Vegan Athletes: How do you stack up – PROTEIN EDITION.
By Jules Kirkpatrick, MS
“Vegans can’t be as good as non-vegans in sports.”
Is this true? And, more importantly, WHY do people make this claim?
To answer these questions, we must figure out what exactly ‘being a vegan’ entails.
If you are a vegan athlete, this article is a MUST to understand how to ensure you are eating enough of the RIGHT type of protein you need to excel on the field or court.
Vegan diets typically involve the avoidance of egg, dairy, and meat products, and sometimes excludes honey.
So, what CAN they eat? Isn’t it just lettuce and stuff? Not so fast! Given the wide variety of food options
in today’s grocery store, vegans have a diverse choice of food selections, ranging anywhere between whole grains, fruits, vegetables, meat substitutes, beans, nuts/seeds – plus more!
Seems pretty darn healthy? Right? So, what’s the big deal?
While vegan diets have been correlated with positive health outcomes (reduced blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, and better glucose control) in addition to a decreased risk of some health diseases, there’s a little more to sports performance than just eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains….
Are you eating to perform?
Consider this scenario:
You’re a vegan soccer athlete, attempting to make it D1 in the next two years. You know you’re going to have to grind and put in some serious work.
But, as a vegan you know that you’ll have nutrition on your side since you’ll be eating super healthy AND unlike the rest of the team, you aren’t gorging yourself with pizza, cheesy pasta, and ice cream on the weekends.
A ‘day in the life’ of eating for you looks something like this:
Breakfast: 2 slices of whole grain toast with peanut butter and a glass of almond milk
Snack: Apple and strawberries and a glass of almond milk
Lunch: ‘Power Salad’ – Kale, walnuts, blueberries, and oranges
Snack/Pre-Training Meal: Banana and peanut butter
Dinner/Post Training Meal: Sweet potatoes and broccoli
Fruits, vegetables, fiber, plus some whole grains? Check – check – check – and check!
A healthy day of eating means great performance …. Right???
Let’s find out.
A vegan athlete’s challenge: what about the protein?
Bread and peanut butter have protein, right? And the walnuts?
But…. It’s not that simple.
First, let’s consider what helps an athlete become resilient and strong: BUILDING lean tissue.
What is lean tissue made out of? PROTEIN!
Protein is comprised of individual amino acids. Lucky for us, our body can make its own amino acids, but there are a few that we can’t make ourselves! These are called essential amino acids. As a result, we must turn to our diet in order to ‘fill in the gaps’.
Of the essential amino acids, there are three ‘branched chained amino acids’ which play a particularly important role in protein development and comprise a large percentage of the structure of our muscles.
While bread and peanut butter do have protein, they do not have ALL the building blocks your body needs. Just like a puzzle, the bread and peanut butter provide some of the puzzle pieces, but the body needs the rest of the pieces that it can’t make on its own.
Once ALL the pieces are in place, the body can integrate these proteins to repair and build that lean tissue that is oh so key for performance!
As a vegan, your main source of protein will come from plant-based products such as legumes, beans, grains, nuts and seeds, opposed to animal and dairy products.
What are the main differences between plant & animal based proteins?
Most plant based proteins are incomplete proteins
Unfortunately, the majority of plant based proteins are incomplete, meaning they do not have all the building blocks necessary for building lean tissue.
Animal and dairy products have a high biological value compared to plant-based proteins. In other words, animal protein has all all the puzzle pieces there, and can stimulate muscle protein synthesis!
Think about opening a new phone. You’re very excited since your old one was scratched up and getting glitchy. You take off the packaging and get ready to turn it on - except it doesn’t. The battery is dead. Instead, you have to plug it in and wait for the battery to charge, and THEN wait even longer for the phone to boot up.
This is very similar to eating a plant protein where the body must wait on standby for the other puzzle pieces to show up before it can make significant use of the pieces in your last plant based meal for building and repairing lean tissue!
Most plant based proteins have lower digestibility
Often, vegan diets are packed full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. There are tons of benefits to this way of eating since these foods are packed with fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Fiber is our friend. While individuals in the United States often under consume fiber, which has been linked to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer , vegans do not often experience this problem since plant-based food is typically nutrient dense and contains plenty of fiber.
However, when comparing plant protein to animal protein, plant-based proteins aren’t digested as well.
One way that protein quality is measured and compared is through an amino acid score. If a food receives a score of 100%, it means that if you ate enough of this protein to meet the estimated average requirement for essential amino acids, you would have enough off ALL the twenty types of amino acids to help with protein synthesis – I.E. LEAN TISSUE GAINS .
Animal and dairy based proteins often have a score of 100% or higher, while plant proteins often fall between 50 and 70%. This is partly since some foods can contain ‘anti-nutritional’ factors. These factors can decrease the absorption of nutrients and protein and can result in a lower amino acid score .
“What should I do if I am a vegan athlete?”
Up that protein! 
Since plant-based proteins are more difficult to digest and score lower in quality, you will need more protein to meet all your amino acid requirements.
Therefore, it is a wise idea to eat a little extra protein to give yourself a ‘protein’ buffer, to ensure that muscle and performance gains can still be made!
Eat a wide variety of whole foods
Have you ever heard that beans and rice are complementary proteins? Complementary proteins imply exactly what you think – they compliment each other! In other words, rice or beans alone do not have all the necessary building blocks, but the combination of both beans and rice make a complete protein.
While it was once thought that complementary proteins should be paired together in a single meal, it is also effective to eat a wide variety of plant-based foods throughout the day to met essential amino acid requirements .
Lysine is an essential amino acid that is particularly noteworthy as it’s often left out from vegans’ diets… but not to fear! Lysine can be found in soy beans and lentils .
You may consider supplementing with a soy protein as an easy and convenient way to hit your daily protein mark.
Soy protein quality is higher than that rice, beans, lentils, legumes, etc. and can be easily hidden in a pre or post workout smoothie!
Finally, let’s look back at a ‘day in the life’ eating. What could be changed to ensure adequate protein consumption?
Breakfast: 2 slices of whole grain toast with peanut butter and a glass of SOY milk
Snack: QUINOA and BLACK BEAN salad mixed with slivered almonds and chia seeds
Lunch: ‘Power Salad’ – Kale, walnuts, blueberries, oranges and TEMPEH
Snack/Pre-Training Meal: Smoothie containing à SOY PROTEIN POWDER, orange juice, almond butter and berries
Dinner/Post Training Meal: GARBANZO BEANS, SEITAN and broccoli sautéed in olive oil
In this day of eating, notice how each meal or snack has a source of protein, carb, and some fat!
An easy way to begin to increase your protein is ensuring at least ONE protein source in each meal.
Soy products such as soy milk and tempeh provide a higher quality protein than other food sources such as nuts/seeds and grains.
The BOTTOM LINE:
While you may be eating tons of nutrient packed whole foods, it doesn’t always mean you are eating an appropriately balanced diet that’s KEY for your highest performance on the field.
The question everyone wants to know: can vegan athletes be successful?
Vegan athletes have full potential to perform at high levels in sport – AND DO! Think: Venus Williams
Does it take a bit more planning and effort?
Vegan athletes MUST be conscientious of what and how much they’re eating.
Any diet that eliminates certain types of food sources requires extra thought and care to ensure balanced nutrition of all three macronutrients (and to avoid any deficiencies!).
Without the necessary building blocks repair and recovery, it will be difficult to maximize your full potential. However, just a little extra thought into your daily diet can take you a LONG way!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia holds a M.S. in Sports Science and Coach Education from East Tennessee State University and a B.S. in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science from Temple University. During her time at ETSU, Julia worked as the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Women’s D1 Volleyball team and headed their sports nutrition. She also worked as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at a local college in Tennessee for their Track & Field team.
Julia’s main passion is bringing an evidence-based approach to training and nutrition practice. Her time spent around collegiate athletes highlighted the gap between real-world practice/understanding and science; enter Relentless Athletics. After working with a variety of athletes and online diet clients, Julia knew there was a hole that needed to be filled – specifically for females. She saw that there was an absence of reliable sources for these individuals to gather information to help develop their athletic ability. Relentless offered the perfect community for Julia to spread her knowledge and help build STRONG foundations for females through nutrition education and training.
In her free time, Julia competes in powerlifting and weightlifter recreationally. She holds the Pennsylvania Junior State Record in the bench press in the 72 kg weight class.