The age-old argument of “how much protein” has hit a new level with the increase of vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets on the rise.
First, what are proteins and what do they do for us that gives rise to all this debate?
Second, what are vegan athlete sources of protein?
Let’s go back to our younger years when we perhaps built structures from blocks (or legos). Imagine those blocks are called amino acids and all the different structures you create with those blocks are called proteins. The different shapes, sizes and various assemblies allows for the creation of different proteins and responsibilities.
What Are Those Responsibilities?
Protein has several roles in the body including forming structures, carrying out functions and regulating the tissues and the organs. Every structure we have is made from a protein, and in athletics, the structure we often focus on is the muscle, and then energy production. The job description for the role of protein in muscle management and energy production is lengthy, but the short list is that protein is integral to growth, maintenance and repair of muscles. For athletes or anyone looking to increase or maintain strength, that’s a big deal.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Actual amounts of protein vary based on a person’s size and activity type, duration and frequency and the range can be anywhere from 0.8g to over 2.0g of protein per kilogram of body weight. There is some research to support lower or higher than these numbers, but for now we can land somewhere in this well established range.
Where Do I Get Protein?
Most people associate protein with animal products, which is a good association, but many plants have more protein than one might think. Vegans and vegetarians have been getting enough protein for thousands of years. But, have they been interested in building muscle, you ask? Well, if they were, they would choose plants high in the amino acid, leucine, (instrumental in muscle synthesis). New to this lifestyle and wondering how to make sure you get enough protein and leucine? Here’s a list of many plants that offer up a significant amount of protein and their leucine content.
Vegan Athlete Sources of Protein
|Wheat Gluten – not recommended for those with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity
|25 grams (g)/ 3.5 ounces
|A few different forms and products come from soybeans
|Pressed bean curd – similar to cheese making process
|Also contains considerable amount of carbs
|Good source of iron (important for vegans!) and 45g carbs/cup
|Commonly fortified with B12 (B12 is found in animal protein) nutritional yeast can add a cheesy flavor and boost protein and B12 for vegan athletes
|Spelt and Teff
|Other ancient grains include Einkorn
|10-11g/cup of flour
|Amaranth and Quinoa are slightly different by category, but similar in protein and mineral content
|slightly different by category, but similar in protein and mineral content
|12 g fat per ounce . Great source of omega 3, iron, calcium, zinc and selenium (leucine 0.65g/100g)
|Good source of iron magnesium and phosphorus. 22 g carbs per cup
|Spiralina or blue green algae
|2 T and covers 40% of iron needs!
|8g in 2 Tablespoons
|Slow to digest and provides sustained energy
|5 g /ounce
|Nuts and seeds
|There are 100s of nuts and seeds to choose from and all offer a variety of trace minerals and micronutrients which are beneficial for optimal halth
|ounce (leucine 0.6-1g/100g)
Soy and estrogen – There are a few points with and without merit regarding soy intake.
- Much of the US soy crops have been genetically modified to be pest resistant and ingesting these products may be a health concern. Buying a product labeled, organic and non-GMO will eliminate this concern.
- Soy contains isoflavones and phytoestrogens that have been shown to be estrogen mimickers. Initially, women with risk of breast cancer, especially estrogen receptor-positive tumors were advised to avoid soy and soy products, but newer research shows that there is no correlation to breast cancer and consuming high intakes of soy, and there may even be a protective component from eating soy in moderation. Soy may block the natural estrogen from getting where we don’t want it, and provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties.
A Few Extra Veggies To Include In Your Protein and Leucine Quest!
Vegetables with the most protein include broccoli (0.13g/100g), spinach (0.76g/100g), asparagus (o.2g/100g), potatoes, sweet potatoes (0.12g/100g) and brussels sprouts (.11g/100g).
The last, and maybe most important note for new vegan and vegetarian practices is to manage the amount and type of carbohydrate consumed. Eliminating animal products can lead to what I call “The carbatarian”.
Try not to replace animal products with breads, pasta and other simple grain foods. Focus on plants, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes for a well rounded array of carbohydrates and healthy nutrients!
The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant-versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723444/
Soy Facts. The Top 5 Soy Myths: https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040114p52.shtml