Vegan Athletes, Can They Meet Their Protein Needs?

In the previous article on how vegans and vegetarians meet their protein needs, we debunked myths and set the facts on plant-based protein straight. Although it is possible to meet the needs of the everyday person on a plant-based diet, athletes are known to have greater protein requirements to support their training. This lead’s many to wondering, can an athlete perform well on a vegan or vegetarian diet?

Barry Du Plessis, professional body builder and Mr. Universe

If we look at the history of elite athletes on vegan or vegetarian diets, there are a few names that quickly come to mind. Tennis player Venus Williams, American Ultra Runner, Scott Jurek and, Mr. Universe Barny Du Plessis, are all elite vegan athletes. Reasons for going vegan can range from animal welfare, environmental impact, or, for those listed, potential health benefits.

As you can see there are a variety of elite athletes who are performing at their best on a vegan diet. With meat, poultry, seafood and dairy out of the equation, vegan diets are higher in carbohydrates, which are the main fuel source in the body for athletes. Adequate carbohydrates in the diet can help to spare the use of protein as a fuel source and allow the body to utilize it for repair and rebuilding muscle tissue. Skeletal muscle tissue is constantly fluctuating, and if you are not strategic with your plant-based diet, your muscle “bank account” will be in the negative far too often. If this happens regularly, you will impair your ability to exercise and recover adequately, and, consequently, you will not be able to maximize your athletic ability.

The body does not store protein and thus must be replenished on a regular basis and thus athletes should aim for protein replenishment every 2-4 hours, depending on their needs. The body can only absorb 25-30 grams in one sitting, which can be done with a well-planned vegan diet. The joint ACSM and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends vegetarian athletes consume 1.2-1.7g/kg of protein for strength athletes and 1.2-1.4 g/kg for endurance athletes. A vegan athlete who incorporates processed and soy-based plant proteins do not need any additional protein than their non-vegetarian competitors.

Although their needs are similar, not all protein is the same. A complete protein is made up of 21 different amino acids (AA) which are the “building blocks” of protein. Nine of the AAs are considered essential amino acids, because the body cannot manufacture them, they must come from the diet. Animal proteins contain complete AA profiles, including all of the essential amino acids while many plant-based sources of protein are missing 2-3 of those essential amino acids. This is where a well-planned diet needs to come into play.

Twenty-one amino acids that make up a complete protein.

As mentioned earlier, vegans who are regularly consuming processed and soy-based plant proteins (veggie “meats” and soy shakes) can easily meet their needs. This is because those products contain complete amino acid profiles. On the other hand, vegans who rely on more whole foods (legumes, nuts, and seeds) need to increase their protein intake by 10-15% (or add 12g/day) to account for the digestibility of those foods. Athletes who are on a vegan diet and are following a lower calorie diet to lose weight also need to focus on higher protein intake as well to meet their needs.

Although vegetarian athletes typically consume less protein than their non-vegetarian peers, they are still capable of meeting their protein needs. Being sure to incorporate variety and adequate calories will help to maintain acceptable protein quality. With those tactics in place the need for food combining at meals is not necessary.

In conclusion, an appropriately planned vegan or vegetarian diet can fully support the athlete’s protein needs. It is best to listen to your body as the ultimate guide to determine if a plant-based diet is best for you.

Stay tuned for my next article which will take a more in-depth analysis on the amino acid profiles of plant-based proteins and how to incorporate them into your fueling routine! If you would like professional guidance on how to maximize your athletic performance on a vegetarian diet, feel free to contact me today.

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