We’ve all heard it before, you’re struggling to reach your protein goal for the day? Whack some Quorn or tofu in there and you’ll be sound. Whilst approaches like this are common, they aren’t always the best option. This article looks into protein source options for vegetarian and vegan strength athletes and how to best optimize protein sources for performance and meeting macronutrient goals.
Although there’s limited availability of well-controlled long-term studies assessing the effects of vegetarian and vegan diets on athletes, Barr et al., 2004 summarise three widely accepted points regarding vegetarian and vegan diets for athlete performance.
Well-planned, appropriately supplemented vegetarian diets can effectively support athletic performance;
Provided protein intakes are great enough to meet an athlete's needs for total nitrogen and the essential amino acids, plant and animal protein sources can provide equivalent support to athletic training and performance;
Broadly, vegetarians and vegans have lower mean muscle creatine concentrations than omnivores, and this may affect supramaximal exercise performance. Due to their initial muscle creatine concentrations being lower, vegetarians and vegans are likely to experience greater performance benefits through creatine supplementation in activities that rely on the adenosine triphosphate/phosphocreatine system (Kaviani et al., 2020). i.e. strength sports like powerlifting.
WHAT IS A ‘COMPLETE PROTEIN’
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids that can form a protein and nine that your body can’t produce on its own. These nine are called essential amino acids — we need to eat them because we can’t make them ourselves. To be considered “complete,” a protein needs to contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. If a food is not a complete protein we can look to combine food sources that give us that full amino acid profile we look for in a source of protein.
WHAT ARE SOME COMPLETE PROTEIN OPTIONS?
If you’re choosing to opt for a complete protein each meal to optimise muscle protein synthesis and recovery as an athlete there are a few options to choose from as a vegan or vegetarian. We’ve listed below some of the options and their pros and cons.
A complete vegan protein and convenient substitute for rice, quinoa has approximately 13g protein per 100g dry weight. It’s worth noting that alongside these 13g protein per 100g, there’s appx. 69g carbs and 6g fat. So whilst quinoa is a fantastic source of protein, you’ll likely want to look at pairing it with another source unless you’re looking to eat 150g+ carbs and 13g+ fat in your meal to reach anywhere near a target of 30g protein per meal.
Another complete protein, soy is often a go-to for vegans and vegetarians with products like tofu, tempeh, natto, and edamame beans sourced from it. Top tip: if protein is the goal, the firmer a tofu, the higher the protein content.
A meat substitute grown from a natural fungus, mycoprotein is made from fermenting the fungus and sold as Quorn products. Quorn products are usually bound together with egg whites or milk so aren’t always vegan but they do have vegan options in their ranges with varying proteins, fats, and carbs per serving. For reference, per 100g their vegetarian mince has 14.5g protein, 2g fat, and 4.5g carbs.
Mixed source vegan protein powders
Mixed protein source vegan powders are a quick and easy way to replicate the convenience of a whey shake whilst having a complete protein source and in some cases minimal additional fats or carbs. They can be various combinations such as pea, pumpkin, hemp, sunflower protein, etc.
Eggs and dairy
This one is for the vegetarians that may choose to eat eggs or dairy. Both offer complete amino acid profiles and are complete sources of protein. On average, one large egg is 7g protein and 5g fat, with approximately 4g of this protein coming from the whites. The nutritional value of dairy products varies largely with the type of product and so things like 0% fat Greek yoghurt can provide as high as 12g complete protein per 100g and minimal fats and proteins alongside this.
I’M STRUGGLING TO HIT MY PROTEIN GOAL
So here’s a scenario: you have a daily macro goal for your protein intake and are struggling to achieve it. Either you can’t get it all in appetite wise or you’re struggling to hit your protein goal number whilst also achieving macro goals for fats and proteins or your overall calorie goal.
In situations like this, it’s worth planning your days out and looking at what foods you’re using as your main sources of proteins, carbs, and fats. The nature of some vegetarian and vegan protein sources means that they’ll also be main sources of fats or carbs so you’ll need to take that into account when picking your protein sources throughout the day. Take tofu for example, on average for 100g you’d be looking at 13g protein and 7g fat. If Tofu is your primary protein source in this meal and you’re aiming for 30g protein you’ll also have 16g fat alongside that. Whilst this is okay for one meal, it can easily bump your total fat intake right up and possibly over your fats goal. This is where planning your day ahead comes in handy, planning in other meals from other protein sources like cottage cheese for vegetarians or mixed plant source vegan protein powders.
Barr, S.I. and Rideout, C.A., 2004. Nutritional considerations for vegetarian athletes. Nutrition, 20(7-8), pp.696-703.
Kaviani, M., Shaw, K. and Chilibeck, P.D., 2020. Benefits of Creatine Supplementation for Vegetarians Compared to Omnivorous Athletes: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(9), p.3041.