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.
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:
|Pumpkin seeds||1/4 cup||360|
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 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.
|Breakfast||2 slices whole grain bread||7.3 g||93 mg|
|2 Tbsp peanut butter||8.0 g||290 mg|
|8 oz soy milk||9.2 g||439 mg|
|Banana||1.3 g||59 mg|
|Snack||1/2 cup hummus||4.0 g||291 mg|
|2 lavash crackers||4.0 g||144 mg|
|1 cup veggie sticks||1.3 g||102 mg|
|Lunch||1 cup vegetarian baked beans||12.0 g||488 mg|
|Medium baked potato||4.3 g||263 mg|
|1 cup broccoli||3.6 g||234 mg|
|Snack||Orange||1.2 g||62 mg|
|1/3 cup pistachios||8.2 g||489 mg|
|Dinner||5 oz firm tofu||12.0 g||651 mg|
|1 cup quinoa||8.1 g||442 mg|
|1/2 cup peas||3.9 g||463 mg|
|1/2 cup corn||2.3 g||272 mg|
|Snack||1/4 cup dry roasted chickpeas||3.6 g||243 mg|
|1 cup strawberries||1.0 g||37 mg|
|TOTAL||95.3 g||5,062 mg|
Boom. Troy nailed it.
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.
|Breakfast||3/4 cup steel cut oats||7.5 g||501 mg|
|1 Tbsp chia seeds||2.0 g||150 mg|
|1 Tbsp cocoa nibs||1.0 g||70 mg|
|Kiwi fruit||1.1 g||200 mg|
|Snack||6 oz soy yogurt||6.0 g||439 mg|
|3 Tbsp pumpkin seeds||6.6 g||270 mg|
|Lunch||Medium whole grain bagel||10.0 g||186 mg|
|2 Tbsp peanut butter||8.0 g||290 mg|
|8 oz soy milk||9.2 g||439 mg|
|Snack||1/3 cup roasted soybeans||22.6 g||427 mg|
|Orange||1.2 g||62 mg|
|Dinner||1 cup cooked amaranth||9.3 g||515 mg|
|1/2 cup black beans||7.6 g||523 mg|
|1/2 cup lentils||8.9 g||624 mg|
|1/2 cup cooked spinach||3.0 g||115 mg|
|TOTAL||104 g||4,811 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:
- Legumes, and
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.
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