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.
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
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.