When diving into this topic, the debate on whether a vegan athlete can get enough protein for muscle building, I began with an elitist mindset. This is probably not coming from the perspective you would assume, as I am a 250 lbs weight lifter, half marathon runner and former United States Marine.
I went into this research paper thinking duh, of course they can get enough protein. The looks I get when I tell people that I am a vegetarian and that I actually eat about a 90% vegan diet is borderline comical, but this is the reality of my nutritional world. I have been eating this way for almost 6 years now. When I started a sports performance nutrition class this semester, I found out that I was going to have to do a topical research paper. Of the topics offered, I chose this one the moment I saw it. So, off I went to PubMed and other scientific journal websites looking for research. What I found out was fascinating. Let me elaborate….
Heading into this, my very basic understanding was that protein was all about quantity, the numbers on the label. If I was eating a bowl of beans than I would be getting around 12-14 grams of protein so life was good. However, in researching this topic, I began to learn that there is so much more to it. One of the major shortcomings for vegan athletes or simply vegans in general versus a meat-eater, is the fact that not all plant based protein sources are complete protein sources; they do not include all 9 of the essential amino acids.
For those not in the know, essential amino acids are the ones that we, as humans cannot produce within our bodies and thus, have to acquire through diet. These amino acids are found in all animal sources of protein, but all nine are rarely found in non-animal sources of protein. The cool thing I learned about this dietary shortcoming is that nature took this into account and made things that taste amazing together and when paired, also make that ever-so-important complete protein complex.
A primary example of this food-pairing is the classic staple food: red beans and rice. Beans and other legumes are generally missing, or only have only trace amounts of the amino acids cysteine and methionine. Rice has adequate amounts of both of cysteine and methionine but is lacking in other essential amino acids. Thus, when rice and beans are eaten together, they have all nine essential amino acids, equivalent to a complete protein. Two other such combinations include pita bread (or chips) with hummus or wheat bread with peanut butter. There are also some non-animal sources of protein, such as buckwheat and seitan. These are grains that have a complete amino acid profile. Likewise, quinoa is a seed, eaten like a grain, that also qualifies as a complete protein.
That all sounds fine and dandy. These are good options but in reality, it means that as a vegan athlete, one must do much more preparation and planning when setting out to devise a nutritional plan. Even a non-athlete vegan needs to be vigilant in planning their diets as deficiencies in any nutrient, macro or micro, may contribute to health problems. Learning about the necessary nutrients and how to get them is a serious undertaking. When considering the physical stress to the body that serious athletes often endure, getting enough protein becomes very important.
Another very interesting discovery regarding protein is something called bio-availability. I will admit, going into this I knew about the complete protein situation but bio-availability of protein, what is that? This was a completely new concept for me. Bio-availability refers to the amount of the nutrient, in this case protein and amino acids, that enters the blood stream and is readily up-taken in the digestive system. What I discovered through my research was that meat and diary products (animal sources) had a much higher bio-availability of protein with the amount ranging from around 94-97 with a +/- range of about 3 percentage points. That is really high.
It means whenever a person eats scrambled eggs with cheese, a side of bacon and washes it all down with a glass of milk, that person is able to put to use about 95% of the protein that they ingest in that meal with only about 5% being lost as waste via urine. The vegan, who has a bowl of rice and beans for breakfast will only get about 70-80% of the protein input from that meal with between 20-30% being lost as waste. So, for every 10 grams of protein that a meat-eater consumes, he or she is putting about 9.5grams of it to use in his body for muscle repair and other functions. Whereas, that gassy bean-eater (me) is only getting about 7-8 grams for every 10 he or she eats!
In conclusion, I was very intrigued about the bio-availability situation but even that new knowledge will not persuade me into going back to eating meat. In fact, with all of the reports coming out about the environmental impacts of the meat and dairy industry and its carbon footprint on the planet (a totally non-related issue), I challenge everyone to eat vegan or vegetarian for at least one day a week or heck even just one meal a week! As for athletes that do consider or decide to go vegan, I say that is very doable. However, I encourage anyone that goes that route, athlete or not, to meet with a dietitian to ensure that proper nutrient planning is done. Remember: one of the most powerful creatures on earth, the gorilla, eats a vegan diet. If it’s good enough for that majestic beast, it is good enough for me!
Just some food for thought!