As a Vegetarian athlete the first question I always get asked is ‘how do I get enough protein in my diet?’ With more and more people turning to a more plant-based diet, I thought I’d look into this question in detail! People have all sorts of reasons for choosing this lifestyle ranging from health, moral & ethical, personal taste and religious practice.
Before looking into this further, it’s probably worth clarifying the different types of non-meat eaters at this point:
– Vegans: exclude all animal foods and by products (i.e. gelatine)
– Lacto ovo vegetarians: don’t eat red meat, poultry or fish, but do eat dairy and eggs
Of course you don’t have to fit a particular label and most people fall somewhere between these categories, it’s a personal choice! Even if you still eat meat or fish, consuming more protein from plant sources can still add variety and other nutrients to your diet.
There are lots of studies that suggest there are health benefits to being vegetarian including being found to have lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer to name just a few, though it is worth nothing that some of the health benefits may be due to a generally healthy lifestyle as vegetarians are also less likely to eat processed foods or smoke and are more likely to exercise more regularly.
What is Protein?
Protein is made up of 22 amino acids; these are the building blocks of the body. Protein has many functions, from building and repairing muscle tissue to being involved in repairing red blood cells, hormone regulation and much more!
There are two types of protein, animal protein and vegetable origin protein. Protein from animal origin is a complete protein, which means it contains the full spectrum of amino acids, whereas protein from plant sources are incomplete, containing some but not all of the amino acids. The main argument against plant based diets are that the protein is inferior or less bioavailable (less easily digested / available to the body) , however the key to healthy plant based diets is variety. By eating a variety of protein sources, you can ensure you are still getting all the full spectrum of amino acids.
How much protein do we need?
The recommended daily amount for a sedentary person is 0.8g per kg of bodyweight. There’s been loads of research into how much protein athletes and bodybuilders need and whilst there’s no conclusive recommendation, increasing to between 1.4-1.8g per kg bodyweight for athletes is widely recommended. Some bodybuilders and intensively-training strength athletes may increase to 2-3g per kg of bodyweight.
Once you have calculated your protein needs for your bodyweight, divide it by the number of meals you eat and you will see how easy it is to get your protein!
E.g. 65kg athlete on 1.4-1.8g protein per kg bodyweight per day = 91-117g per day or 5 meals at 18-23g per meal to hit target (see table below for rough protein grams per portion to work out your diet plan!)
How to get enough protein and all 22 amino acids
Being vegetarian or vegan is more than just taking away the animal products; you have to manage your nutrition to ensure you are getting enough protein and the full spectrum of amino acids. This is especially important for exercising individuals, as your body requires more nutrients for muscle tissue repair.
Vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs obviously have more choice including Eggs, quark, cottage cheese, greek yoghurt, milk, cheese. Vegetarians can also eat quorn products (mycoprotein) – although they are looking at launching a vegan range in the UK.
Sources of protein available to vegetarians and vegans include lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts & seeds, soy (tofu, soya milk) and textured vegetable protein (TVP). Other ways to increase the protein content and variety of amino acids in a meal are to include high protein grains like Quinoa and wild rice. Soya and Quinoa are actually complete proteins making them great choices! As long as you eat several types of protein during a day, you should get all the amino acids you require.
Supplementing with protein powder is an easy and convenient way to ensure you get enough protein, great after training or as a quick snack and there’s lots of choice!
For those who eat dairy, whey protein has a full complement of amino acids and is quickly digested so it’s a great choice for after training, but if you would prefer a non-dairy based protein, what’s available?
Pea Protein Isolate (PPI) vegetable based protein offering an excellent nutritional and amino acid profile. Made from the yellow pea and free of gluten, lactose, cholesterol. PPI is absorbed relatively slowly by the digestive system, providing you with a more sustained supply of amino acids, making it ideal throughout the day or at night.
Brown Rice Protein
Brown Rice Protein is the ideal protein choice for anyone looking to avoid dairy and soy. Sprouted whole grain brown rice is hypo-allergenic and dairy free so it’s great for vegans and anyone looking to avoid wheat, gluten, eggs, dairy and soy. Brown rice protein contains healthy fibre content.
Soy Protein Isolate is the ideal choice for vegetarians, vegans and those with special dietary requirements such as lactose intolerance. Soy Protein isolate is a complete protein source. It has a moderate rate of digestion. Soy Protein has an excellent amino acid profile.
Hemp Protein is an excellent source of protein containing Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), packed with live enzymes, Essential Fatty Acids (EFA), vitamins and minerals.
Hemp Seeds are rich in essential nutrients including chlorophyll, phytosterols, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Hemp is a pure digestible protein, providing readily available amino acids for building and repairing tissue.
Vegan Blend combines Pea Protein Isolate, Brown Rice Protein and Hemp Protein. These ingredients complement each other very well to deliver a premium quality, vegan protein powder with a full range of essential amino acids.
The table below offers some examples of protein content per portion size in common foods. (Please note this is a rough guide – remember to check the packets as brands differ)
Beans 1 cup
1 Quorn fillet/ burger
Lentils 1 cup
Tempeh 4 oz.
Soybeans 1 cup
TVP ½ cup
Green pea 1 cup
Firm / soft Tofu
7-12g / 4-6g
Split peas 1 cup
1 large egg
Chickpeas 1 cup
5 egg whites
Baked beans ½ cup
Whole milk/skimmed milk
2 tbsp. nut butter
Broccoli 1 cup
Cottage cheese ½ cup
2 tbsp. almond butter
Spinach 1 cup
Greek yoghurt pot
1 oz. almonds, nuts & seeds
Author: Julia Hubbard – Galaxy Universe Supreme Champ 2013, NPA British Champ 2013 BNBF British Champ 2012, 2nd DFAC World Champ 2012, World Masters 200m Champ