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How To Get Enough Protein On A Vegan Diet


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I’ve seen and heard many ‘nutritionists’ claim that you can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet. Not only does this scare-mongering worry athletes and general population alike, it's simply not the case.


A little more effort and meal planning may be required, but even for athletes with a very high protein requirement, obtaining enough protein is completely achievable. The most important thing to consider, is getting enough essential amino acids.


What Are Essential Amino Acids?


Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. When we eat various proteins, these amino acids are separated and carried to different parts of the body. Whilst there are many types of amino acid, 9 are ESSENTIAL, meaning our body cannot produce them so we must obtain them from food. They are:

  • Leucine

  • Isoleucine

  • Valine

  • Histidine

  • Lysine

  • Methionine

  • Phenylalanine

  • Threonine

  • Tryptophan

Foods that contain all 9 of these have a HBV (high biological value), and create an optimal anabolic response for MPS (muscle protein synthesis). So if you want to build muscle and get stronger it is important to ensure you have an adequate intake of all 9 essential amino acids.


Eating High Biological Value Foods


HBV foods containing all 9 EAAs are:

  • Animal products

  • Soya

  • Quinoa

Whether vegan or not, I make sure all my clients are eating enough HBV foods. This is where many people who track calories and macros fail to progress; paying too much attention to the overall daily protein target, which could be mainly made up of 'incidental proteins' obtained from sources such as green vegetables or grains, for example. All these proteins are still useful and I encourage everyone to get a broad variety of nutrient sources into their diets, but it is far more optimal to work on having an adequate intake of high biological value protein, with anything surplus to that being 'incidental'.


Now, am I suggesting that vegans (or anyone wanting to reduce their animal product intake) only eat soya products and quinoa each day? No. I'd certainly encourage them to be a primary source of protein. But another thing for vegans to consider is that the same HBV effect can be created by pairing various proteins together to accumulate the 9 EAAs. For example, you may choose to combine beans, greens and a grain in one meal... and still tick that anabolic box.


Athletic Protein Requirements


The role of protein in an athlete’s diet has garnered much attention over the years, and it's widely accepted that athletes require more protein than general population. Data also indicates that protein requirements should be tailored to reflect sport-specific and training-goal requirements which is why I only provide individualised, bespoke programming.


The role of protein in an athlete’s diet is multifaceted. Protein serves as a substrate for exercise performance and a catalyst for exercise adaptation. The balance between MPB (muscle protein breakdown) and MPS (muscle protein synthesis) is known as Net Protein Balance (NPB). Achieving a positive NPB via elevated MPS promotes exercise recovery, adaptation and anabolism. A broad protein recommendation of 1.4g to 2g per kg of bodyweight, per day when eating at energy balance or surplus, is likely to be appropriate for most athletic contexts.


During negative energy balance (a calorie deficit) dieting athletes and bodybuilders require elevated protein intakes due to the need to preserve lean mass and promote satiety. Recommendations of up to 1.8g to 2.7g per kg of bodyweight, per day should be considered here. For competitive bodybuilders looking to achieve stage-leanness, values as high as 2.3g to 3.2g per kg of bodyweight, per day are suggested.


Vegan athletes however appear to consume less protein than omnivorous and vegetarian athletes. As explained previously, optimisation of protein intakes for vegan athlete requires attention paid to the quantity and quality of protein consumed. Plant-based protein sources are often incomplete, missing important essential amino acids, and typically contain less branched chain amino acids (BCAA) than their animal-based equivalents.


Leucine appears to be a primary trigger of MPS, and plays an important role in promoting recovery and adaptation from exercise. Common examples of the limiting amino acids in plant-based proteins include lysine, methionine, isoleucine, threonine and tryptophan. Of these, lysine appears to be to be most commonly absent, particularly from cereal grains. Foods such as beans and legumes are rich sources of lysine however, and leucine can be obtained from soy beans and lentils. Other BCAAs can be found in seeds, tree nuts and chickpeas, meaning that these amino acids can be obtained by consuming a variety of protein-rich, plant-based foods.


The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) have recommended that a range of plant-based proteins should be consumed by vegans in order to meet their protein and amino acid requirements. Ensuring enough proteins are combined in every meal isn't essential, but vegans should definitely look to get enough throughout their complete daily intake. Foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds should be included in the vegan diet to ensure that all EAAs are present, and that adequate BCAA are consumed to support recovery and adaptation from training. (1)


I have a selection of free sweet and savoury vegan recipes for you to try. If you would like help with an optimal performance nutrition plan, please contact me for coaching.


Thanks for reading,


Tamar

 

References


  1. PMID 28924423 Vegan Diets: Practical Advice For Athletes and Exercisers https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598028/ J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017



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