• Ian Cramer

Plant-Based Athletics and Protein Needs: Pt. 3 of 3

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Application to Athletics

If you didn’t read Part 1 or Part 2 of this article series, you’re welcome to do that to catch up.

Protein and exercise:

Like I said in past articles, we don’t use protein for energy, that’s the job of carbohydrates and fats. A problem arises when our carbohydrate stores are depleted. This situation happens when we fail to ingest adequate amounts of endogenous carbohydrates whether that be unintentional with poor nutritional strategies, or intentional when engaging in a low carbohydrate diet. The more our glycogen stores are depleted, the more our body will turn to protein for energy, which could lead to muscle catabolism. Protein catabolism, or the breakdown of protein, increases with depletion of muscle glycogen and is detrimental to our athletic performance because our goal is to build and maintain muscle tissue for athletic competition, not break it down and use it for fuel. Thus, keeping your carbohydrate stores adequate for your activity level will benefit your energy levels and will also spare your muscles from unwanted catabolism and proteins for use to build tissues.

How much protein do I need after activity?

After a hard workout, it’s well established in the literature to consume calories as soon as possible to enhance muscle protein synthesis and replenish glycogen stores. In a review of literature, Moore [24] suggests consuming 20g of high quality protein every 4 hours after a morning workout. This pattern of feeding was found to produce greater whole-body net protein balance compared to larger amounts of protein fed at fewer time periods through the day. In other words, not only does the quantity of protein matter, but also the pattern of ingestion. Think about consuming many smaller meals rather than a couple of large meals to give your body a slow drip of protein and nutrients throughout the day.

Immediately after a workout, I gravitate towards smoothies for several reasons. Sometime I am on the road or away from my house after a workout and need something that is portable, easy to eat (possibly when I am driving) and provides extremely well rounded nutrition. A ratio of 3-4 grams of carbohydrate per gram of protein is recommended within 30 minutes following exercise. Moore [23] suggests a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. After consumption of the initial post exercise smoothie, the increased blood flow to the working muscle as a result of exercise may further stimulate protein synthesis and permit a more effective delivery of the amino acids if a whole meal is consumed within 1-3 hours following exercise. Another reason why consuming carbohydrates immediately after exercise is a good idea is because carbs help decrease the secretion of cortisol, a hormone that promotes protein catabolism. Don’t want to break down muscle tissue? Eat carbs.

High Quality Proteins and Complete proteins from plants?

There are several scales that are widely used to evaluate the quality of dietary protein. One of the most common is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). This method assesses the “ability of a given protein source to support skeletal muscle anabolism.” [42]. Out of a possible score of 1.00, it ranks milk, whey, egg and soy protein isolate at a 1.00. Beef ranks at .92, unrefined soy at .91 and pea at .67. Of particular interest in the plant-based athletics community are Essential Amino Acids which are the basis of the conversations about complete proteins. (See Article 1 and 2). Although you can get all of the essential amino acids from plants, of particular interest are three amino acids that are particularly low in plant-foods, methionine, lysine and leucine. Leucine, in particular, has been touted as “the most potent amino acid responsible for the postprandial stimulation of muscle protein synthesis” [42]. So what are some plant foods that you can eat that are higher in these Essential Amino Acids? Included below is a graph that highlights plant foods with various amounts of these EAA’s. To throw a wrench in the metaphorical spokes and to a certain extent add an unnecessary technicality, the plant foods that are high in Lysine aren’t necessarily the ones that are high in Methionine or Leucine. The topic of EAA’s will be expanded upon in future articles, but just understand that a wide variety of plant foods is recommended to achieve the full amino acid profile and promote optimal muscle recovery.

​Vliet, Stephan Van, et al. “The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 145, no. 9, 2015, pp. 1981–1991., doi:10.3945/jn.114.204305.

Plant-Based Athletes Need More Protein than Omnivorous counterparts?

Several sources [37, 42, 29] comment that because vegans and vegetarians are abstaining from some or all animal proteins, those populations need to consume a larger quantity of protein to ensure they are obtaining all of the amino acids they need in adequate quantities. The argument, as outlined above, is that “plant-proteins are not as well digested as animal proteins” [37]. Thus, to account for this incomplete digestion, it is suggested that they increase their total protein intake by 10% relative to those consuming animal foods with ‘higher quality protein’, which in this context would equate to an increase of around 8-12grams per day. This is equivalent to an extra half cup of beans or lentils, a couple tablespoons of a nut butter or 3oz. of tofu. So, not a whole lot. However, it is my professional and personal opinion that based on the supporting evidence and personal experience that it is not necessary to consciously consume more protein as recommended in this context. If you simply focus on consuming sufficient calories in a day, the protein will take care of itself.

Can we consume too much protein?

“There is no demonstrated benefit for an athlete to consume more than 2g/kg body weight per day protein”. Furhman [10] goes on to explain that excessive protein can lead to impaired kidney function, bone health, negatively affect calcium stores and is detrimental to cardiovascular health. Encouraged are the consumption of whole food sources of protein instead of protein powders, even if they are coming from plant sources. Whole plants are higher in micronutrients, and protein powders, whether animal or plant-based have been shown to promote the up-regulation of Insulin-like Growth factor 1, a known cancer promoter [10]. Our bodies like small doses of vitamins, minerals and even macronutrients over time. This goes for protein as well. The body has a hard time using large amounts of protein efficiently. It’s better to take in small amounts of protein throughout the day so that your body doesn’t waste the excess amount. Ryan [50] suggests 20-35 grams in a particular meal, which is corroborated by Moore [24]. What does 20-35 grams of protein look like in a plant-based meal? A bowl of oatmeal and almond milk, with an apple and banana, Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and 2 tbsp of nut butter. About 900 calories with 28 grams of protein and ALL of the essential amino acids according to Chronometer.com. Keep in mind the amount of protein required by an athletes varies widely according to activity level, size, gender etc, so the amount of protein per meal is going to be different for a 110 pound female endurance runner vs. a 185 pound cyclist. Renowned Sports Nutritionist Dr. Dan Benardot, Phd. Comments “most athletes consume more protein than they require and, in doing so, may limit the intake of other essential nutrients critical to achieving athletic success… few of the protein intake strategies that many athletes follow are logical” {49, p. 28}

But what’s wrong with animal protein?

Vegetarian and Vegan diets are associated with a number of health benefits including decreased risk of Coronary Artery disease (CAD), lower LDL, cholesterol and blood pressure, lower rates of type 2 diabetes, lower BMI and lower rates of cancers [39, 38, 36, 18, 41, 10, 29}. I will leave you with this; the protein of animal products has been touted as the most efficient and the most complete. I am not arguing that it does a good job at building tissues. But if there are component parts of a food that are known to be helpful, we also have to ask the question “Are there also component parts of that food that are known to be detrimental”?

As I’ve said, I want this to be a community, a discussion, a learning atmosphere. My intentions in writing these articles is 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 displayed 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.

Now that we’ve come to the end of this series of articles on protein, did I miss anything important?

  • Do you have a better understanding of protein needs for plant-based athletes?

  • Did I not cover something having to do with protein that you’d like me to touch on?

  • Write your questions and comments below and let’s have a discussion. Share this article with your buddies who are plant-curious or who want to become better athletes.



“Protein: The Tissue Builder.” Nutrition for Health, Fitness, & Sport, by Melvin H. Williams et al., 10th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2013, pp. 217–269.

3 “Energy Nutrients for Optimal Health and Performance.” Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, by Monique Ryan, 3rd ed., VeloPress, 2012, p. 36.

#protein #athletics #plantbasedathlete

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