Protein for a Plant-Based Athlete

Any movement requires energy, whether it’s a comet hurtling through the night sky or a human climbing the side of a mountain.

We, humans, get our energy from the food that we consume. Our food provides us not only with the energy we need to perform great physical feats, but also provides us with the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy and prosper.

Let food be thy medicine.

Hippocrates

I have long espoused a healthy living lifestyle that includes stress-reduction through minimalism and mindfulness; a level of activity compatible with our evolutionary origins; and high quality, natural yet affordable food.

The nutrition plan that I follow could best be described as a Whole-Food-Plant-Based diet. This is mainly a vegan diet with minimal refined or processed foods. My reasons for drifting towards this way of eating are for a variety of reasons which include ethical (I like animals and there is already enough suffering in the world); health (all the reliable research indicates that this is the healthiest way to eat); environmental (such a diet uses a fraction of the resources of eating meat, meaning less deforestation, less polluted rivers and less climate change); and minimalism (while being one of the healthiest ways to eat, it’s also one of the simplest and cheapest).

Such a diet of mainly vegetables, fruits, legumes and wholegrains is a complete source of nutrients. Contrary to popular belief, it is also a plentiful source of protein.

It’s amazing how many people still believe that you can only get protein from animal products or that plants have no protein. In fact, a head of cabbage derives nearly 20% of its calories from protein. One peanut butter sandwich has the same amount of protein as a 3 oz (100 g) steak. As I will show later, the average 77 kg (170 pounds) person needs no more than 60 g of protein per day, whereas a 77 kg endurance athlete needs no more than 110 grams of protein per day. This amount of protein is easily obtained from a simple and varied wholefood plant-based diet.

A diet containing wholewheat, grains, beans, nuts and seeds will provide sufficient good quality protein. It saves you money too, by being about a third cheaper than a diet containing meat-based products.

I am a very active person, into all sorts of endurance activities, needing carbohydrates for energy and protein for building and repairing muscles. My diet has always provided me with enough energy, but I was curious as to what the scientific literature had to say on the matter. 

The US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is:
0.8 grams per kg of body weight per day.


Weighing in at 77 kg (170 lbs), I could be considered to be at an ideal healthy weight for my height of 183 cm (6 foot), so my baseline protein needs comes in at about:
60 grams of protein per day.

However, as an ultrarunner and long-distance thru-hiker, my protein requirements would put me in the realm of an endurance athlete.

For an endurance athlete, the RDA would increased to:1.2-1.4 g per kilogram of body weight

An endurance athlete, weighing 77 kg (170 lbs) would therefore require:
92-108 grams of protein per day.

Searching through the literature, I found the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine, have similar recommendations for endurance athletes, but push the upper limit of the confidence interval a bit higher 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on training, which for a 77 kg athlete would be 92-144 grams of protein per day.

Having passionate interest in endurance and endurance athletes, I find it very interesting to study the protein consumption of the best endurance athletes in the world.

According to studies1, the Kenyan elite runners, who have been setting new marathon records for decades, consume 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or about 10.1% protein of their total caloric intake, predominantly from plant sources.

What do I do…

My takeaway from all this is if elite professional marathon runners at the top of their game, can set new world records, on a low-protein diet, then my protein needs are really quite modest.

As a recreational endurance athlete, weighing 77 kg, my protein requirements are:

  • 1.3 grams of protein / kg of body weight
  • 11% protein of total caloric consumption
  • 100 grams for a 77 kg endurance athlete

Plenty of Protein in Plants

The protein derived from plant sources is completely sufficient without the need for further supplementation or the consumption of animal-based products. The research is pretty clear on this.  Indeed, a recent article in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that the maximum amount of protein that can be used for muscle building in one sitting, over a four-hour window, is around 20-25 grams. Any extra protein above that amount is oxidized for energy as an expensive glucose or flushed down the toilet. Think of that the next time you’re sitting down to a large steak…

To drive home the point further, this study concluded that a protein intake of more than 1.6 g / kg of body weight provided no further gains to muscle growth.

So in our example of the 77 kg (170 lbs) athlete, a protein intake of more than 123 grams of protein per day provided no further gains to muscle growth.

When more may be better…

The only research that I could find justifying higher protein intake is amongst lean athletes who are severely restricting their caloric intake.

This article concludes that protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of fat free mass scaled upwards with severity of the caloric restriction and the leanness. It should be noted that the protein requirement is based on fat free mass and not total body weight. 

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Popular articles by proponents of high-protein diets often misrepresent this high-protein recommendation in two ways: firstly, by misclaiming the recommendation as being based on total body mass; and secondly, as a recommendation for the normal population instead of the cohort of already lean athletes who are in severe caloric restriction.

Fat free mass is your weight when you subtract your body fat which reduces the recommendation accordingly.

For example, a 77 kg athlete with 20% body fat would actually have only about 62 kg of fat free mass. The recommendation is based on the 62 kg fat free weight, not the 77 kg total weight.

As an example, a 77 kg athlete, with 20% body fat, who is in severe caloric restriction would likely benefit from a protein intake of 143-192 g / day.

Note again that we are discussing an athlete who is already lean and severely restricting their caloric intake.

As mentioned earlier, this particular athlete, when not restricting their caloric intake, would normally only need 92-108 g of protein per day.

I’m getting the quantity, but what about Quality

Protein is the macronutrient in your body that, amongst other things, builds and repairs muscle tissue. Protein consists of 22 amino acids. Our bodies naturally produce 13 amino acids, but the other nine need to be sourced elsewhere. 

A protein is considered ‘complete’ when it has nine essential amino acids in somewhat equal amounts. Essential amino acids are those that cannot be made by the body and therefore must be consumed from our diet.

Animal sourced proteins are considered complete as they contain all nine amino acids. A plant protein is considered incomplete because any one particular food may not contain all essential amino acids in sufficient quantities. However, by eating a variety of plant foods, the different foods complement each other to give sufficient essential amino acids. It is also very easy to combine two incomplete protein sources to get the nutrients you need.

For example, brown rice has several of the essential amino acids, but not all nine in sufficient quantities. Beans, lentils and chickpeas have the essential amino acids that the brown rice lacks. Simply pairing rice and beans will give you a vegan-friendly meal with complete proteins.

Here are some examples of combining plant-based food to get complete proteins;

  • Whole grain bread and hummus
  • Whole grain toast and Peanut butter
  • Spinach salad with nut and seed toppings
  • Oatmeal with pumpkin seeds or peanut butter
  • Lentil soup with whole grain slice of bread

The complementary proteins do not have to be eaten at the same time. Provided that you combine complementary proteins within about 24 hours, the body will pool the amino acids and combine them when available. For example eating whole grain toast for breakfast and peanut butter for dinner will combine the two incomplete proteins into a complete protein.

By eating a naturally varied diet you don’t really need to give much thought to this process.

Not only is it healthier, It’s cheaper

A study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that eating a plant-based diet is cheaper. The study looked at consuming 2000 calories from the US MyPlate nutrition guidelines and from a plant-based diet. The savings was about $750 a year. For a seven-day meal plan, the US MyPlate diet co.st $53.11 — a cost that would be much higher if you were to choose meat from animals that were free range or antibiotic-free.

Not only is this diet cheaper than eating animal-based products, but it provides more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are considered essential to any healthy diet. In other words, we end up spending less to eat healthier.

What do Elite Athletes Eat

When discussing nutrition needs and in particular protein needs, it is educational to study the diets of those athletes performing at the top of their respective sports. Athletes follow many different diets, but here I’m going to mention two groups that follow a WFPB diet. If elite athletes can perform at the top of their game on such a diet, then there is no need for anyone consuming animal-based products.

As an ultra-runner, I find the nutrition of two groups of athletes particularly interesting; The Kenyan marathon runners, who are currently setting world records, and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who are considered the best ultrarunners in the world.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge sets a new record by running sub- two hour marathon in Vienna. Photograph: Alex Halada/AFP/Getty

Kenyan marathon runners eat a High-Carb, Low-Fat, Low-Protein diet, primarily plant-based, which is approximately 85% carbohydrates, 10% protein, and 5% fat, consisting mainly of: cornmeal porridge; collared greens; beans; and bread.

Another very healthy group, known for their ultra-running athletic prowess are the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. In 1992 and 1994, Tarahumara runners won the Leadville 100, an ultramarathon so challenging that less than half of its participants completed the race. The first place winner in 1992 was 52 year old Victoriano Churro. In this group of people, heart disease is almost unheard-of, high blood pressure is non-existent, and their blood levels of total cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL), are extremely low. The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico consume a high carbohydrate, low-fat, low-protein diet consisting of 78% Carbs, 10% protein, 12% Fat, with a daily protein intake of 87 g. The main diet of Tarahumara is corn, beans, vegetables, and fruits.

Both groups consume only about 10% protein, with carbohydrates being the bulk of the diet.

And Finally…

In conclusion, all the reliable research indicates that a Whole-Food Plant-based diet is a healthy diet and even sufficient for elite athletes performing at the top of their game. It is a responsible diet that reduces global warming, animal cruelty, unnecessary pollution and depletion of natural resources.

As top-level athletes can perform so well on a plant-based diet, then such a diet is more than sufficient for the ordinary person in the street.

The choice to consume animal products is not based on health or performance. It is a taste and lifestyle choice that has serious repercussions on one’s own health; the suffering caused to other animals; the destruction of forests for animal feedstock; the pollution of rivers from animal effluent runoff; and an unnecessary contribution to global warming.


References

  1. Food and Macronutrient Intake of Elite Kenyan Distance Runners , By: Onywera, V. O., Kiplamai, F. K., Tuitoek, P. J., Boit, M. K., Pitsiladis, Y. P., International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 1526484X, Dec2004, Vol. 14, Issue 6

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