Plant-Based Athletics and Protein Needs: Part 1 of 3
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
I’ve been eating a plant-based vegan diet since January 2012, I’ve competed in dozens of road races, a few triathlons culminating in Ironman Syracuse 70.3 and even rode my bike across the country in 2015. I’m still breathing, still walking and still performing at a top level. A question I got as I was riding across the country, from my teammates and from people who attend my public presentations is “How do you get your protein…Where do you get it from…and how do you know if you’re getting enough”? I will answer these questions and more in this in-depth 3 part series on protein, athletic performance and a plant-based diet.
Let’s start simple: What are Proteins?
Proteins are made from amino acids that are made from carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sometimes sulfur. There are 20 amino acids (AA's), 9 of which are essential, which means it’s essential that we consume them from our diet. The other 11 AA’s are non-essential, which means our body can synthesize them. These AA’s are collected and processed in the liver and travel to all different parts of our bodies for use.
What about essential amino acids? Can I get everything I need from plants?
Short answer, yes.
Myth #1-Essential Amino Acids: The general thought process was that you could only get the essential amino acids from animal foods. This is incorrect. Plants provide all of the essential amino acids that we need and as you’ll read below, all essential amino acids start within plants. How do you think herbivores meet their protein needs?
Myth #2-Food Combining: The general thought process here is that we have to combine foods to get ‘complete proteins’. This is also incorrect. Meaning, if a food was particularly low in an essential amino acid, we had to, in the same meal, combine that food with another food that was high in that 'missing' essential amino acid in order to acquire proper nutrition and reap the benefits of all of the proteins. This claim was originally written back in the 70’s by Frances Moore Lappe, who was neither a scientist, nor a doctor. Luckily, that myth has been thoroughly debunked through science and corrected by the author, but the rumor still lives and serves as an excuse for people not to go plant-based. The typical example you hear about is rice and beans. They make for a great combination in a meal, but you don’t necessarily have to eat the two together to take advantage of the proteins and amino acids that they provide. Just eat a variety of plants in sufficient amounts and you’ll be all set. Future articles will cover essential amino acids in depth and talk about which AA’s are lower in plants, which ones have been shown to promote muscle synthesis and which ones you may consider supplementing.
All Protein Starts with Plants
How do herbivores get their protein? How do they build tissues? From the foods they eat, and all they’re eating is plants. So if the largest land animals can build muscle tissue and grow to be thousands of pounds, why can’t we grow muscle tissue eating a wide variety of healthy plants? Complete proteins all start out via plant-synthesis. From Elephants to humans, we need exogenous inputs (i.e essential amino acids) to form complete proteins in our bodies, and those exogenous inputs can be animal products like meat or eggs, or plants. Plants can form complete amino acid profiles on their own. When we eat them, we utilize those essential amino acids and form muscle tissue via protein synthesis. So wouldn’t it make sense to skip the middle cow/pig/chicken and go straight for the natural, original source?
...you will be a BETTER athlete if more of your calories are coming from whole, unrefined plant-foods.
We need proteins, but from plant sources
Protein has many roles, not just muscle tissue growth and regeneration as most of us are familiar with. Protein also serves as a crucial component in cell metabolism, enzymes, hormones and immune function. Notice how ‘energy’ or ‘fuel’ is not in that list? Future articles will explain fats and carbohydrates which ARE used for energy. Protein is not used for energy, so if you feel tired or you need more energy for your workouts, don’t reach for a protein bar. It won’t help you, that’s not what it does.
I want this to be a community, a discussion, a learning atmosphere- My intentions in writing these articles are to dispel myths and use evidence to make it easier for you to adopt a more plant-based diet for your athletic endeavors. As the literature explains, as many elite athletes have already shown and as my eBook outlines, you will be a BETTER athlete if more of your calories are coming from whole, unrefined plant-foods. Whether I’m educating the lay-person about the etiology of a chronic disease or an athlete about proper nutrition, I want to provide you with the tools, resources and support you need to feel confident to make positive changes to your diet and/or lifestyle to become the best version of yourself. So with that said…
What questions/comments do you have at this point?
Why do you think protein has been so emphasized in this culture?
Do you feel that’s a good thing? Bad thing? Or Neutral?
This wraps up part 1 of 3 of Proteins. Watch your inbox for parts 2 and 3 coming out in the next couple of weeks. I know, this may have seemed like a very simplistic and rudimentary look inside proteins, but stay with me. These articles will continue to get more complex and cover topics that are often not talked about with regards to sports nutrition. See below for topics covered in upcoming articles.
Covered in Part 2:
How much protein do we need on a daily basis?
How do our bodies synthesize proteins?
Covered in Part 3:
Protein and Exercise
How much protein do I need after activity?
High Quality and Complete Proteins.
Do Plant-based athletes need more protein?
Can we consume too much protein?
What’s wrong with animal protein?