If you’re an athlete wondering how you can transition to a whole food, plant-based diet but you worry that giving up animal proteins might negatively impact your performance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Endurance athletes, strength athletes, runners, cyclists, fighters and more are achieving peak performance on a whole food, plant-based diet.
As Vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke says, “Whether we’re referring to running, swimming, football or bodybuilding, all athletes and non-athletes alike, can benefit from a plant-based, whole food vegan diet/lifestyle.”
Cheeke says, no matter what sport you’re involved in and no matter the level of performance you’re shooting for, you get the best nutrition and plenty of protein from a whole food, plant-based diet.
Still not convinced? Check out this list of high-performing athletes who all eat a plant-based diet:
- Rip Esselstyn, former plant-based triathlete-turned-fireman created the Engine 2 Diet and Engine 2 Challenge to help athletes (and anyone else) transition to a “plant-strong” lifestyle.
- Plant-powered ultra-runner Scott Jurek has won some of the most punishing and prestigious races in the U.S., including the Badwater 135-Mile Ultramarathon, the Miwok 100K and The Western States ® 100-Mile Endurance Run, in which he set a record seven times straight. In 2010, he set a new record for the 24-Hour Run with 165.7 miles in one day. (That’s about six-and-a-half marathons!) USA Today named him athlete of the week and he’s been named one of the top runners of the decade by The Washington Times.
- Rich Roll is a 47-year-old vegan ultra-endurance athlete who did the impossible: he completed the Epic 5 Challenge which is five Ironman-distance triathlons on five Hawaiian Islands in less than one week!
- Former Pro Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier is famous for his vegan lifestyle, his performance as an endurance athlete and The Thrive Diet.
So How Can You Ensure Peak Performance While on a Plant-Based Diet?
The key to performance is to make sure that you eat enough calories with plenty of protein and carbohydrates to keep performing at peak levels. This is entirely possible—and in some ways easier—with a plant-based diet.
If you want to be precise about how much protein you need to support your athletic lifestyle on a plant-based diet, you can do some simple calculations to ensure you’re meeting your body’s needs.
1. Gram per Kilogram Method: This is a simple two-step method for calculating basic individual daily protein needs for most people.
- Step 1: Divide your current weight by 2.2 to calculate your weight in kilograms.
- Step 2: Multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8.
The result is the number of grams of protein you need each day.
For competitive athletes or for people who engage in intense workout routines, you can multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.2 to up to 1.5.
According to The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, endurance athletes need between 1.0 and 1.6 g/kg of protein while strength athletes need between 1.6 and 2.0 g/kg, compared with the 0.8 g/kg for non-athletes. They further recommend that this protein come primarily from whole foods.
Using the upper limit recommended by the ISSN, a 150-pound endurance athlete needs therefore a daily protein intake of 109 grams. [(150 lbs. ÷ 2.2) × 1.6 g/kg = 109 grams] Using the safest markup and the average recommendation by the ISSN a 200-pound strength athlete needs 163 grams of protein per day . [(200 lbs. ÷ 2.2) × 1.8 g/kg = 163 grams]
A few studies show that 1.8g/kg of protein per day is more than enough to preserve and build muscle. In fact, there seems to be no advantage to consuming more than 1.4g/kg daily – even to support intense physical activity like endurance sports.
2. The Percentage of Kilocalorie Method: Here’s another easy, two-step method for calculating your protein intake by percentage:
- Step 1: Multiply the total calories you eat each day by 0.13 (range between 0.12 and 0.15).
- Step 2: Divide that number by 4.
The result is the number of grams of protein you need each day.
A study published in Nutrition showed that even athletes in strength sports need the same percentage of calories from protein as non-athletes – approximately 12-15% of daily calories. The only adjustment athletes need to make is total calorie intake based on physical activity.
Using the same examples as above, and following estimates of calorie expenditure by the Swiss Society of Nutrition, the calorie requirements for the 150-pound endurance athlete and the 200-pound strength athlete (working out 4 hours per day) will be 3600 kcal and 4800 kcal, respectively. They both need to get an average of 13% of their calories from protein, which will subsequently correspond to ~120 g [(3600 kcal × 0.13) ÷ 4 = 117 grams] and ~160 g of protein per day [(4800 kcal × 0.13) ÷ 4 = 156 grams]. They need the exact same percentage because even though the 200-pound athlete needs more grams of protein, he also needs to take in more calories.
Since athletes and workout enthusiasts naturally eat more calories per day, the higher protein requirement will be easily met by the higher caloric intake – as long as they follow a whole food, plant-based diet.
And Remember That the More You Train, the Less Protein You Really Need
As you work out and build strength and muscle, your body becomes more efficient at preventing the breakdown of protein that results from heavy training. You need less protein because at each session, you’re building increasingly smaller amounts of muscle.
So What’s the Best Way to Make Sure You ‘Get Enough’ on a Plant-Based Diet?
For starters, make sure to always keep a few “staples” in your whole food diet. That way you won’t have to worry about constantly calculating the amount of protein and carbohydrates you eat every day.
Here are some examples of how you can get great doses of workout fuel complete with protein, fat and calorie counts:
- Rip’s Big Bowl contains 724.3 calories, 11.1% protein and 25.2% fat. Add 1 cup of almond milk and you’ll get 754.3 calories, 11.2% protein, and 27.2% fat.
- Tofu Chilaquiles give you a LOT more than the required 12-15% protein with 279 calories, 26.7% protein and 19% fat. Remove the tofu, for a delicious Black Bean, Corn and Salsa Salad that you can eat hot or cold, for breakfast or lunch and the nutritional values are even better: 179 calories, 19.3% protein and 5.4% fat.
- Sprouted Grain Hummus* Wrap has 364 calories, 18.5% protein and 15.3% fat, but make it into an Open-Faced Sprouted Grain Hummus* Sandwich and you’ll lower both fat and calories while boosting protein: 293 calories, 20.2% protein, 9.7% fat. Just one ingredient can make a huge difference, in this case swapping the tortilla for just one slice of sprouted grain bread.
* Engine 2’s Amazing Low Fat Hummus-You Won’t Miss the Tahini
- Quinoa Power Salad has only 80.2 calories but contains 16.9% protein and 11.3% fat.
- Black Bean Chili is tops for getting all the protein you need with low fat content. This one has only 202 calories but contains 24.2% protein and only 3.8% fat! (Whenever you’re looking for lots of protein without fat, go for the beans!)
- Burrito with Spanish Rice and Black Beans is a high protein lunch you can eat on-the-go. It contains 317 calories 15.2% protein and 13.3% fat.
- John & Mary McDougall’s Vegetable Paella contains 189 calories, 15.5% protein, and is only 5.4% fat. This is more than the upper limit for protein in a RICE dish, which most people think is nothing but carbohydrates. At only 5% fat, you can’t beat it!
- Chef AJ’s Disappearing Lasagna is another dish you’d think is nothing but carbs, but it has 790 calories, 14.5% protein and 23.5% fat. Almost 15% of your protein in a lasagna, which proves you get plenty of protein from everything you eat!
- Plant-Powered Kitchen Hummus* Tortilla Pizza is a high-protein pizza without any meat or cheeses with 463 calories, 19% protein and 14.1% fat.
- Jeff Novick’s Black Bean Burger Patty without bread or wrap contains 128 calories, 17.2% protein and 5.25% fat.
And so What About Oils and Fats When It Comes to Athletic Performance?
Not all athletes agree that oils should be eliminated from their diets. But as we pointed out in an earlier post, “The Good, Bad and Ugly About Oils“, oils are stripped, empty fat calories.
In addition to the reasons we discussed in that post, oil will markedly affect the percentage of protein in your diet! Oils and fats have about 9 calories per gram while carbohydrates and proteins have only 4 calories per gram. When you add oil, you increase the total calories without adding any nutrients, which, in effect, dilutes the amount of protein you get as a percentage of your caloric intake.
Here’s what happens when you add oils or high fat ingredients to just one of the dishes above, the Quinoa Power Salad, which has 16.9% protein and 11.3% fat (and 80.2 calories.)
- Add 1 tablespoon of oil-based dressing and you cut your protein to 7.8%, increase the fat to 57.7% and the calorie count jumps to 173.
- Add 1 tablespoon of tahini dressing and you’ll get the 13% protein you need, but you more than double the fat (25.4%) and calories (160).
- Add 1/4 of an avocado and the protein drops to 10.9% while fat content goes up to 47.8%.
- Add 1/8 of a cup almonds with that avocado and you’ll get a little more protein (12.2%) but also a lot more fat (57.2%).
- Combine the almonds and avocado with some tofu and you’ll bring the percentage of protein up to 19.2% and the amount of fat drops, but at 51.8%, it’s still too high.
- Add 1/4 of an avocado, 1/8 of a cup of almonds, tofu and 1 tablespoon of oil-based dressing and the Quinoa Power Salad contains 61.8% FAT with only 15% protein.
- Substitute the oil-based dressing for tahini dressing and the news is a little better with 17.6% protein, but the dish that was once a little over 11% fat is now 51.1% fat.
Therefore, these calculations show us clearly that every time we add high fat whole foods (nuts, avocado) or in particular oils, the amount of protein in the meal decreases and the amount of fat increases substantially! And our high protein, low calorie salad suddenly becomes a BAD source of protein. Get rid of ALL oils and be mindful about high fat whole food ingredients to get the most from your high protein dishes.
Eating a wide variety of whole, plant-based foods gives you all the protein plus all the fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients you need.