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Should Athletes Follow The Trend Toward Plant-Based Eating?

A vegetarian diet can meet the higher protein needs of athletes and bring along many other benefits at the same time.

a table full of plant-based protein options or vegetarian options for athletes

From fancy new imitation meats in the grocery store to vegetarian-friendly options at your favorite restaurant, it seems like everywhere you turn, plant-based eating is the new trend du jour. And for good reason: The health benefits of plant-based eating include reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, not to mention the environmental, economical, and ethical benefits to consider as well.

Regardless of your reason for being interested in eating more plants, you may be wondering if you can maintain strength or build muscle by eating a plant-based or mostly vegetarian diet as an athlete. The short answer is yes.

For proof: Take Tonal Coach Trace Gotsis as an example. Coach Trace has been following a plant-based diet for over four years now, strength training regularly, building muscle, and recovering well. Sure, it takes some intention and planning to meet your higher protein needs as a vegetarian or plant-based athlete, but many meat-eating athletes don’t even meet their daily protein needs either, so one option is not inherently “easier” or “better.” Here’s what you need to know when considering going vegetarian as an athlete.

First thing’s first: How Much Protein Do You Need?

Research on strength-training athletes suggests you should aim for around 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Whether you choose to include meat protein in your diet or not, most folks will want to aim for between 20 to 30 grams of protein four times daily. You’ll need to aim for slightly more (around 30 or even 40 grams of protein four times daily) if you’re a larger athlete, recovering from injury, in a caloric deficit, or over the age of 35 (we have elevated total protein needs as we age). For more info on your general protein needs, check out this article on protein.

How Should I Get That Protein?

You can meet your needs in a plethora of ways as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. Here are some examples of popular plant-based proteins:

Plant-Based Food ItemGrams of Protein/Serving
3 oz of tofu8 grams
½ cup tempeh15-16 grams
1/2 cup cooked beans (including black, pinto, soy, chickpea)7-10 grams
½ cup cooked oats5-6 grams
¼ cup pumpkin seeds/pepitas10 grams
2 Tbs nut butter8 grams
2 Tbs hemp seeds6 grams
Whole grain bread3-5 grams/slice
Whole wheat or bean-based pasta12 grams/2 oz serving

But What About Amino Acids?

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are integral in growth, tissue repair, hormone production and can also be used by the body for energy. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which are considered essential, meaning they cannot be made by our bodies and therefore must be ingested through foods we eat.

Plant foods are generally lower in one amino acid or another (wheat and rice are lower in lysine while beans and peas are lower in methionine). Thankfully, gone are the days when the thinking was that you need to combine “complementary proteins” (a grain + a bean) at each meal in order to meet your needs. As long as you are eating a variety of both types throughout your days and weeks, you can easily meet your needs for all essential amino acids and total protein.

Since each plant protein contains some, but not all, of the essential amino acids we need each day, you’ll want to include a variety of plant-based foods throughout your day. Choosing foods that together yield 20 to 40 grams of protein four times per day is essential to facilitating muscle repair and muscle protein synthesis. 

For example, a typical day of eating might look like this:

  • Breakfast: Tofu scramble with 1 cup tofu, 1/2 cup beans (24 grams)
  • Lunch: 1/2 cup tempeh + 1/2-1 cup beans (23 to 31 grams of protein)
  • Snack: 2 Tbs peanut butter + 2 Tbs hemp seeds on 2 slices whole-grain bread (28 grams of protein)
  • Dinner: 4 oz chickpea pasta + 1/2 cup beans (32 grams of protein)

Of course, you would also add veggies, fats, and other flavors to each meal above, but as you can see, you can easily build delicious and balanced meals with adequate plant protein.

And BCAAs?

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and specifically leucine have been hot topics of muscle protein studies for the past few decades. 

Some earlier studies suggested leucine to be the main driver of post-training muscle protein synthesis, but a more thorough review of the research indicates this may not be the case. Recent research illuminates the fact that as long as total calories and total protein intake (20 to 40 grams per meal or snack based on body size and age), is adequate, you may not need to monitor or count grams of leucine in your foods. 

Still, ensuring you consume all essential amino acids to ensure a robust boost in muscle protein synthesis post workouts can’t hurt, so you can continue to consume foods that are higher in leucine with your post-workout meal or snack. Soy, pea, brown rice, potato, and corn proteins have leucine contents that exceed the recommended amount of leucine and essential amino acids as set by United Nations University and are great choices any time of day. 

And while more research is needed in this area, post-meal muscle protein synthesis was found to be comparable when either 30 grams of wheat protein or 30 grams of milk protein were eaten, so it seems to be the absolute total amount of protein consumed rather than the type of protein that is of the utmost importance.

Should I Use Protein Supplements?

In general, most experts suggest trying to get your protein from whole food sources, but some athletes find it hard to consume enough to match their needs depending on their level of training and lifestyle. That’s when a supplement can come in handy.

There are plenty of plant-based protein powders and supplements available on the market today that taste great and use a mix of plant proteins to help you meet your daily needs. In fact, there are almost too many. Take one look at the protein section of a health store, and the options are dizzying.

Unfortunately, there is no blanket regulation or testing of nutritional supplements, which means the supplement can contain ingredients not listed on the label. So unless the manufacturers choose to undergo third-party testing and display either “NSF” or “USP” certifications on their packaging, you could be consuming some not-so-good-for-you ingredients. Some (milk or plant-based) powders, bars, and supplements contain a long list of unnecessary ingredients, and others contain artificial sweeteners or high amounts of fiber—all of which are less than desirable in general and especially before a workout. So read labels carefully and choose wisely to ensure you get only what you want and need.

Some brands to consider include: 

  • Previnex Nourify Plus Vegan Protein Powder ($59 for 27.5 oz) – This pea and rice protein powder has 21 grams of protein per serving and is third-party USP certified so you can rest assured that it contains what the label says and nothing more. Plus it offers probiotics, BCAAs, and tastes great—not chalky. 
  • Vega Sport Premium Protein Powder ($50 for 19-20 servings) – This NSF-certified pea, pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, and alfalfa protein powder is tasty (not gritty) and contains 30 grams of plant-based protein with 5 grams of BCAAs per serving. The company is also a Certified B Corp (which is a third party certification stating that a company meets socially sustainable/environmental standards), so it’s a great choice for anyone choosing a plant-based diet for environmental reasons or who wants to feel good about using post-consumer recycled plastic.

What are the other benefits of eating plant-based?

Aside from being able to satisfy your protein needs, plant foods are high in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)—think: ground flaxseeds, canola, soy, pumpkins seeds, and walnuts, and possibly cold-water fish like salmon and tuna if you choose to also include fish in your diet.

These “good” fats are not only aid cell membrane production, various signaling processes throughout our bodies, nervous system function, and blood pressure regulation, but also help to decrease inflammatory processes in our bodies. Translation: By eating more plants overall, you will naturally increase your intake of beneficial fats and derive a one-two punch of healthy foods.

Eating a diet high in beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds will also provide you with abundant amounts of many important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The main deficiency found in plant-exclusive eaters is B12, as it is only found in animal foods. Therefore, you may want to consider adding a B12 supplement to avoid a potential deficiency down the road. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults is 2.4 μg/day of vitamin B12, so look for a supplement that contains that amount to ensure your bases are covered. 

The Bottom Line

In the end, there are no absolute “rules” you must live by. Some people choose to include milk and eggs in their diet (lacto-ovo vegetarian), some exclude all animal products completely (vegan), and others yet choose a mostly vegetarian or plant-forward eating style but do include some fish or meat on occasion (flexitarian). None of these are “best” for everyone and none of them ensure you will be a better athlete or a better person. Each of us needs to decide what works best to meet our needs in terms of lifestyle, mental health, and athletic performance, and let others do the same. But the research shows that you can certainly get enough protein on any version of a plant-based diet and continue to find athletic success.