Protein and the Vegan Athlete: All You Really Need to Know

Homemade Quinoa Tofu Bowl

Can you be a plant-based athlete and still meet your protein needs?

Unless you’ve been living in some magical No Meat Athlete bubble we don’t know about, you’re probably no stranger to this question.

And luckily, neither is science.

For a long time, athletes, coaches, and trainers alike have worried that vegan and vegetarian diets may not be sufficient to support the nutritional requirements and performance goals of athletes. They wonder if animal products are necessary to perform at one’s highest level.

I’m happy to report, the research says otherwise. And that there’s an easier way to think about how (and where) you get your protein on a plant-based diet.

But before we get into the details, let’s take a step back:

What the Heck is Protein Anyway?

Your body contains thousands of different proteins that serve different functions, all made from amino acids. It’s the arrangement of these amino acids that determines the type and function of a protein.

There are 20 different amino acids that combine to form proteins, and although your body requires all of them, you only have the ability to make 11 of them. These are termed non-essential amino acids.

The other nine—those you can’t make—are termed essential amino acids, and must be obtained from the diet.

While it is true that all animal-source foods (meat, dairy, and eggs) contain all essential amino acids, they can also be obtained by eating a variety of plant foods.

Proteins containing all nine essential amino acids can be used immediately by the body. If a protein is low in one or more of the essential amino acids, the availability of the protein is limited until the body can complete it. Which brings us to… wait for it…

Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins (The Old Way of Thinking)

More often than not, when you hear someone talking about getting enough protein, they refer to something called “complete” protein.

The notion of complete vs. incomplete protein was popularized in the 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. Lappé said that plant foods are an incomplete protein because they’re deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids. Thus, being a healthy vegetarian would mean that you need to combine plant proteins at each meal to get a “complete” protein.

This led to the impression that plant proteins are completely devoid of at least one essential amino acid.

Nope. False.

All plant proteins have some of every essential amino acid. Did you get that? All of them.

While certain (quite delicious, I might add) foods—like quinoa, chia, buckwheat, and soy—contain all nine essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts, other plant proteins have a lower amount of at least one essential amino acid.

But that’s not a problem because your body does the work of making complete proteins for you.

All you have to do is rub your belly three times, wiggle your nose, and count to ten…

Only kidding. It’s actually way cooler than that.

Your body creates a “pool” of amino acids from the food you eat throughout the day. So, if you eat oats in the morning, a salad at lunch, and legumes for dinner, your body will pool together all the essential amino acids from these foods and use them as needed to make proteins.

This means you don’t have to worry about getting all the essential amino acids at any given meal. As long as you are eating an assortment of plant foods over the course of a day, your body will take care of the rest.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

Lysine: The Limiting Amino Acid in Vegan Diets

Alright, so there is one thing in particular we vegans need to consider more than others.

Lysine (very different than Lysol… do not consume that).

Lysine is an essential amino acid that plays an important role in producing carnitine—a nutrient that helps convert fatty acids into energy and helps lower cholesterol, and it also helps produce collagen—a fibrous protein found in bone, cartilage, and skin. Lysine is considered a limiting amino acid because plant foods generally only contain a small amount of it.

The Recommended Daily Allowance of lysine is 38 mg per kg (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) of body weight. So, if you weigh 132 lbs (60 kg), you would need 2,280 mg of lysine. (Update: Calculation corrected)

Some vegan nutritionists argue that meeting your daily lysine need is more important than meeting your overall daily protein need.

By focusing only on the amount of protein in food, you might hit a huge number of one thing, but totally miss the mark on something else. If you aim instead for your daily lysine requirements, you’ll almost certainly meet your overall protein requirements as a result.

Foods richest in lysine are tempeh, seitan, lentils, and tofu. Amaranth, quinoa, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds are also good sources. Here’s a chart that breaks down the amounts of these high lysine foods:

FoodServingLysine (mg)
Tempeh1/2 cup754
Seitan3 oz656
Lentils1/2 cup624
Tofu1/2 cup582
Amaranth1 cup515
Quinoa 1 cup442
Pistachios1/4 cup367
Pumpkin seeds1/4 cup360

mixed dried beans

Okay, So How Much Protein Do I Actually Need?

Protein and amino acid needs are the same for women as for men, and the amount is based on body weight in kg. For the general adult population (ages 19-59 years), the Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day. That means if you weigh 60 kg (132 lbs), you would need 48 g of protein per day.

Put into practice? One cup of cooked oatmeal contains about 6 g of protein, add a tablespoon of peanut butter (4 g of protein) and ½ cup of soy milk (4 g protein) and you are up to 14 grams of protein at breakfast, which would be almost 30% of your daily requirement.

For athletes, however, it is a little different:

In a 2009 joint position paper on nutrition and athletic performance, the American College of Sport Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Dietitians of Canada recommended a higher protein intake for athletes. They said that:

  • Endurance athletes require a protein intake of 1.2-1.4 g/kg/day.
  • Strength athletes require a protein intake of 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day.
  • Vegetarian athletes should increase their protein intake by 10% because plant proteins are less well-digested than animal proteins. Intake should be 1.3-1.8 g/kg/day.

Update: This study has since been updated and now suggests a slightly higher amount of protein for athletes. Find more information here.

In other words, if you’re a vegan endurance athlete who weighs 60 kg (132 lbs), you need roughly 78-108 g of protein per day. Or about 40% more than non-vegan, non-athletes.

That might sound hard to do on a vegan diet, but let’s look at a few examples to see just how easy it is.

At first glance, that may seem difficult to do on a vegan diet, but don’t despair! It’s not as hard as you might think.

A Day in the Life

So far, this has been a lot of science and numbers. And while we all love science, sometimes it’s easier to just see examples. So, let’s put this all into perspective and look at sample menus for two vegan athletes:

Troy

Troy is 5’10” and weighs 155 lbs (70.3 kg). He’s training to run the Boston Marathon.

His protein requirement is: 70.3 kg x 1.3 g PRO = 91 g/day

His lysine requirement is: 70.3 kg x 38 mg = 2,671 mg/day

Here is a sample menu showing how easy it is for Troy to meet his protein (including lysine) needs.

MealFoodProteinLysine
Breakfast2 slices whole grain bread7.3 g93 mg
2 Tbsp peanut butter8.0 g290 mg
8 oz soy milk9.2 g439 mg
Banana1.3 g59 mg
Snack1/2 cup hummus4.0 g291 mg
2 lavash crackers4.0 g 144 mg
1 cup veggie sticks1.3 g102 mg
Lunch1 cup vegetarian baked beans12.0 g488 mg
Medium baked potato4.3 g263 mg
1 cup broccoli3.6 g234 mg
SnackOrange1.2 g62 mg
1/3 cup pistachios8.2 g489 mg
Dinner5 oz firm tofu12.0 g651 mg
1 cup quinoa8.1 g442 mg
1/2 cup peas3.9 g463 mg
1/2 cup corn2.3 g272 mg
Snack1/4 cup dry roasted chickpeas3.6 g243 mg
1 cup strawberries1.0 g37 mg
TOTAL95.3 g5,062 mg

Boom. Troy nailed it.

Sarah

Sarah is 5’2” and weighs 125 lbs (56.8 kg). She’s a power lifter.

Her protein requirement is: 56.8 kg x 1.6 g PRO = 91 g/day

Her lysine requirement is: 56.8 kg x 38 mg = 2,158 mg/day

Here is a sample menu showing how easy it is for Sarah to meet her protein (including lysine) needs.

MealFoodProteinLysine
Breakfast3/4 cup steel cut oats7.5 g501 mg
1 Tbsp chia seeds2.0 g150 mg
1 Tbsp cocoa nibs1.0 g70 mg
Kiwi fruit1.1 g200 mg
Snack6 oz soy yogurt6.0 g439 mg
3 Tbsp pumpkin seeds6.6 g270 mg
LunchMedium whole grain bagel10.0 g186 mg
2 Tbsp peanut butter8.0 g290 mg
8 oz soy milk9.2 g439 mg
Snack1/3 cup roasted soybeans22.6 g427 mg
Orange1.2 g62 mg
Dinner1 cup cooked amaranth9.3 g515 mg
1/2 cup black beans7.6 g523 mg
1/2 cup lentils8.9 g624 mg
1/2 cup cooked spinach3.0 g 115 mg
TOTAL104 g4,811 mg

As you can see, Sarah had no trouble hitting her lysine goals for the day.

Looking deeper at these two examples, you’ll notice they both include a well-rounded mix of:

  • Fruits,
  • Veggies,
  • Legumes, and
  • Nuts.

And they don’t include any:

  • Protein powders,
  • Fake meats, or
  • Crazy mega protein meals.

See, it’s really not hard to hit your dietary requirements as a plant-based athlete, even without resorting to processed foods and protein powders as so many athletes assume you need to.

Let’s Put the Protein Myth to Rest

The idea that plant sources are insufficient to meet protein requirements is an outdated myth. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports the notion that an appropriately planned vegan or vegetarian diet can meet the energy and macronutrient needs (including protein) of athletes.

But the key words here are appropriately planned. Meeting your protein needs as a vegan athlete isn’t rocket science, but it may take a little effort or at least forethought.

  • Eat a variety of foods throughout the day.
  • Include high-lysine foods when possible.
  • Know roughly how many grams you need and plan accordingly.

While the protein question may never go away completely, at least you know you can be healthy and reach your goals.

And now you know the science to prove it.

About the Author: Stephanie MacNeill, is an aspiring registered dietitian, currently completing her MHSc in Nutrition Communication at Ryerson University in Toronto, and is interning with Pamela Fergusson, RD, PhD. Stephanie is a competitive runner, having competed in many local, provincial, and national championships races ranging in distance from the 3000m all the way up to the half marathon.

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How to Eat Plant-Based and Get All the Protein You Need



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Comments

  1. Hi, found this really interesting, but as a heads up some of the math is wrong. You state that “The Recommended Daily Allowance of lysine is 38 mg per kg (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) of body weight. So, if you weigh 132 lbs (60 kg), you would need 5,016 mg of lysine.”
    It should be 38mg x 60kg =2280mg of lysine.
    I was shocked at how much lysine was required otherwise!

    • Hey Maddy, Thanks for pointing out the mistake! The article has now been corrected. It’s definitely 2,280 mg of lysine and NOT 5,016. Shew!

      And thanks to the other comments about the error. I’ve removed them below but appreciate all the help!

      – Doug and the NMA Team

  2. Doris LeRoy says:

    What about supplementing with lysine, especially during travel or other times when diet may not be entirely under my control?

    • Stephanie MacNeill says:

      I am a huge believer in the food first approach. Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, I think it’s best to ask your doctor or dietitian about supplements.

  3. One question I have about estimating protein needs is the role of body composition. The formulas I frequently see base the amount of protein an athlete should consume daily on body-weight. Body weight, by itself, does not describe how much lean body mass a person has. Someone weighing 165 with 12% body fat would actually have more lean mass than someone weighing 190 at 25% bodyfat. So, my question is: Do the grams of protein-per-kilogram of bodyweight formulas assume a certain body fat percentage? Or are they inherently flawed, as they do not take into account differences in lean body mass? Thanks.

    • Stephanie MacNeill says:

      The formulas do not differentiate based on body fat percentage. Ideally protein calculations would be done using lean body mass, however that involves getting a body composition assessment.

  4. Great article Stephanie. It’s real important that people start to shift away from this old myth about incomplete and complete protein foods.

  5. I appreciate all of the information you have presented here. I do take issue with your comments on protein requirements. According to Dr. John McDougall, we are eating far too much protein. And that is part of the host of health issues a lot of people are facing. Since I have only read one of his books, and am starting another one now, I will simply refer you to his website which is drmcdougall.com

    • You can read 1000 books but the only one who know you is you. I have gone low protein and higher protein and do a lot better on high. It is an individual decision, but it’s good to know how to do high protein if you are vegan.

  6. Jennifer Schulman says:

    Are you basing the meal plan on a particular calorie need?

    • Stephanie MacNeill says:

      Meal plans were not based on particular calorie needs. Individual calorie needs will depend on activity level, something which I left out of the examples just wanting to focus on protein.

  7. This. Is a great post and I really appreciate the clarity and detail. I don’t react well to soy milk but don’t know if any alternative that provides as much protein, not even close. Could you do a post like this on how to meet protein needs on a soy free vegan diet?

  8. Same question as Doris. How about supplementing with Lysine?

    • Stephanie MacNeill says:

      I am a huge believer in the food first approach. Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, I think it’s best to ask your doctor or dietitian about supplements.

  9. Great article, thanks for posting. Loved that you pointed out what a great amino acid Lysine is. I agree how much protein you need is entirely individual to you and your needs which can change over time.

  10. Silaghi Alina says:

    I read tbis after reading one of the first articles on NMA, the vegan diet athlete. I am quoting Matt: I’ll never go back to those crazy 1-gram-of-protein-per-pound-of-body-weight rules again. Why the sudden change? It seems like you have to eat A LOT of food, like A Lot A Lot. So many snack, and all the food is filling. Where are the smoothies and salads Matt says he eats every day? I find your article very conflicting to other info here on the site.

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