up in my head. For the past few years, I’ve been reassuring my friends, family, and perfect strangers that yes, I was a vegetarian; yes, I did Ironman triathlons; yes, it was possible to do so without eating meat; and no, I wasn’t going to die from protein deficiency.

Everyone gave me “the talk.” You’ve heard it at some point, I’m sure: If you don’t eat meat, you’re not going to get enough protein. You’re going to have a heck of a lot of problems.

But now I wondered if I was going to have to eat crow. I braced myself for “the talk” from my doctor, but it never came.

“Look, I’m giving you two weeks to get your protein levels back up before I’ll come down on your diet. I know you can do it without eating meat, but you have to make an effort.”

What went wrong

My doctor was right. I had to make an effort. In looking back at how my protein levels got so low, I realized a lot of factors came into play, but they pretty much all fall into one category:

I got lazy.

You see, while training for my first Ironman I dutifully kept track of every single thing that went into my body. Because I was new to the “vegetarian Ironman” thing, I wanted to make sure I was doing it right. I’d analyze my diet to make sure I was getting enough calories, protein, iron, and vitamins. I made sure to vary my food sources to get the complete amino acid profile, and was proactive about deficiencies in my diet.

I learned what you’ve probably learned as a vegetarian athlete: If you eat a variety of foods, it’s pretty easy to get everything you need without eating meat.

With that knowledge under my belt, I eased up on the food tracking. This time, while training for another Ironman, I got complacent in my diet. I still ate a variety of foods, sure, but took my vegetarian lifestyle for granted, assuming that what I was doing was enough to stay healthy and fueled for the demands of my active life. It wasn’t. In fact, though I knew my Ironman training volume required approximately 100 grams of protein per day (based on my weight and activity level), I was only consuming about 50-60 grams.

It was a tough pill to swallow. I hated telling the peanut gallery. (My favorite response was “Don’t you write about this stuff for a website? Aren’t you supposed to be an expert on this?”)

As humbling as the experience was, I learned a lot of valuable lessons about protein intake, and was able to remedy the situation. I went back to basics and re-learned how to get all the protein I needed in my vegetarian diet.

A refresher course in plant-based protein

1. Up your activity = up your calories

Many sources will tell you that protein deficiency is often a result of caloric deficiency. Much of the research that drew this conclusion was done on people with eating disorders such as anorexia. However, the same principle applies to people who are extremely active. As you ramp up the volume of your training, it’s important to increase your caloric intake exponentially.

2. Eat the right foods

In addition to increasing your calories, it’s important to note what types of food you’re eating. A lot of active people will stuff their face with carbohydrates, because it’s what they’re craving and it’s the fuel they burn. Though many carbohydrate sources have protein (a slice of whole-grain bread, for example, has 5 grams of protein), it’s important for the athlete to make sure he or she is consuming high-density sources of protein as well. Some plant-based sources to consider:

  • Seeds, legumes, nuts and nut butters
  • Soy-based foods, such as tofu, soy milk, and soy protein shakes. Soy burgers, veggie dogs, are veggie bacon also have a decent amount of protein, but enjoy them in moderation – they’re often highly processed!
  • Sprouts and whole grain sprouted breads
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli (1 cup = 6.8 grams) and spinach (1 cup = 13 grams)
  • Hemp, pea, and rice protein powders
  • Spirulina

If you are vegetarian, not vegan, you have a few more options for protein sources in dairy and egg products. Whey protein is a popular ingredient in many commercially-made protein shakes and bars.

3. No protein bombs

Before you reach for your turbo-charged protein shake or 50-gram protein bar, consider this: Your body cannot process gigantic amounts of protein at once. If you’re trying to get all of your protein needs in one sitting, chances are high that you’re not absorbing every gram.

Instead of sucking down a protein bomb once per day, shoot to get protein from whole-food sources in each of your meals and snacks.

4. Timing is everything

Though it’s important to eat protein sources throughout the day, there are three especially critical times for protein absorption:

  • 30 minutes after you wake up: Your body is hungriest when you wake up – after all, it hasn’t been eating for hours. Giving it protein first thing in the morning starts the day off right.
  • 30-60 minutes after your workout: In this critical period, your body is like a sponge for nutrients, and protein will help repair broken-down muscles.
  • 30 minutes before you go to bed: When you sleep, all of your systems are dutifully working to repair the damage you’ve done to your body that day. Taking in some protein before bedtime gives your body some extra tools to accomplish this work.

5. Listen to your loved ones

The best litmus tests for your health are your friends and family. It’s one thing to get a good-natured ribbing from your friends about being a granola-eating hippie; it’s completely different when your spouse tells you you’ve seemed sluggish lately.

Don’t dismiss genuine concerns. It’s easy to get defensive when we’re called out by someone (especially if that someone isn’t a vegetarian or vegan). Check your pride at the door and take a moment to determine if what they’re seeing can be attributed to what you’re doing in training or your diet.

And the most important lesson

6. Don’t be lazy.

It’s easy to take a healthy lifestyle for granted. We hear so many good stories about a plant-based diet these days: That it prevents diseases, cures what ails you, and can help you achieve your fitness goals. With such an abundance of good news, we sometimes forget that it’s not a silver bullet.

We can’t run on autopilot and assume that we’ll be just fine. Just like an airplane can’t land without a pilot in the cockpit, we have to take control of what we put into our bodies.

It’s not impossible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet. It’s not even that hard.

But my doctor was right: You just have to make an effort.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susan Lacke’s off season happens in the months of December and January, where she allows herself to sleep in and eat lots of baked goods. Her swim coach is never amused with her extra buoyancy in February, but she’ll still tell you it was still delicously worth it. In addition to her writing on No Meat Athlete, Susan is a featured columnist in Competitor Magazine and on Competitor.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.

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Comments

  1. You mean Susan’s pizza and beer weren’t a good source of protein? I’m shocked.

  2. Fascinating! I think I had the same reaction reading your sorry about receiving the diagnosis as you did actually hearing it. I cringed!

    This is a good wake-up call for me. I’ve been feeling pretty run-down lately and this is a good reason for me to take a closer look at my diet.

  3. Great reminder to not get lazy and to constantly be aware! What would you suggest as a good snack before bed? So many things do not digest well so close to bedtime…

    • I wish I could help you there – I’m one of those people who doesn’t really seem to get GI issues with anything. My suggestion would be to play around to see what works for you. Even if it’s just a glass or two of soy milk, that’s still 7-14 grams of protein.

  4. This is a great article – I feel like people fall on one side or the other (way too much or way too little). I especially agree with the part about absorption – wish I could explain that to the people at the gym, gulping their overpriced 4 scoop protein shakes!

    • Actually the idea that our bodies can only process a certain amount of protein (usually close to 30g) is a common myth. If you do a little research there is very little research or data to back this claim up. The idea of such a low protein absorption rate actually wouldn’t make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. For conclusive evidence talk to a sports nutritionist or for a more hands on approach most successful body builders could tell you the difference in gains they have seen from different trials with protein consumption. Although for your average person I would agree massive meaty meals can be excessive and unnecessary. Its still a better idea to space your intake throughout the day when possible. Otherwise great article! I was actually having trouble with protein deficiency as a weight lifter and avid runner and recently had to re access my nutrition.

      • How did you know that you had a protein deficiency? Did you find out as the result of any particular lab test?

        I had never heard of a documented protein deficiency even among strict vegans, unless one was truly malnourished or anorexic.

        • Well it was more trial and error. I was having a lot of issues like I kept getting eye infections, I was tired, depressed, my joints were giving me trouble, skin looked older, then I got sick etc. I went about three times and he did tests but couldn’t figure out what was wrong then we went over my diet and activities and he had me adjust it. Once I added more protein I started feeling better and all the issues went away and my doctor and I assumed that we had found the issue. Sorta just used the scientific method now that I think about it lol. It is curious that he didn’t run any tests for protein deficiency since he had already taken samples for other testing. I guess it was just one of those things if you don’t need to why do it.

  5. thankss for this great, honest, reveal! no one can become complacent about their diet, omni or vegan.

  6. how long does it take to correct a protein deficiency? can it really be done in a couple of weeks? thanks!

    • I’ve definitely dug out of a really big hole in a few weeks. I was training 25 hours per week at that time; Eating more helped tremendously to bridge the gap, and now my training volume is much lower so that also makes a difference.

  7. I love this post. I think it’s important to point out this is something that can easily happen to non-vegetarians as well, particularly people on low-fat diets. Many years ago when I was in college (and still eating animal products), I’d survive on baby carrots, pretzels, and spaghetti with marinara. Not much protein there, and I always felt sluggish and depressed.

    • Absolutely, Priscilla. When people say “vegetarians have to think more about what they’re eating to make sure they’re getting everything they need,” I caution that that’s not quite true; Many omnis have to put an effort into their diet if they want to get all the nutrients they need, too. The bottom line: No diet or lifestyle can run on autopilot.

  8. Great post, and all good things to remember! I agree with Priscilla that this can happen to omnis as well, but as a vegetarian, it’s something I need to keep an eye on, especially when training hard. Throw breastfeeding into the mix, too, and I feel like I’m eating constantly, but that’s okay!

  9. Such a good post! I think I sometimes find myself lost in all that is “high veg/fruit” diet and forget to make protein a priority at every meal. Where I slack is in snacks. Can’t I just have carrots and an orange? No, I should add some hummus. Nuts in the AM, beans in the day, seeds in the salad, legumes for dinner. Let’s do this! Protein tastes so stinkin’ good…

  10. How timely, I’ve just booked in to my GP to get a round of tests done too see where all my nutrient/vitamin levels are at. I think it’s so important to talk to your doctor if you change your diet significantly or change your excercise habits (like training for a half or full marathon). They’ll be able to help you stay healthy-which in the end is waaaay more important than any race!

  11. Interesting article, but i have to say that the “30 gram of protein” rule is bogus and has been debunked for years now.

    More details: http://www.tomvenuto.com/asktom/protein_grams_per_meal.shtml

  12. Brendan Brazier’s books have helped me a lot. He describes foods/recipes to aid recovery after strenuous activity, as well as foods that give you the best bang for your nutritional buck.

  13. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Usually I do a decent amount of cooking and eat a lot of tofu, veggies, healthy grains, and just a generally good diet. Between my crazy work schedule and my training, I’ve shifted to convenience eating. I do a lot of apples and bananas, yogurts, oatmeal, etc, which aren’t bad, but my diet definitely needs more variety and more protein sources.

  14. Love this post – so important not to be lazy when it comes to diet! ;)

  15. This post scares the poo out of me. Isn’t this a fear that all veg athletes have, to give people the chance to say “I told you so”? When I find myself feeling sluggish or crappy my roommate will often ask what I’ve eaten recently. The answer is usually not enough, or a lot of crap. It’s easy to get caught up in training and get lazy about diet.

    Thank you so much for your honesty in this post.

  16. hey!! Don’t let Quinoa out!! :)
    Greetings from South America. ;)

  17. Thanks so much for sharing Susan. You’re right – it’s so easy to get caught up in all the benefits of plant-based diets that we forget that, like any healthy diet, they take a bit of work! I’m a med student and I’m doing a research project on plant-based diets and the health benefits and common nutritional concerns associated with vegetarianism/veganism – things like B12 for us vegans, iron, protein, etc. Like you said, it’s not HARD, but it’s something to be aware of!

    Also, just for personal interest – what kind of meals were you eating that contributed to your protein deficiency? I definitely tend to gravitate towards big steaming bowls of grains + veggies, but especially with marathon training I try to stick some beans/nuts/seeds in there as well. But I’m sure I get lazy sometimes and should make more of an effort!

  18. As a vegan and a runner, this article was an important reminder to get the protein we need to keep up with our crazy schedules! Thanks! :)

  19. Try some SunWarrior chocolate protein powder. It actually tastes good just mixed with some almond milk unlike most and it is sprouted and fermented rice with the whole bran so it is complete. I hightly recommend it.

  20. How come all the 80-10-10 guys like Durianrider (Harley from 30bananasaday.com) don’t seem to get protein defiency even tho they just eat fruits (tons) and vegetables (seeds and nuts monthly)?
    I really think this is just related to how many calories you get.

    Check out durianriders blood test (skip to 3:00 for protein levels) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4O_A6Mh1J48 .

    That guy is bananas.

    • Ben Benulis says:

      I gotta say I agree with you. I can’t imagine what my caloric needs would be if I were training 25hrs/week. At 8 hours per week it’s around 4200/day. I’d probably be going through a box of bananas every other freakin’ day, AT LEAST!

      Medically speaking, protein deficiency is almost always associated with a caloric deficiency, and I could see that being very possible on such a heavy training schedule.

  21. I think its likely that protein demands and calorie demands rise proportionally.
    I think that fruit might not have a high amount of protein as grains/beans, it might be more bioavailable so it probably makes up for it.
    That would also explain why weight lifting always makes me so much more hungry than running.

  22. Susan,

    If you haven’t already, check out “The China Study” (http://thechinastudy.com/). Interesting nutritional information conducted by reputable nutritional scientists and credible data. I’ve been vegetarian (nearly vegan) for two years and run about 50-60 miles per week. This book has reinforced my desire to continue in my dietary ways and has provided hard facts with which I fend off the naysayers. It also may change the way you consider protein in your diet.

  23. Susan, thanks for this. I am also a long time veggie, and I was recently diagnosed with a similar peanut-gallery favorite: iron deficiency anemia. So I really do feel your pain. I have always had low iron, even when I ate meat – often too low to give blood – but never as bad as it was when I was diagnosed. And I’ve always dismissed and shrugged off my family’s worries about iron and protein, but the truth is that I have gotten lazy, too. I’ve been living on desserts and coffee, and that will not get iron into your body, for sure. (Doesn’t really support my training, either.)

    Anyway, I appreciate you dealing with this honestly, because every time I do a search for “vegetarian iron deficiency anemia remedies” I always get apologetics about how being vegetarian does not cause iron deficiency anemia. Thanks, Susan!

  24. What components of a lab test would indicate that one has a protein deficiency? I had never heard of a documented protein deficiency even among strict vegans, unless one was truly malnourished or anorexic.

    What components of a lab test would indicate that one has excess protein in their diet? In my opinion, getting excess protein is far more common than having a protein deficiency.

  25. Emma Katie says:

    I felt like I stumbled across this on purpose! I too have become lazy when it comes to my protein intake and I have noticed what I believe is a protein deficiency (or something related to lack of protein). I have also upped my exercise regime, but not my protein intake. I LOVE fruit and veges. I would take a crispy apple over a chocolate bar any day! I don’t blame it on my vegetarianism, just my laziness when it comes to my diet. Thanks for the great post :)

  26. Hi – I know this is a post from 2011, but I’m recently vegan and am looking through literature on the web for tips and advice. I’ve seen the erroneous numbers on protein in broccoli (per a 1 cup serving, raw, protein is actually 3g) and spinach (per 1 cup serving, protein accounts for 1g) on places popping up like Facebook and am curious to know what source was referenced? The source I found online may be read/misinterpreted under the caloric breakdown of macronutrients – in a 1 cup serving, 6.3 *calories* can be attributed to protein. See here http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2356/2. Not trying to be a pain in the ass or whatever!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] writes – add that one to your RSS reader if you are interested in fitness and nutrition topics). This one from Susan over at No Meat Athlete is a good one too, if you think maybe you are not getting enough [...]

  2. [...] with a plant-based diet. Susan Lacke, a frequent guest poster on the site, recently wrote about a protein deficiency scare she had because she wasn’t putting enough thought into making sure she ate [...]

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