Plant based protein and exercise
Critics of veganism often target protein as a way of questioning its nutritional adequacy and this issue is often raised when it comes to exercise and sports performance. However, you only have to look at the many professional sports people including footballers Jermain Defoe and Dean Howell, professional cyclist Christina Vardaros, tennis pro Serena Williams and heavyweight boxer David Hayes to see the beneficial link between veganism and performance. So, how much protein do you need, where do you find it in a vegan diet and is it enough to support the needs of both amateur and professional athletes?
How much protein do you need?
The recommended daily protein requirements are 45g for women and 55g for men. This equates to around 0.75g of protein per kg of body weight and represents the amount required to maintain nitrogen balance in the body for the average adult. Less than this can lead to negative nitrogen balance indicating that muscle is being broken down and used for energy. It’s widely acknowledged that the demands of exercise require higher intakes of protein to promote muscle tissue growth and repair.
How does exercise impact on your protein requirements?
Protein requirements can vary significantly depending on the type of sport, body weight, exercise intensity/duration, age and whether weight loss or weight gain is the goal. If you’re regularly active in that you go to the gym, run or swim a few times each week then you may need more protein but this is unlikely to be hugely significant if the remainder of your time is spent sitting at your desk or driving to and from work. For very active people or athletes then the rule of thumb is 1.2g-1.4g of protein per kg of body weight for endurance sports and 1.2g-1.7g for strength and power sports. These figures are often dependent on the number of hours and intensity of training. Athletes who restrict their energy intake with the goal of minimising the loss of lean body mass should aim for protein intakes of between 1.6g and 2.4g per kg of body weight according to new guidance published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism (1).
Too much of a good thing?
Exercise creates micro tears in muscle tissue which are repaired by protein. In turn the repair of these tissues help the muscles to grow bigger and stronger. This association between protein and muscle repair/growth can be a little misleading with many people adopting a “more is better” approach. As far as muscle protein synthesis (building and repairing) is concerned, there’s only so much utilised by the muscles. This doesn’t mean excess protein goes to waste as there are many other bodily functions that require this nutrient. Focusing too much on any single nutrient isn’t great. Piling the protein to excess on your dinner plate may inevitably be at the detriment to other valuable nutrients gleaned from plant foods including vegetables and wholegrains. Try spreading your protein intake out across the day to help maximise muscle growth and repair rather than overdosing in any one single sitting.
When should you take in more protein after exercise?
This is usually of more interest in people whose goal is building muscle mass by way of resistance training or weightlifting. The traditional “anabolic window” is often said to be between 15 and 60 minutes after training. However, current research has suggested that consuming protein up to two hours after training is ideal for building muscle (2). For moderately active people who train a few times every week then the focus should be on consuming sufficient protein more than the timing of intake. In such cases there are many other areas of the diet to focus on such as eating a wide variety of foods to create a balanced diet. It’s protein quality as well as quantity that counts Protein quality is just as significant as quantity and not all vegan proteins supply a full spectrum of amino acids. On a vegan diet it’s important to include a wide range of different protein foods throughout the day to ensure you glean all the essential amino acids.
What foods are high in protein?
Just to be clear, there is absolutely no reason why vegans cannot get enough protein in their diet, but variety is key.
Sources of plant-proteins
How can you get more protein in your diet?
Including protein with every meal is a good strategy but if you need more as a result of your training regime then snacking between meals can help to boost your intake.
High protein snacks
What about protein powders?
Powders are a really simple way to boost the amount of protein in your diet. Veganoptions such as That Protein use brown rice protein, pumpkin protein and hemp protein as well as ingredients such as chia seeds and peanut butter to create a perfect blend. These can be made into shakes which are useful after working out or between meals and can be bulked out with other ingredients such as nut butters, raw cacao, avocado, plant-based yoghurt or bananas if you require more calories. The addition of fruits and vegetables such as spinach and berries can help to boost your antioxidant intake which may be important for those with a particularly gruelling training regime.
Protein is a key requirement for exercise recovery and the amount you need may increase with the intensity of your training. Including a variety of proteins with every meal and incorporating high protein snacks and shakes between meals will ensure you get everything your body requires to support your training needs
Rob is a registered nutritionist with over 14 years of experience working in both public health (NHS and charities) and alongside many of the UK’s leading health and wellness brands. Rob is the author of two best-selling books, ‘The Detox Kitchen Bible’ and ‘The Art of Sleeping’, and has written hundreds of articles featured in publications including the Daily Mail and Women’s Health as well as being a trusted voice on both radio and TV. Rob’s infectious, no-nonsense approach to health and passion for food has led him around the globe educating people on how to eat well and sleep better.