Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Vegan Protein Myths

Protein is one of the most discussed topics in health and fitness and has been for the two decades that I’ve called this industry my profession. It’s even worse when it is concerning protein for vegans and vegan athletes.

Personally I can’t stand talking about nutrition because I think people overthink it and are usually just looking for “experts” to justify what they think is the correct way to eat.

However after being vegan for nearly five years the whole protein thing rears its ugly head more often than I’d like. I decided to write this blog to put together some of the information that I’ve found beneficial regarding protein considerations for vegans and vegan athletes.

Photo credit: Seth Pajak
First of all, I am not a dietitian, I am not a nutrition science geek, I simply like food and love to eat it. As a result I turn to people far more knowledgeable than myself when I look for nutrition information. Some of the people I have really benefitted from are registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno, Dr. Michael Greger, and Dr. Garth Davis. I love the fact that these three focus on evidence based nutrition when they publish and share information and all do a very good job separating the science from the BS.

Advice from my friend Matt!

One great source of information that cleared up many of the protein myths for me was an article my friend Matt Ruscigno contributed to a book I published. The book, “Know Your Own Strength” was for my Plant-Based Performance project and all book sales go to benefit the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Forgotten Animals Rescue. His article was titled “But Where Do You Get Your Science? Addressing the Supposed Science Deficiency in Nutrition for Athletes” and is full of great information. 

Here are some of the key points I feel are pertinent to this blog:
  •          A complete protein is a food source that contains all nine essential amino acids.
  •          There are food sources that are complete proteins and there are many that are incomplete proteins.
  •          The idea of an incomplete protein is myth based in truth. It assumes we only rely on one food source for protein.
  •          Most people eat a wide variety of foods, most of which contain some protein, which makes it easy to consume all of the essential amino acids the human body needs.
  •          Combining foods is putting different foods together to form a complete protein. For instance rice and beans by themselves are not complete proteins, but when combined they form a complete protein food source.
  •          Combining foods is not necessary. Our bodies pool amino acids and use them as needed regardless of the perceived completeness of the source. Yes eating rice and beans together is great because it tastes awesome (especially with avocado and salsa) but if you eat your rice for lunch and beans for dinner you will get no less of a benefit.
Matt, Jason and I like to combine our Yves pepperoni, seitan bacon, mushrooms, black olives, and Daiya cheese to ensure a complete source of awesome on our pizza!
How much protein do we need?

This is a topic that blows my mind. I’ve heard as little as 50 grams a day, as much as 400 grams a day and everything in between. One thing I do know is generally higher protein recommendations are pushed heavily by protein supplement manufacturers. Here is the information that makes the most sense to me.

According to Dr. Garth Davis, the public CDC website lists average daily requirements of 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. He goes on to say that these numbers came from “nitrogen balance lab studies, epidemiologic studies, randomized clinical trials utilizing biochemical assessments, and animal studies.”

Just writing that out is making my head spin, but it is safe to say that these are the recommendations necessary to prevent protein deficiency, something most Americans are in danger of if you believe a lot of the crap many fitness experts blog about.

Sorry, but if you are eating enough calories to sustain your daily activity you are nowhere near being protein deficient. That being said these requirements are not optimal for athletes or even weekend warriors.

The government RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of lean body-weight. Most people don’t readily know their lean mass to fat mass ratio so often we are just told 0.8 grams per kilogram of body-weight. According to this, at 89kg, I need 71.2 grams of protein a day. I exceed this number easily eating fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds.

Is the RDA sufficient for athletes? Most say no, and I agree. However I think people need to seriously assess whether or not they are an athlete or even training near the same level as an athlete. The American College of Sports Medicine along with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has found 1.2g/kg to 1.7g/kg to be an optimal range for hard training endurance and strength athletes. More than the RDA but still much less than the often recommended 1-2 grams per pound of body-weight that you see in most fitness and bodybuilding publications.

I’ll use myself as an example just to examine the difference in these two approaches.
  •          89kg x 1.2 / 1.7 = 106.8 / 151.3 grams per kilogram of body-weight.
  •         196lbs x 1 / 2 = 196 / 392 grams per pound of body-weight.
I am not a big fan of tracking anything, I prefer to eat calories and not count them, but I decided to log my food for a few days to see if I was as protein deficient as everyone told me I’d be after I went vegan. On regular days I was getting between 90 and 110 grams of protein through whole plant based foods. On training days I use a protein supplement around my training session and I was getting 120-140 grams of protein on those days. This easily put me in the 106 – 151 grams per day range without much effort at all. Does it work? I’ve slowly raised my body-weight from 178lbs to 196lbs and am fairly lean. Granted you won’t see my on a bodybuilding stage, ever, but I have visible muscle definition and am far from being overweight.

A little side note, my friend Stic of the hip hop duo Dead Prez, put on 20lbs of mass in just under 3 months when he was training with me. He was eating a very healthy whole food plant based diet, no junk food, no supplements, pills or powders of any kind. As a skinny ectomorph he is proof that you can get all the protein you need through a healthy, whole food vegan diet. His nutrition and training is detailed in our book, "Eat Plants, Lift Iron".

What about the bulk of us who hit the gym hard, are not sedentary but far from being an athlete? I like Dr. Davis’ recommendation of shooting for 1 gram per kilogram of body-weight daily with a protein supplement after training.

Please note that for protein utilization and recovery purposes it is important to consume carbohydrates with the protein. Recommendations vary, but I’ve seen 2-4 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein being pretty standard. I’d recommend looking up the studies and work done by Dr. John Ivy if you’d like to learn more about nutrient timing as it pertains to training.

Simply put if you are normal and engage in light to moderate activity the RDA of 0.8 g/kg of body-weight is probably sufficient.

If you are the weekend warrior hard training type, Dr. Davis’ recommendation of 1g/kg of body-weight + a post workout protein and carbohydrate drink is probably a good recommendation.

If you are a strength or endurance athlete who is training at a very high level and putting a great deal of stress on your body the 1.2 to 1.7g/kg of body-weight recommendation is probably the way to go.

Don’t forget the more energy you expend the greater your total caloric needs will be and as caloric intake increases so will protein intake by default. If you’re not a big numbers person and don’t want to worry about all the minutia just make sure you’re eating enough calories from whole food sources to fuel your daily activity and needs and you will be fine.

Hopefully this article provided some useful information regarding protein needs for vegans and vegan athletes. If you would like to explore this topic more deeply I strongly suggest following the work of experts like Matt Ruscigno, Dr. Greger and Dr. Davis. They share a lot of information through their social media pages and their respective publications.

Stay Strong and Healthy!



Davis M.D., Garth. Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession with Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It. Harper Collins. New York, NY. 2015. pp 245-252.

Ruscigno RDH, Matt. Plant-Based Performance: Know Your Own Strength. Extreme Performance Training Systems. Duluth, GA. 2015. Pp 88-90.

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