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Can athletes get enough protein on a plant based diet? Yes, and I'll show you how.

It’s undeniable in 2021 that you can be a world class athlete while being a vegan or vegetarian. Professional tennis player Venus Williams, world champion endurance mountain biker @sonyalooney, ultra runner Rich Roll, NFL player Cameron Newton, and one of the greatest ultra runners of all time, Scott Jurek are only a few examples of plant-based athletes excelling in their sports. The list is long.

So why are athletes still concerned with not meeting protein needs on a plant based diet? Time to put some myths to rest with some sound science.

Article sections:

  • Protein basics

  • Combining proteins

  • Building muscle: What the science says

  • Leucine

  • Soy and hormones

  • Practical plant based food ideas

  • 5 plant based proteins for athletes

  • 5 high leucine plant foods & combinations

  • 5 meal ideas with 20-40g plant protein

  • 5 high protein plant-based snack ideas

  • 5 low fiber plant-based pre-race meals

  • High fiber intake for athletes

  • Daily protein – the big picture

  • Tips to get started on your plant based journey

Protein basics

One of the main reasons people argue that plant-based proteins are insufficient, is that some plant proteins have lower concentrations of one or more of what’s called the essential amino acids (there are 9). Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in the body. There are 20 amino acids in total. Essential amino acids are termed as such, because unlike the others they can’t be made by your body and you need to consume them through your diet. A complete protein contains all of the essential amino acids. If you visualize a complete protein as a circular chain made from links, each link will represent an amino acid and the chain would represent the complete protein.

Many common animal foods like milk, meat, casein and eggs are complete proteins containing all of the essential amino acids in optimal amounts. Although all plant foods also have all of the essential amino acids, many have lower levels than are optimal. Plant proteins such as soy are complete proteins while others run close such as peas and quinoa.

It’s important to note that although different plants may be lower in different amino acids, you can overcome these differences by combining a variety of different plant foods

or by eating more of a particular plant protein, leaving you with an enhanced essential amino acid profile over a 24 hour period.

Combining plant based foods

Examples of combining foods would include complimentary brown rice and beans, since grains tend to be lower in lysine and legumes in methionine and cysteine. Whole grain bread and peanut butter is another good combination. You’ll notice these are both very economical examples, which bode well for both your budget and meeting carbohydrate needs for those intense workouts.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to stress about combining proteins perfectly at every meal. Try to picture all the links of the chain being put into your body, and then your body collecting the necessary links (amino acids) and make the chains (proteins) over the course of the day. Just get the foods in there, your body is brilliant at working things out. Think about protein intake in the context of a day or two as opposed to ‘per food’ or ‘per meal’ as this is a limiting way to think about it. It’s also natural that we will eat a variety of foods throughout each day, and our bodies don’t operate on a 24 hour clock.

By consuming a variety of plant proteins in the optimal quantities throughout the day, your body will be supplied with the building blocks to make the complete proteins you need.

Spread your meals out every 3-4 hours as you would to optimize muscle protein synthesis from any protein type and you’ll be off to the races.

Since many plant foods tend to be lower in calories than their animal counterparts, you can also consume more of them and increase the consumption of those which are highest in all of the essential amino acids, such as soy, while not increasing your caloric intake and still meeting your protein needs. Of course as athletes, there are also times where you would want to reach for calorically dense plant based options when energy needs are higher, since meeting energy needs is an important piece of a well rounded nutrition plan for athletes.

Meeting vegetarian or vegan protein needs has become significantly easier with the convenience of plant-based milks and protein isolates and concentrates. Some plant based protein powders make a point to increase leucine content in their products, an essential amino acid known to drive muscle protein synthesis.