Nutrition

The Truth about Protein Requirements | VEGAN ATHLETES

Are vegan athletes harming or helping themselves through what may be considered an under consumption of protein in their diet? According to “bro science,” it’s very obvious in the fitness community that protein is claimed to be the most valuable of the macro nutrients. Which athlete is more extreme: the vegan or the high-protein consumer? More importantly, which one is correct?

 

In short, “bro science” is a term used to describe the way bodybuilders think, eat, and train. Most of it comes from the early bodybuilding days before there was a sufficient amount of scientific research to teach otherwise. Shall we thank Arnold Schwarzenegger himself for these values in the fitness goes community (one’s in which he now goes against)?

One of the more popular ideas accepted in the world of athletes is that they need to consume a large amount of protein to maintain and grow muscle mass. Ask almost any follower of “bro science” how much protein he or she eats per day and you’ll more than likely get the answer of 1g of protein per pound of body weight.   


Kevin Shaughnessy, a competitive Brazilian Jiu jitsu fighter and also 2-year vegan, states, “I believe you should intake at minimum 1g and maximum 1.5gs of protein per lb of body weight if you’re training intense and doing multiple sessions per day. I believe this because your muscles are constantly breaking down and repairing in jiu jitsu (and weight lifting/conditioning) and we burn a lot of calories as well.”  


There’s some truth to this though.


Tommy Trimble has been a football athlete for six seasons, but competitive in sports since grade school. He states that, “Protein intake is massive as an athlete on any level, one of the major reasons I didn’t become a vegan sooner was because I believed I wouldn’t be able to achieve a sufficient amount. I personally aim for anywhere between 150-250 grams a day.”  

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According to the research in “Nutrition 4th Edition,” protein is crucial. A lack of it in our diet “causes loss, or wasting, of muscles, organs, and other tissues. Protein deficiency also increases susceptibility to infection, impairs digestion and absorption of nutrients.” Despite this, the RDA states that only 8-11% of our daily calories require protein to fulfill our bodies’ needs.


Matthew Jones, a vegan and top 3 power lifter in the world for his class, expresses his initial fear with this lifestyle, “Within a few months of going vegan I realized that everything I used to think prior [about protein intake] was basically a misconception. I thought it was the key component to building a fit, lean, and healthy body.”

  

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The RDA is based around the average person, one who doesn’t participate in competitive sports or any vigorous activities in his/her free time. Many vegan athletes argue that they may only need, on average, 10% of their calories dedicated to protein, yet they’re not taking into consideration the increased needs for their body as their activity level increases.  


Authors Lemon and Giabla state that athletes may require a higher protein intake to sustain muscle mass, organs, tissues, and other bodily functions influenced by protein. “Resistance-trained athletes may need as much as 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kg of body weight. Protein intake of 1.4 to 2.0 kg of body weight for physically active individuals is not only safe, but may improve adaptations to exercise training.”   


Research thus far proves that athletes do not require as much protein as once thought. A vegan who gets 10% of their calories from protein will still be in a position to maintain or grow their muscle mass as long as they are in a caloric surplus to enable an anabolic state. This means that if one was eating 2500 calories as their daily intake, only 250 calories from protein would be necessary.   


Whitney McClintock, 3x World Champion Water Skier, explains that a higher protein intake isn’t necessary for her goals, “Excluding the protein I get directly from whole vegetables, I probably get around 50g of protein each day (from protein powders, quinoa, nuts, legumes, etc).” Unlike athletes focused on building strength and mass, consuming a higher amount of protein wouldn’t be useful for McClintock.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, one of the bodybuilding icons known for promoting the idea of high protein intake, is transitioning to a vegan lifestyle. He now advocates the elimination of meat from our diet saying, “I’m slowly getting off meat and I feel fantastic. As for how it will affect your fitness goals, it won’t.”  


There’s a variety of ways to get the amount of protein needed in your diet as a vegan athlete. Some of the best sources for complete protein come from rice, beans, vegetables, hemp, nut butters, quinoa, and soy products.  


Some vegan athletes share some of their own favorite meals containing protein sources.  

“I may have something like a curry with a little brown rice and quinoa.” –Nathan Julien, competitive runner and climber.  

“I love tofu, lentils and plant based meat substitutes.” –Santoshi Ahimsa, surfer and yoga participant.  

“Tofu and avocado sushi or plant-based veg pizza.” –Jones  

“2 cups of whole meal pasta or brown rice with a mixture of vegetables and a pea protein shake.” –Trimble


Despite contrary belief, athletes don’t require as much protein as once believed to sustain muscle mass, but those who have a higher protein intake will not directly face negative outcomes from a higher protein intake either. Although it may be harder to find complete protein sources and supplements, eating vegan is a completely realistic way of life in today’s society. Omnivores or those who eat higher in protein have no advantage over vegan athletes.    


Interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet? Sign up for a diet consultation to learn more about plant-based or vegetarian meal plans.

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Lexes O'Hara

Lexes O'Hara is a personal trainer and nutrition coach. Her work philosophy is to teach her clients to, "train, eat, and live like a bad ass." Certifications include NASM CPT and FNS.