The question usually comes like this: “Where do you get your protein on a plant-based diet?” I usually come back with the question: “How much protein do you really think you need to be healthy?” Most people in the sports world come up with a formula that has been touted for over 50 years. As a competitive athlete almost all my life, I, too fell victim to this mythologic approach. My motto used to be: if one chicken breast was good, four would be better. When I was stationed on a Naval ship headed to the Persian Gulf for a 6 month deployment, I sustained my protein intake by eating 10 hard boiled egg whites every morning. Yes, feel sorry for my shipmates! Now, after being plant powered for almost two years, my strength gains are more pronounced, my muscle recovery is better than ever, and my endurance has never been at this level. Let’s dive into the protein question a little further.
What makes up a protein molecule?
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are 9 “essential” amino acids which means that they can’t be synthesized. Three of these are considered limiting because they are not very abundant in various foods. However, if one eats a variety of foods (plant based or not), they will get all of the amino acids they need to synthesize protein molecules. Remember that when we eat a food, the protein is then broken down to the smallest components (amino acids and nitrogen). The amino acids are then kept in an amino acid pool to be utilized as needed to make new protein molecules. The source of these amino acids is, therefore, a moot issue. As you can see, it doesn’t make sense for someone to claim that animal based protein sources are superior to plant based because the protein is “higher quality” as all the protein from whatever source ends up broken down to the respective amino acids. On the contrary, animal based protein comes with a ton of baggage that plant based protein does not – saturated fats, cholesterol and also potentially various drugs and/or hormones.
How much protein do we need in our diet?
Ok, so how much protein do we need to remain healthy? The World Health Organization recommends that humans consume 5% of their daily caloric intake as protein. Their recommendation was based on clinical research and provided a wide safety margin (the original paper stated 2.5%). If basic caloric needs are met, then it is virtually impossible to not reach these levels of protein intake from a diet of unrefined fruit, vegetables and starches. For people that are more active, the increased calories consumed easily account for the higher protein requirements.
High protein diets have been very popular recently and are touted for weight loss and improved athletic performance. But, did you know that a diet high in protein can actually cause deleterious health effects. Research has shown that excess protein intake actually leads to increased urinary calcium loss and fractures. On the contrary, a plant-based diet leads to prevention of osteoporosis by including an abundance of calcium rich foods such as leafy greens, legumes, beans, non-dairy milks, and some nuts and seeds. There is also significant data to support that animal protein cooked at high temperatures produce cancer promoting chemicals called heterocyclic amines. Especially prominent links are with colon and breast cancer. Finally, animal protein is inherently detrimental to the heart and blood vessels by the company it keeps. As previously mentioned, a diet high in animal protein will also be low in fiber and high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Artery stiffness is worsened by saturated fat, contributing to high blood pressure and potentially heart attack and stroke.
Finally, our moms were right when they pushed us to eat our vegetables for overall good health. But, will your workout suffer on a diet rich in fruits and vegetables? If you think that you are too much of an athlete to “survive” on a plant based diet, check out these superstars who not only survive but excel in their sport:
Rich Roll, ultra distance triathlete
Scott Jurek, ultra endurance runner
Mac Danzig, UFC champion, mixed martial arts
Ruth Heidrich, 6-time Ironwoman champion
Carl Lewis, 9-time Olympic gold medal winner in track and field
Bode Miller, one of the greatest American alpine skiers
Dave Scott, 6-time Ironman champion
Desmond Howard, Heisman Trophy winner and pro football player
Just to name a few.
I think they probably get enough protein, don’t you?
Resources: Plant-based, healthy, protein sources to include in your dietary choices: Black beans (15 grams/cup), Lentils (18grams/cup), Chickpeas (15 grams/cup), Peanut Butter (8 grams/2T), Quinoa (11 grams/cup), Broccoli (5 grams/cup), Spinach (5 grams/cup).