Updated: Oct 20, 2021
In Vegan & vegetarian friends! You are healthier than most of us, and your self-discipline and dedication are inspiring. Your choices are benefitting the planet and help to create a more just and humane world for our furry friends.
But vegetarians and vegans need protein, too. If not done properly, embracing a vegan or vegetarian diet could lead to a lack of essential amino acids the body needs to perform important functions. (Click here to read more about amino acids). Vegetarians (and especially lacto-ovo vegetarians) have a much easier time than vegans at attaining enough protein in the diet. Because of this, I'll focus primarily on vegan intake of proteins and essential amino acids.
There are a few key nutrition considerations to keep in mind when consuming a vegan diet.
A "complete protein" means that the protein source has all 9 essential amino acids; an "incomplete protein" means that the protein source does not have all 9 essential acids. All animal products (including milk and yogurt) are complete proteins. Most plant products, including nuts, are incomplete proteins.
Key word is "most." There are a few plant-based complete proteins. It is essential that vegans consume one or two of the following on a daily basis: soy, quinoa, chia seeds, buckwheat, hemp, and flax seeds. Some studies have shown that it is possible to combine two incomplete protein sources to form a meal of complete proteins. An example includes beans and rice.
This bring us to the million-dollar question: Is it possible to be a vegan athlete? The answer is yes, but it is not easy. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends athletes consume 1.2 to 2.0g/kg/day of protein. In other words, a 130-lb woman (59kg) would need to consume 71g to 118g of complete proteins (with all essential amino acids) each day. That is a difficult number to achieve on a vegan diet, but not impossible -- through careful planning, it can be achieved.
Here's a tip: Because soy is a complete protein, soy isolate powder that can be added to smoothies and consumed post-workout is a good idea for vegan athletes. Soy isolates are highly digestible. Soy concentrate contains 70% protein while soy isolate contains 90% protein.
According to the American Council on Exercise, vegan and vegetarian athletes should consume about 10% more grams of protein than the recommendations for non-vegetarian athletes. In other words, if an athlete consumes 3,000 calories a day with 20% from protein, approximately 600 calories are from protein. A vegan or vegetarian should consume about 60 extra protein calories for a total of 660 calories from protein.
Keep reading about protein in Protein 411!