“But how do you get enough protein?” Anyone who has eaten a plant-based diet for more than a few days has been prodded with this question, and for veteran plant-based eaters, the query becomes a bit of a tired joke. After 24 years of eating only plants, I typically respond “the same way you do — by eating it.”
In truth, it’s not quite that simple. Regardless of your dietary choices and allergy restrictions, knowing how much protein, fat, and carbohydrates to ingest can be as complicated as any other element of physical health.
We wanted to find out more, so we buzzed macronutrient nutrition coach Keri Hatley from Shred Science Nutrition about how vegetarian and vegan mountain bikers can maximize their meals for performance and overall health.
While Chatting with Hatley, I realized that I and many of my meat and vegetable eating friends have been targeting roughly half of the daily protein intake that we actually need. Find out what else she had to share on the topic of plant-based nutrition below.
The generic recommendation for daily protein consumption is 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. How accurate do you feel that is for most amateur athletes?
That’s VERY low. I’d double that — 2g per kilogram of body weight.
What percentage of the athletes that you work with eat a plant-based diet?
Hmmm, probably 40%. We coach primarily cyclists, so we get a lot of vegan and vegetarian athletes.
When vegan or vegetarian clients come to you are they concerned about getting enough protein, or more generally looking for nutrition coaching?
Most people’s primary concern is weight loss and protein is RARELY mentioned as a concern. I think most vegan/vegetarian athletes are under the impression they get plenty of protein and shouldn’t worry about it.
What are some general misconceptions about plant-based diets?
Most of my vegan and vegetarian athletes think they are eating a balanced diet, but don’t get deep enough into it to understand how much carb, protein, and fat they are consuming. In reality, plant-based diets are very high carbohydrate diets. It takes a lot of intention and focus to strategically eat enough plant foods that are also high in protein in order to get adequate protein from a plant-based diet. It can definitely be done, but it takes a lot of thought and planning.
What are some of the best whole food sources for plant-based proteins?
That depends on where you draw the line at “whole foods” and whether you consider tempeh, tofu, and seitan “whole foods” as they are all slightly processed. Tempeh is a fermented soybean product and tofu is processed soybean curd. Tempeh and tofu are easy to prepare and high in protein while relatively low in carbs. Let’s look at the macros: four ounces of tofu has 12 grams of protein with only four grams of carbohydrates, while four ounces of tempeh has 15.4g protein with only 7.8g of carbohydrates. The bonus is that you can turn them into almost anything (tofu scramble, anyone?) and they take on any flavors they are paired with. Seitan is the most processed of the three (it is a processed wheat protein) but it has a huge amount of protein. Four ounces has a whopping 31.5 grams of protein with only 7.5g grams of carbohydrate.
If you’re looking for single-ingredient whole foods, legumes and grains are great sources, but they are higher in carbohydrates. This is the catch-22 of plant-based eating: there are LOTS of highish protein, single-ingredient, whole food sources… but most are also very high in carbohydrates. Thus, to get adequate protein, you are also eating a lot of carbs.
A high carb diet won’t negatively affect weight or body composition if you are getting enough activity; thus, for very active athletes, a whole food plant-based diet is doable! These very active athletes will still need to be a bit strategic in which plant foods they choose — basically, try to eat foods that give you carbs AND protein. So, instead of reaching for four ounces of sweet potato (22.7 grams of carbs with only 1.8 grams of protein), having four ounces of chickpeas (17g carb with 5g protein) will get you a lot more protein. That said, as you can see, it’s still not a lot of protein.
For less active individuals, you won’t get adequate protein from single-ingredient whole foods without getting way too many carbs. Remember that carbs are human gasoline. If you aren’t very active, you just don’t need a lot of gasoline. This means that less active plant-based eaters need to really watch their carbs to keep them low. Less active people must lean heavily on processed soy products and/or plant-based protein powders to ensure that they get adequate protein. Note: vegetarians have many more options [than vegans] because dairy and eggs are fantastic protein sources.
- Plant-based diets are, by definition, high-carb diets.
- Single-ingredient whole food sources of protein can provide adequate protein, but will also result in a high carbohydrate intake. This is not a problem for very active people, but strategically choosing high protein plant foods is still essential.
- Less active people need to supplement their diets with tofu, tempeh, or seitan and/or utilize plant protein powders to get adequate protein intake.
Do you have any plant-based protein supplements or powders to recommend?
ShredScience Coach Marc Langlois, who himself is a vegan athlete, loves anything made by Vega. His favorites are:
- Coffee: This one is great for the morning for an extra kick.
- Sport: This is my go-to because of the BCAAs.
- Budget: These are all pretty good, and you can even get plain, but lots of servings for cheaper than most.
I like Garden of Life protein powders. Just read the labels to get one that is relatively low in carbs and fat while remaining very high in protein. They are made with high-quality ingredients and even contain prebiotics and probiotics. For a budget plant protein powder, try the Orgain brand.
Do athletes need to consume different amounts of protein after cardio vs. strength workouts?
My athletes that are primarily cyclists but also strength train, and eat the same quantity of protein every day, regardless of the daily workout. However, my strength athletes (powerlifters, crossfitters, etc.) eat much more protein than my cyclists do. Thus, the daily amount doesn’t vary by the workout, but your overall daily protein target will be different depending on if you are an endurance athlete or a strength athlete.
Are there specific things that plant-based athletes can do before big events to better prepare themselves?
Yes! Long-term: Most plant-based athletes eat very high carb and very low protein. Plant-based athletes should immediately work to lower their carbohydrate intake while simultaneously increasing their protein intake. This will make their body more resilient to training, stress, and injury, help them maximize fitness and strength gains, and optimize their recovery — all things that will make them better-performing competitors at their next big event. These changes take time, so start now.
Short-term: eat a normal-sized meal consisting of a good mix of protein and carbohydrate 2-3 hours before competition. Too many people line up with only carbs in their belly.
What are some of the whole foods that help our bodies utilize proteins, and what order is it best to eat them in?
The most absorbable protein sources are whole food animal sources that have complete amino acid profiles. Eating a wide variety of plant-based sources (legumes, nuts, seeds, veggies, etc.) will result in combinations of plant foods that, together, will have complete amino acid profiles. People get kind of in the weeds with this stuff but I typically don’t go down this rabbit hole with clients because it distracts from the larger, more important goal of just selecting plant foods with higher protein and lower carbs. As long as athletes are eating a wide variety of plant foods, they should be fine.
Conversely, what are some foods that prohibit protein absorption and utilization?
Oh, lots of plant foods are high in anti-nutrients that limit absorption of protein. But, I’m not really an expert here.
Can an athlete eat too much protein? If so, what happens?
Yes, you can have too much of a good thing! Lots of “healthy” things, when taken in excess, result in disfunction (look at overtraining). It can definitely cause an upset stomach. Unless you are really overeating tofu or slamming several plant protein shakes a day, it’s unlikely a plant-based athlete will overdo it. Track your macros and stick to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and you should be good!
Let’s take me as an example. I weigh 69 kilos (150lbs), am 38 years old, eat a diet (vegetarian outside the house), I’m training for amateur enduro races and general fitness. Outside of quarantine, I ride 6-7 days a week and do strength workouts 5 days a week. As a rough estimate, how much protein should I consume on a daily basis?
138g per day. Oh, and go hard on the dairy and eggs when you are out.
We would like to thank Keri for sharing this valuable information with us. For more info, visit Shredsciencenutrition.com, and check out our recent podcast interview with Keri where we discuss nutrition more broadly.
Do you have any nutrition questions that you would like us to research? Please share them below.