Can I get enough protein as a plant based athlete?

Plant based Athletes & Protein


So first there was the rise of being vegan, which has moved more towards plant based eating.

In fact, the move to including plant based eating at some meals has been shown to have many health and environmental or sustainability advantages. Certainly including beans, pules, soya and grain sources of protein such as quinoa and rice is a great way to introduce some variety into the training diet.

There have not been many studies to date on the effects of following a plant based diet on performance but the current evidence does not state a negative or positive effect on performance. 


Often we see low protein intakes when athletes are stripping back their diets whilst trying to make weight, in aesthetic sports or decreasing energy intake at the cost of meeting energy needs.

A stark protein deficiency sees a compromised immune function and ultimately a loss of muscle mass as the body uses it as a source of energy to meets the demands of training. Totally the opposite of what an athlete is ultimately trying to achieve surely?! 

We often see in athletes who have adopted a more plant based diet often fall short on matching protein needs; with lower quality proteins containing less of the essential amino acids or building blocks of protein.

As I always stress to athletes it is totally possible to meet the protein needs of training, recovery, repair and remodelling it takes quite a bit of planning to make sure that the essential amino acids needs are met such as leucine….

Why Leucine is important for athletes

Leucine is important as it stimulates the key signalling protein which in turn switches on muscle protein synthesis. 

For example, whey contains 10g Leucine per 100g vs 5.9g leucine in soy. To give a more specific example of how it can be more difficult to meet the needs of leucine in a plant based diet; take 25g whey protein (that is a typical scoop from a protein powder!)  containing 3g leucine versus needing 600g tofu to get just 3g leucine. 


Digestability and volumes

The concept of the protein digestibility amino acid score is also interesting; where the protein in foods are compared to determine the quality post digestion.

So for a score of 1.00 means that the protein after digestion provides 100% or more of the essential amino acids required.

To put this into some context; white fish and milk score 1.00 versus bread and rice at 0.6 and 0.47 per 25g protein (that’s a lot of bread, by the way, 8 slices and 350g rice!!).

Soybeans score high at 0.9 along with chickpeas; again thats 145g soy beans and 280g chickpeas for 25g protein!

Meeting energy needs as a plant based athlete



This gives us some really good insight into why athletes following a more plant based diet may struggle more to meet energy and total protein needs as protein foods that are also high in fibre such as pulses and soy also are more satiating and therefore often limits the amount consumed.

Also looking at the amount of a serve required to meet protein needs the portion is often larger than an athlete can consume. Imagine trying to consume 600g tofu after a training session just to meet 3g leucine requirements for muscle protein synthesis?!

Per 100g pumpkin seeds have the highest source of protein at 30g per 100g (that’s a lot of seeds!) with lentils closely behind this with quinoa provident just 14g per 100g. If looking for a protein powder to use on a plant based diet; it is prudent to look for one with at least 3g leucine per serve and with 20-25g total protein. To match the leucine content we often see a combination of proteins such as pea, pumpkin seed and soy or hemp. 

With an interest in plant sources of protein, we have seen more research into the area and also into how we may be able to combine different protein to achieve the 3g leucine in particular.

Athletes, therefore, need to consume a range of seeds, legumes, nuts and pulses to meet both the essential and branched-chain amino acids. With that comes with quite a bit of planning l although not impossible!





Plant based athletes may need MORE protein…

It has been suggested that plant based athletes may require higher protein intakes to account for the lower digestibility of plant based proteins; ISSN guidelines suggest that for plant based athletes reaching the higher end of protein recommendation at 2.0g/kg/BW per day and during weight loss this may even be up to 2.7g/ kg/BW due to the low digestibility and low biological values (Phillips et al 2011, Helms et al 2014).

NB If you consider taking any supplementation to achieve needs- also check to make sure it has been tested, required. If you struggle with your plant based diet of feel that you want to optimise it for performance and recovery get in touch

In Summary

When there is a good amount of nutritional awareness and planning around a plant based diet- it can be a balanced way to eat and athletes can get all the nutrients they need to thrive. However, be careful that if you are following plant based eating, you may need to eat higher volumes of foodstuffs to achieve sufficient protein and energy requirements and it would be a good idea to get qualified adive to support you in the diet change.


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