By Derek Benz, B.S., CPT
It’s a pretty common question for vegans: where do you get your protein? Derek Benz answers this question for the bodybuilders.
Protein: the word is mentioned and confusion seems to follow. Everywhere we turn there’s a bombardment of information from the next “guru” spouting their protein wisdom that we’re suddenly supposed to flock to. As a certified personal trainer for the last four years and exercise physiology and nutrition degree student from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, I’ve had particular interest in what they say. Being a vegan and competitive bodybuilder for the last two and four years, respectively, makes my professional interest personal.
Over the last few years, I’ve delved into the research world and am currently involved in two studies myself. In my exploration, the amount of misinformation and misconceptions I’ve discovered amazes me. It can happen when some researcher or the media over-extends their data, often mistaking correlation for causation, and making wild claims definitely not shown in the research. I encourage you to be skeptical of what you hear, including this article! Do your own research!
I am here to hopefully dispel these myths as well as provide straightforward examples of how a plant-based athlete, as well as all who wish to control their body composition and health, should go about this confusing macronutrient. The recommendations you’ll hear are all evidence-based and modified for practical, real life in my experience as an athlete myself and also my personal training experience.
Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients and gives us energy in the form of 4kcals/gram. Protein is made up of amino acids and is broken down by the body in the process of metabolism in order to use in various bodily functions. You can find it in all whole foods, those not altered, concentrated, or processed to remove part of the food. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds all contain protein that can be consumed to reach daily intake goals.
The general recommendation for protein intake is 0.8g/kg*BW; for a 150 pound person, that would be 54 grams in a day. In recent research many protein recommendations for athletes have appeared, however these are meant for animal protein consumers. For us plant athletes, we should increase their recommendation by about ten percent. This is meant to account for the lack of complete proteins.
If we are to use the general 0.8g/kg*BW, then this would mean an increase to 60 grams each day. Both of these are reasonable to hit on most diets. However, for athletes there is increased physical activity and therefore greater use of protein. While not a primary fuel source for exercise, protein needs are still increased. A recent review of protein intake for various athletes found:
Endurance Athletes = 1.2–1.6g/kg*BW
Strength/Power Athletes = 1.6–1.8g/kg*BW
Pure Vegan Strength Trainers = 2.0g/kg*BW
*It should be noted that these are all recommendations when NOT calorically restricted.
While most of these are over double the original RDA of 0.8, we must realize that nothing in science is ever 100% proven, and in fact, the word “proven” is often taboo in most legitimate research facilities. We can look at the quality of information and how much evidence is stacked one way or the other.
In the end though, I believe the optimal level is different for everyone and these should be used as mere guidelines rather than laws. Going back to our example of the 150 pound person, if they were a vegan strength trainer, they’d be recommended to consume 136 to 150 grams of protein each day. Now this might seem like quite a bit. Fear not, with the many vegan protein sources out there, it is attainable. Another note is that in order to modify the numbers for vegans, they should add 10% more protein to account for incomplete protein sources. I find in my experience that these levels are very adequate and can help maximize results in whatever fitness goal you aim for.
Animal vs Plant Protein Sources
The quality of protein—or rather, the completeness of the protein, having all the essential amino acids—seems to be the only argument for why animal proteins are somehow the best of the best and nothing else seems to be good enough. In the competitive bodybuilding world, I have literally been laughed out of gyms for suggesting a vegan diet for a competitive bodybuilder. The competitive bodybuilders I’ve worked with say that unless their protein comes from beef, chicken, fish, eggs, or whey protein they do not count it in their macronutrient count for the day.
What about the protein from brown rice, oatmeal, and broccoli (all popular mainstream bodybuilding foods)? The main difference is the animal foods tend to score higher on a rating system of protein called the PDCAAS chart. It gives a score from 1 to 100 with 100 being the best quality. Most animal proteins score between a 98 and a 100. Of course, the reason they score high is they have all of the essential amino acids needed by our body for proper functioning, essential meaning the human body cannot synthesize them without consuming them.
A vegan gets around this by consuming a variety of sources of protein to attain all the needed essential amino acids. Another consideration is there are vegan protein sources that score very high on the chart as well, soy with 94, quinoa with 96, hemp seeds 90–92, pumpkin seeds 91–93.
The good news is consuming all the proteins does not have to happen at one meal. If I eat hemp seeds in the morning with my fruit smoothie, quinoa in my lunch bean burrito, and brown rice with my vegetable stir fry for dinner, this will be plenty of variety to get the amino acids I need to maximize muscle growth and overall health. Vegans have just as much ability to get plenty of protein in their diet.
And the advantage I see with vegans in my sport is they never have any trouble getting lean and staying lean, even year round. The vegan foods, I should say whole food vegan foods, seem to keep the body fat levels in control with ease.