Nutrition Consultant Elissa answers your questions on sourcing different forms of protein.
For anyone training with resistance or conducting long, intense training sessions – protein is not only essential but it can mean all the difference to things like your body composition, recovery and strength.
Protein intake for everyone who trains and trains hard can never be understated.
Sadly, though, information about protein consumption, particularly for meat-free and plant based trainees is terribly misinformed and confusing.
Nutritional sports science has essentially reached a consensus that those with a high volume, intensity and frequency of training need more protein than sedentary individuals, and the RDI of 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight is grossly inadequate for active populations.
It is estimated that we need around double the recommended RDI and anywhere up to 2.2g per kg of bodyweight, particularly when we’re in a fat loss phase and seeking to optimise our muscle mass retention in a calorie deficit. Under-eating combined with a low protein content will induce a loss of lean mass, the very same mass that helps you to run faster, lift heavier and perform vital functions for your quality of life and metabolic function.
So if you’re vegan, how do you know that you’re getting enough protein?
What about the quality of the protein you’re getting?
I’m happy to say that vegans CAN get up to 2.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight if they need to from plant based foods alone.
Protein sources from vegetable and plant matter are inferior to proteins from meat products when it comes to changing your body composition, maximizing muscle protein synthesis and getting high quality amino acids for recovery and repair.
All meat products contain essential amino acids (in particular, leucine, which is required to be present within the plasma of our blood for muscle protein synthesis to occur) whereas plant based proteins may be missing some key amino acids which means that we both a) need more of them to fully stimulate muscle or b) we need to combine them to ensure that essential amino acids are present within a meal.
Infographics like this are terribly misleading, because most of these so called “protein sources” pictured are inferior, most of them are not complete proteins and the amount of fats and or carbs they provide with their insufficient amino profile makes them truly TERRIBLE sources of protein.
At least 20g of a complete protein source will promote muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is the process by which the body becomes anabolic and muscle protein accumulation is higher than the level of breakdown. However 20g is not the optimal dose if using a plant based protein because the amino acids which make up the total protein load MUST be essential amino acids, of which leucine will drive the anabolic process.
If you only eat plant based proteins you need to eat more protein to increase the total essential amino acid profile and enable the leucine content to stimulate MPS. Therefore, adding supplemental EAAs (essential amino acids) would be advantageous to vegan dieters.
Protein should be spread out evenly throughout each meal in order to maximise muscle protein synthesis and to prevent a loss of muscle tissue, particularly when dieting. So keeping in mind your protein intake needs to be slightly higher again than if you were to eat an animal based protein source, here’s hoow much you’d need to eat to get 25g of protein:
Peanut butter: 6 tablespoons, also yielding 700 calories and 60g of fat
Almonds: 130g, also yielding 770 calories and 70g worth of fat
Potatoes: you’d only need to eat 3/4 of a kg of cooked potato! Plus 130g of carbs with it…
Spinach: just 30 cups of fresh spinach leaves will get you enough protein, bam!
Oats: Just 1/4 of a kilo of raw oats! Plus an extra 140g carbs
Blackberries: 11 cups of blackberries gets you 24g of protein. (And over 130g of sugar!)
If you were to eat 6 meals a day, for arguments sake – getting your 160g of protein from these plant based sources would be a full time job and it would only take 4,000 calories, 165g of fat and 430g of carbs!
Some protein sources on this list aren’t actually too bad, and they do FAR BETTER for your goals namely tofu (220g gets you 26g of a whole protein source with only 15g fat), 2 cups of cooked lentils or beans and believe it or not, but things like broccoli yield about 15g per 2 cooked cups. PRANA ON do an INCREDIBLE plant based protein powder which is actually delicious and not chalky AT ALL and contains 30g of complete protein per serve.
Much better than eating 30 cups of spinach in your smoothie, wouldn’t you say!?
If you base your choices on those I’ve suggested above, and use them as the foundations of your meals whilst also mixing them with small amounts of other sources (such a those in this picture), you can get your total protein intake up MUCH higher without having to eat from morning until night. Supplementing with a vegan protein and an EAA would go even further towards optimising your recovery, health and muscle mass.
You CAN get the benefits of protein using plant foods, just do it smarter. Don’t get your nutrition advice from anyone who tells you that blackberries or peanut butter is a good protein source.