Where do you get your protein?
This is the classic question that any plant-based athlete will get asked. And although proper protein intake is a must for anyone, including high level athletes, there's no need to panic. It's important to recognize that even high-level plant-based athletes are not losing much sleep counting grams of protein. They know that as long as they're getting a variety of plant foods from the different plant groups and adequate calories, they'll be hitting their protein goals without much effort. Personally, I stopped counting protein intake shortly after my plant-based transition, after realizing my targets were easily attainable with minimal effort. If you still need some convincing, in this section I'll go over protein quantity, quality and what are the staple foods and best protein sources for the plant-based athlete.
Protein quantity. How much does an athlete need?
In terms of grams per day, the recommended daily allowance of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.36 grams per pound). This amount can be adjusted within a range of 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kg if you're an endurance athlete or 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kg if you're a strength athlete. For the average person on a plant-based diet, the amount of protein intake will be sufficient just as long as they're eating a sufficient amount of calories from a variety of plant foods.
Most of the plant-based athletes don't even count the amount of grams of protein, since they can simply trust that they're getting sufficient amounts just by eating a variety of plant foods and an adequate amount of calories. Remember that plant foods are naturally calorie-poor, meaning that depending on the combination of foods you're eating, it is easier to end up being calorie deficient, which is perfect for those looking to shred or lose a few pounds, but not for those looking to bulk up and build muscle. If you're looking to fine tune the athletic machine you are, you might want to consider counting the grams of protein. Most experts would agree that for the average Joe (not athletes), 8-10% of calories per day should come from protein. For athletes, 15% of calories coming from protein is what to aim for, and most athletes will increase their protein intake to 20% of their daily calories during periods of more intense training and muscle building. Some extreme bodybuilders will aim for 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, often accounting for 25-30% of their daily caloric intake. They'll often need protein powders to top off. Being a rock climber who lifts, runs, bikes and does many other sports, I aim to be in the 1.3 grams per kilogram range, but now having been on a completely plant-based diet for years, I don't do much counting anymore. Once every few months, if I feel I'm off track, I'll log my food intake on the Cronometer app to check in. Some days I'm at 60 grams of protein, which equates to 10% of my 2400 calorie diet. Others, I hit 90 grams, which represents 15%.
Remember this, putting on muscle is much more related to training while eating in calorie excess (with adequate or average protein intakes), than it is related to training while in protein excess. Read that again. Protein is an inefficient source of fuel compared to carbohydrates, so athletes getting 20-30% of calories from protein, sometimes upwards of 100-150 grams per day, don't have an efficient fuel source readily available for their muscles. This can have detrimental effects on the intensity and efficiency of your workouts, and your gains.
So whether you decide to use the gram per kilo of body weight rule, or the percentage of daily calories rule, the important thing is to remember to eat a sufficient and adequate amount of calories according to your fitness goals, whether it's shredding or bulking.
Protein quality. All protein isn't created equal.
Just to cover the basics, protein is made up of amino acids, much in the same way as a chain where protein is the chain and the amino acids are the links. There are 20 different amino acids, some we can build ourselves from precursors we eat, and some that are called essential, meaning that they can't be synthesized by our own bodies. These 9 amino acids we must obtain from our foods. All amino acids aren't created equal and some play different roles than just building muscle, so it's just natural that we don't need them in identical amounts. Although all plants contain amino acids and protein, in general, they do contain less than animal products, with each amino acid being present in different proportions. It's almost like we purposely evolved to seek a variety of plants, knowing that variety contributes to a healthier range of vitamins, antioxidants, fiber (you'll read later that the most important predictor of a healthy microbiome is plant variety, and not quantity) and amino acids. When all compiled together at the end of the day, the range and variety of amino acids will be more than sufficient to build muscle and achieve peak athletic performance.
We also know that plant protein is a much cleaner source of protein. Animal protein comes packaged with heme-iron, a highly oxidative form of iron, known to generate free radicals and inflammatory by-products, with saturated fats that promote oxidation and formation of atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries, our number one killer), and virtually zero fiber, likely the most important and deficient nutrient in the north american population. Studies show that even just replacing 3% of calories from animal protein sources with plant protein reduces the risk of heart disease by over 10%, probably since plant-based protein comes packed with many health promoting nutrients, like fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and micro-nutrients. Complete proteins are foods that contain all of the essential amino acids, aka those our body can't produce by itself. Animal protein contains all nine essential amino acids. Some plant proteins, like soy, buckwheat and quinoa are complete proteins as well. The complete protein argument is often one used to justify a meat heavy diet, but we now know that as long as people are getting a variety of plant foods, the body will take the various amino acids and do the "completing" by itself!
It's important to mention that the World Health Organization has linked meat (especially beef, pork and lamb) to certain cancers and that processed meats (like hot dogs and lunch meats) have been classified as Class 1 carcinogens. Research has also shown that dairy and the milk protein casein have been linked to hormone dependent cancers, like breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.
The only catch is if you have allergies to soy, or don't eat beans, tofu, tempeh or other legumes (which are some of the healthiest foods on earth), you might be deficient in one particular amino acid, which is Lysine. In this case, you might want to look into a supplement, but if you eat a variety of plant-based protein sources, then no worries and forget I even mentioned it.
Protein sources and staple foods.
Getting protein from plant-based sources is pretty easy, and turns out it's pretty darn cheap as well. Here are my favorite go-to plant-based protein sources:
Beans (15g per cup)
Chickpeas (12g per cup)
Lentils (18g per cup)
Nuts, nut butters
Tofu (11g per 4 oz)
Quinoa (9g per cup)
Tempeh (40g per cup)
Plant-based protein powders (I use them after strenuous workouts if I didn't get much protein from whole food sources)
and many other various legumes and grains.
I average around 90 grams of protein per day, which puts me right at the 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram range. I'm not actively or extensively searching for protein sources, I'm basically just eating whole foods as much as I can, while making sure to include protein-rich plants. These plant-based amino acids are not just easier to assimilate into proteins, but they also come pre-packaged with fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and a bunch of other micronutrients that will not only help the athlete's recovery and performance, but also help with overall health, helping to prevent and even reverse chronic health conditions.
What about animal protein?
For some reason, there's this unfounded notion that animal protein is the best source of amino acids. Why? Marketing, that's why. All this started when factory farming companies started gaining traction and making big profits. Huge efforts were made to make you think that animal proteins were not only superior, but necessary for health and muscle growth. The amino acid profiles of meat protein are identical as plant protein, but with major differences. When eating animal meats, you're also ingesting the associated cholesterol, unwanted calories, carcinogens and saturated fats. Don't forget the fact that you're eating protein without the fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins that are so densely packed in plant protein. Studies have shown that in terms of muscle building and growth, as well as performance in endurance or strength athletes, there are no differences between plant or meat proteins. In terms of health, eating animal protein has been associated with increases in markers of chronic inflammation compared to plants, which lead to lowering of these markers due to their anti-inflammatory effects. The science is clear, plant protein is anti-inflammatory and associated with reduced risk of chronic disease, whereas meat protein is pro-inflammatory and associated with the chronic inflammation that leads to most of the diseases that plague north americans.
In the continuous hunt for prosperity, companies found innovative ways to cut losses in exchange for profits. Cue the whey protein. While looking for ways to dispose of cheese making waste products, the milk proteins whey and casein were extracted, dried and magically turned into protein supplements. Genius right? They now have most of the world convinced that whey protein is a health food. Cue the protein bars, where even non-athletes are now convinced these are health foods too. Although science has proved these protein sources to be associated with many chronic illnesses, we fail to see the truth or to make the switch. But why? For the same reasons that it took almost 7000 studies to get published linking smoking cigarettes to lung cancer before the first Surgeon General's warning was issued. Eating meat is now considered normal and part of tradition and culture, and huge corporations want to make sure that you keep eating meat. And although the evidence is clear, most people grimace or chuckle at the thought of cutting down on meat, even if it means trading their health or longevity. People search for information that will give them good news about their bad habits, and are willing to ignore the science in order to take the path of least resistance.
Macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, protein and fats, contain the calories that will fuel your athletic performance. To learn more about the basics of macro-nutrients, as well as their other biological functions, please click to jump to the For Nerds section.
The most common question regarding macros is how much of each should we get. To get started, let's start by calculating exactly how many calories are needed per day. Then, this amount is adjusted accordingly, depending on what your goals are, either weight loss for shredding, or weight and muscle building for bulking up. If weight loss is the goal, careful planning of macros will make sure that the weight loss is fat and not muscle! To do it perfectly, you can download apps like My Fitness Pal, or Cronometer to log your foods and see exactly where you stand in terms of daily calories and macros spread.
1 gram of fat equals 9 calories
1 gram of carbs equals 4 calories
1 gram of protein equals 4 calories
most would advocate for 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
protein intake can be increased up to 1.2 grams per kilograms of weight all the way to 1.5 depending on your fitness goals (weight loss or muscle mass bulking)
most athletes use fats and carbs to manipulate total calorie intake.
lowering fat intake will help weight loss, but less than 30% of total caloric intake could impact your health negatively
carbohydrate intake can be manipulated accordingly to workout length or intensity
most people should get 10-35% of calories from protein, 20-35% of calories from fat, and 40-65% of calories from carbs
macros can easily be manipulated to fit your fitness or weight management goals
a long distance runner will not have the same ratio of macros than a bodybuilder
Calories for weight maintenance
Daily caloric maintenance can be calculated roughly with multiples different apps where your age, fitness level, weight and sex are taken to account. These are rough estimates and your personal metabolism is rarely taken into account, but it's better than nothing. The caloric daily requirements calculated can vary +/- 300 to 400 calories and does lack some precision.
You can also use the mathematical formula below for a more reliable way to determine your daily needs.
The most precise way to determine your daily calorie needs is simply to log your food intake for 1-2 weeks, add them up and divide by the number of days recorded. If your weight stays relatively stable, meaning that it only fluctuates by 1-2 pounds, then this will give you your average daily requirements. You can then use this as your baseline and determine what your calorie deficit will be if you want to lose weight, or calorie excess for those wanting to add weight (preferably in muscle for the serious athlete).
Calorie deficits for weight loss
For those wanting to shred to increase speed and agility, or to simply lose a few pounds to better manage their body weight during sporting competitions, the strategy is to create a calorie deficit. For the athlete, it's extremely important for that weight loss to be fat tissue and not muscle tissue. Here's our tips for the serious athlete who wants to lose fat, not muscle:
go slow, gradual weight loss is more likely to be fat than muscle
create a calorie deficit ranging from 200-500 calories per day
measure your weight weekly, if you're losing more than 2 pounds per week, you're likely losing muscle
Please note that optimal health is achieved when a nutrient dense diet is accompanied by a mild 100-200 daily calorie deficit. In this scenario, most of the weight loss will be fat, and muscle mass is more likely to be preserved. To ensure muscle mass preservation, calculating your macros is the next step.
Calculating your protein macros
To maintain muscle mass, protein should be the first macro to get calculated. This calculation is based on your lean body mass, meaning the fat free part of your weight.
To determine your lean body mass, you would need your body fat percentage, that can either be measured by calipers at your local fitness gym, or by purchasing some online, or by estimating it (many BF% calculators or estimators can be found online). By multiplying your body fat percentage by your actual weight in pounds, you'll get your fat mass. Subtract your fat mass from your actual weight, and you'll get your lean body mass.
LBM = actual weight - (weight x body fat %)
Once your lean body mass is calculated, simply multiply by your protein intake (ranging from 0.8 grams per kilogram of weight to 1.2 grams per kilogram, depending on your goals) to determine your daily intake of protein in grams. This amount should total between 15-20% of your total daily calorie intake.
For most athletes, just knowing your total calorie goals and protein targets in grams is enough to reach your destination. By logging these numbers, and by eating mostly plant foods, the carbs and fats will fall into place without any effort. Although optional, once you're locked in and are hitting your protein and calorie targets, you can choose to calculate and personalize your fat and carbohydrate intake.
Calculating your fat macros
Calories from fat would typically fall into the 20-40% range. Experts recommend 30%, since many biochemical processes, including hormone synthesis and vitamin absorption, depend on fat intake. As described in the For Nerds section, choose healthy fats, and avoid saturated and trans fats.
If your calorie goal is 2000 per day, then by multiplying this amount by 30%, you'd get 600 calories from fat in a typical day. Since there are 9 calories in a gram of fat, 600 divided by 9 would be equal to 67g, representing the amount of grams of fat allowable per day.
Calculating your carbohydrate macros
If 20% of calories come from protein, and 30% come from fat, then 50% will come from carbs. That equates to 1000 calories for someone on a 2000 calorie per day diet. Since there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, that gives you 250 grams of carbs per day.
The daily allowance of carbs can be manipulated to help lose weight, help recover faster, help increase workout length or intensity, etc. So play around and see what works best for you, manipulating carbs or grams of fat.
Personally, I don't log food intake anymore. I've been at sub 10% body fat for more than 5 years, and my weight has barely changed since. I still weigh myself regularly and if ever drastic changes occur, I'll go back to Cronometer to log my food intake as a much needed check-in. But for me, I simply eat low calorie and nutrient dense plant foods, with legumes and beans, a daily portion of nuts and seeds and my weight just seems to stay where I want it. When I want to cut weight, I mostly manipulate my fats by decreasing the amount of nuts and seeds I eat, and within a few weeks, the desired effects start to appear.
Although calculating your macros can seem complicated and unnecessary for most, it's an extra tool athletes can add to their arsenal for maximal athletic performance. Personally, I simply eat a variety of plants, making sure I'm hitting my protein goals, and I don't worry much about the carbs and the fats, as long as my weight isn't fluctuating too much up or down. If ever I'd notice unwanted weight changes, then I'd go back to logging my food intake to confirm my macros are in the desired range. Depending on your goals, advanced tools are available for you to take it to the next level, but if you're happy on the level you're already on, then don't make things too hard on yourself.
Plant-based micronutrients include vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Often ignored, these nutrients play a vital role in repair, recovery and optimal health and athletic performance. Although they aren't direct sources of energy, they do play crucial roles in many biochemical reactions leading to the formation of ATP, which is the fuel used by cells. They also act as co-factors in many other chemical processes involved in repair, rebuilding and inflammation management. They help protect us against oxidative stress, support immune functions and help regenerate and repair tendons, ligaments and cartilage.
The majority of micronutrients are considered essential, meaning that they can't be synthesized by our bodies. The only way of getting them is through our food.
There are now 13 vitamins and 15 minerals recognized as being essential for our health. Lucky for us, the plant-based diet is naturally nutrient dense, meaning that anyone eating a variety of plants will never have to worry about getting enough nutrients. That being said, a poorly planned plant-based diet can and will lead to deficiencies that could significantly impact your athletic performance, and most importantly your health.
Certain micronutrients have performance specific benefits, like nitrates that promote blood flow to muscle or plant pigments that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. For more on micro-nutrients that can help boost athletic performance and recovery, go see the performance and recovery enhancing foods in the For Athletes page.
Micro-nutrient tracking can seem intense for the average Joe, but is now super simple with apps like Cronometer, where you log your food intake and the app does the rest. I started eating more nuts and greens when I noticed that my daily intake of vitamin E was always falling short. I would've never known if I hadn't been logging my food intake at the beginning of my plant-based transition. Rest assured, if you're eating enough calories from a variety of plants of different colors, and supplementing with B12 and Vitamin D, you have nothing to worry about.
Vitamin supplementation is addressed in detail in the For Nerds section.
Slowly but surely, the scientific community and athletes alike are recognizing that the plant-based diet is not only appropriate for the competitive athlete, but the best way to ensure the best nutrition and fuel for the serious athlete. It provides the carbohydrate fuel they need, while being full of nutritious protein sources. Macro splits can easily be adjusted according to activity level, and foods are naturally formulated to be manipulated for short energy bursts, or for sustained marathon length activity levels.
For most endurance athletes, the optimal split will be around 60-20-20 of carbs to fat to protein, while a ratio of 50-25-25 will benefit more strength based athletes. I encourage you to play around to find out which split suits you best.
Quick energy boosts can be obtained by consuming most simple carbohydrate containing fruits. And even within the fruits group, certain foods with higher glycemic index (like dates, bananas or watermelon) can be favored over other fruits which release carbs slower, like apples. Whatever the athletic activity, there's a specific food made for it. Marathon runners will benefit more from a slow and steady release of energy, as seen with complex carbs coming from whole grains or legumes.
Muscle repair and recovery are faster in a nutrient rich environment, and plant-based diets offer more than enough vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to do the job. Chemical compounds in plants, like nitrates, have been proven to delay time to exhaustion, decrease oxygen cost, decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness and increase athletic output.
Muscle building depends more on calorie excess than protein excess, as long as the total amount of protein is adequate. Plant-based diets offer more than enough clean protein trapped in fiber, minerals and vitamins, while animal protein comes packaged with cholesterol, saturated fat, heme iron and with zero fiber.
So if you're an athlete still skeptical about the benefits of the plant-based diet on athletic performance, fear no more. Professional athletes, like Novak Djokovic, have accomplished so much more after making the switch to a plant-based diet. If you're still not convinced, I urge you to watch documentaries like The Game Changers.