Many vegan and vegetarian athletes manage to compete and do well without relying on animal products for protein, yet most people still think it is impossible to do so. The meat and dairy industries have done a very good job of marketing their products, convincing most of the country that there’s no way to get the protein, calcium, and nutrition we need without their help. We can’t really blame them, since it is their job to sell their product and be convincing, but they may have done too good a job.
Most of us get way more protein than we need. Many experts believe that the average sedentary American is getting around 50% more than they can possibly use. That’s extra calories and, if it comes from meat and dairy, extra saturated fat and cholesterol too. If you consume more calories than your body can use, it stores the excess as fat. Too much protein also puts a strain on the liver and kidneys as the body tries to deal with what isn’t being incorporated into enzymes, muscles, cellular membranes, and connective tissue by dumping the rest via these important organs. Those not working out regularly should be eating only a fraction of the protein they get and could use less refined sugar, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories in general too.
Part of the problem is we all eat like we’re major athletes, even when we spend most of our time sitting chained to a desk, at a computer, commuting, or sprawled on a couch in front of our television. Our bodies are still running on the instincts that served them well for thousands of years when humanity had to actively work for food. We spent our days cultivating fields, hunting, fishing, dragging heavy loads, carrying large jugs of water, pulling carts, pushing stones, lifting, crouching, bending, and moving more in one day than many of us manage in a week now.
Our bodies are hardwired to desire food often, beg for the richest, densest foods, and store the excess as fat. These yearnings and processes kept us from going extinct when cold winters, famines, and scarcity came. The modern world has changed the way we should treat food and ourselves. Either we need to actually seek out the exercise that served to balance our eating or we need to eat less or probably do both. These are our choices if we want to counteract the quite deadly combination we have created of more accessible food, sedentary living, and the body’s natural tendencies to store or dump what it doesn’t need.
If you want to build muscle, then you get to continue eating more. Athletes require more protein than non-athletes. They also need more calories as an active body burns through fuel more effectively and more rapidly. This may surprise many, but getting the protein and calories you need are both possible on a vegan or vegetarian diet. All plant food contains protein in some amount, from sweet fruit to leafy green, and as stated earlier most of us get too much.
The average American only needs between .2 and .6 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. That makes about .4 or .5 plenty, and that amount is easily supplied with protein-rich plants. Beans, legumes, lentils, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and grain all contain fairly large amounts of protein.
Most plants aren’t considered “complete” proteins as they may be lacking in one or two essential amino acids, but this is easily counteracted by eating a variety of food. The old idea that vegans need to carefully pair protein sources with each meal to supply their protein needs has been debunked. The body doesn’t store amino acids long term, but it takes time to digest and absorb protein. Amino acids remain in the body for days and the correct combinations do not have to occur during the same meal or even the same day as long as you are getting all the essential amino acids throughout a 3 to 4 day period.
Athletes should get between .6 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day, depending on what types of exercise they do and how active they are. This is still easily possible on a vegan diet. More active individuals also need more calories. Many athletes choose to eat several small meals and snacks throughout the day to supply them with the energy demands of a more active lifestyle.
A more casual athlete may just need to add a few snacks throughout the day. A handful of nuts, hummus on crackers, almond butter on toast, or a good protein smoothie with chia seeds or coconut oil after a workout is a good way to speed recovery and get protein to the torn muscle fibers quickly.
Protein isn’t the magic bullet or the only thing you need to build muscle either. If it were, building muscle would be much easier and, with our large protein consumption, practically everyone would be muscular and fit. That isn’t the case. The body needs complex carbohydrates to fuel workouts, boost stamina, and supply the power source behind building and repairing muscle tissue. It also needs good fats to supply energy, control inflammation, and also aid in cellular repair. Then the body needs the right conditions to tear muscle before it can be built back up. That means plenty of intense exercise, cardio for lean muscle and strength training to build larger muscles.
There are also vegan protein powder supplements available that come from brown rice, pea, hemp, and other amino acid rich plant sources that provide a good dose of your protein needs in one small scoop, especially if you are more active. Despite what many would have you believe, these vegetable-based protein powders do as well as whey. One recent study confirmed what we’ve been saying for years with rice protein, showing it stood toe for toe with whey in every way. Sunwarrior’s Classic Protein is a rice protein that tastes amazing and supplies plenty of absorbable protein without the allergens found in whey or the bloat that comes later. Warrior Blend comes from three powerful vegan sources and adds to it with medium chain triglycerides for extra endurance and faster recovery. Both are a great way to make sure you get enough of the right protein if you are active.