By Ken Roberts, NDTR
Can an athlete really be plant-based? What does plant-based mean? Do I have to be vegetarian to eat plant based? Let's look at these burning questions, and spell out what it really means to be a plant-based athlete.
Plant-based eating does not mean you are strictly vegetarian or vegan, but rather focus on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Another way of looking at plant-based is putting your fruits and vegetables as the main part of your plate, and everything else comes secondary. This may go against what we were raised observing. That's ok.
Traditional American meal planning identifies the meat we want for our meal and how we want it prepared. Then we decide to add some vegetables, some grains, and then maybe some fruit. Now let's change that completely, and think of the vegetables we want first, and how we'll prepare them. What grains to choose to go with the dish, and then what protein source to choose. Yes, you heard it right. The protein source. It doesn't all have to come from meat. The first burning question for an athlete is how much protein do I need?
Protein for Athletes
Our body is an constant state of muscle protein turnover and muscle protein building. To ensure we do not lose muscle we want to consume adequate amounts of protein each day. The minimum recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (g/kg/BW). For example a 150 pound individual would divide their weight by 2.2 and convert their weight to 68.18kg. We would then multiple that amount by 0.8g to get 54.5 grams of protein to meet the RDA. However when the body is under stress as brought on by exercise it needs protein for growth and repair.
Endurance athletes should consume a range of 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg/BW. This range will depend on the frequency, intensity, type, and time or duration of the endurance training. Examples would be runners, cyclist, swimmers, and triathletes. Our example of the 150 pound athlete at 68.18 kg would then require a range of 82-95 grams of protein each day. On a light to moderate day of training they may require closer to 82 grams, and on harder days closer to the 95 gram range.
Individuals trying to improve their overall strength, size and power through resistance training should consumer 1.6 to 1.7 g/kg/BW. In some cases ranges up to 2.0 g/kg/BW may be required. The upper range is more for the athlete playing in intense team sports or weight lifting for sport. Though more than 2.0 grams per day may not be used efficiently in the body, and is not recommended.
Timing of Protein
Our bodies only digest and absorb a set amount of protein at a time. To ensure our body receives a steady flow of protein it is then important to distribute our total daily protein requirement into small portions ranging from 10-30g of protein. This smaller range ensures nothing is wasted, and our growth and repair is optimal in reoccurring waves throughout the day. Our 150 pound athlete consuming 82 grams of protein per day would then need to distribute their protein requirements throughout the day.
Let's take a look at the timing of the protein around our training first. Then rest can easily be distributed between the remaining meals and snacks of the day. If you are training at a light intensity, then no protein would be required after training. A moderate intensity session may require 0.1 g/kg to 0.2 g/kg, so our 150 pound athlete could eat a post workout snack containing 7 to 14 grams of protein. A heavy training session would also be 7 to 14 grams of protein after the session.
If a person is consuming their protein from meat they can multiple their ounces by 7 to determine the grams of protein. One ounce equals 7 grams of protein. For a pesco-tarian athlete who eats only fish, they might eat 3 ounces of shrimp and receive 21 grams of protein. Though when we think of plant sources of protein we are concerned with its bioavailability, or how much protein will I actually absorb from this?
Protein quality is measured by Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), which looks at the proteins digestibly and its essential amino acids (EAA) profile. For example an egg is considered excellent due to its high digestibility and contains all nine EAA. Non-meat foods that contain higher protein content with EAAs and high digestibility include legumes, nuts and seeds, grains, vegetables and fruits. Soy products, such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and soybeans all are excellent choices of protein.
What would your plate look like without meat, and still be balanced? At least half of it would be vegetables, preferable 2 kinds. A quarter would be whole grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, pasta, or whole grain bread. A quarter would be beans, lentils, or peas. Then serve a side of fortified soy milk or diary milk and some fruit. Of course you can also combine much of this into a single dish.
There are many famous athletes who practice vegetarianism or some form of plant-based eating. Examples include football player Ricky Williams, boxer Mike Tyson, tennis player Venus Williams, and Chicago Bears football player David Carter. In fact many mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters are shifting to plant-based diets with great improvements in their health, performance, and endurance.
It is entirely possible to be a plant-based athlete at any level of competition. Give it a try for few weeks, save some money on your grocery bills and see how you feel physical and financially. Nobody is asking you for conversation in lifestyle, at the very least you save some money for a few weeks and learn some new meal options.
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Skolnik, H. and Chernus, A. (2010). Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL.