Fuel for the Plant Based Athlete

whey protein alternatives for the plant-based athlete

Find Out How to Gain the Competitive Edge and Get All the Protein You Need From Plants

Protein is required to maintain health and optimize sport performance, but how much do athletes need? As it turns out, the answer to this question is a bit complex.

WHY CHOOSE PLANT-BASED PROTEINS OVER ANIMAL-BASED SOURCES?

The benefits of plant-based diets have been thoroughly researched from improved immunity to enhanced cardiovascular health and much more. Despite the known health benefits, some people still question if they can get enough protein on a plant-based diet. Luckily, there are a multitude of plant-based protein sources including edamame, tempeh, tofu, lentils, seitan, beans, nuts and nut butters, seeds and nutritional yeast making it easy to obtain the recommended amount of protein. Choosing plant-based protein over animal-based protein has numerous benefits. Plant-based protein has been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced LDL and improved insulin sensitivity and substituting plant for animal proteins has been associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Furthermore, there are several downsides of consuming animal-based proteins. Our bodies produce higher levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) when we eat proteins with higher proportions of essential amino acids (like in animal proteins). This hormone can stimulate cell division and growth in both healthy and cancerous cells. Higher amounts of IGF-1 has been associated with increased cancer risk, proliferation and malignancy. Also, eating animal protein leads to increased circulating levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) which can injure the lining of vessels which creates inflammation and facilitates cholesterol plaque formation. One study found that a 3% increase in animal protein consumption was associated with a 15% increased risk of bladder cancer. The study also found that a 2% increase in plant protein consumption was associated in a 23% decreased risk of bladder cancer. 

Current research has exposed other downsides to consuming animal-based proteins. A 2016 cohort study by Mingyang Song and colleagues found that higher animal protein intake was associated with higher mortality whereas higher plant protein intake was associated with lower mortality. The researchers found that when 3% of energy from plant protein was substituted for the same amount of animal protein (particularly from processed red meat), the risk for mortality decreased suggesting that protein source is an important factor to mortality. Further, the study participants who consumed more plant-based proteins tended to have more positive health behaviors and tended to eat healthier diets overall compared to those consuming more animal-based proteins. Those consuming more animal-based proteins also tended to weigh more, exercise less, consume more fat and eat less fiber and plants.

One commonly consumed animal protein is whey protein, which is the protein in whey, the watery portion of milk that separates from the curds when making cheese. It is often consumed to improve athletic performance, but the evidence to support this remains mixed. Further, there are several side effects of consuming too much whey including increased bowel movements, nausea, thirst, bloating, cramps, reduced appetite, tiredness and headaches. 

Along with the negative health impacts of consuming animal proteins, there are many other concerns to consider such as food safety concerns, animal welfare concerns, environmental concerns and social issues. With all of these negative impacts and concerns, plant-based proteins might just be the way to go.

HOW MUCH PLANT-BASED PROTEIN DO I NEED PER DAY?

A recent review article by Dr. Brendan Egan, a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dublin City University, suggests that the optimal dose to maximize the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis is .25-.40 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per meal and that athletes should aim for 1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day by consuming 4-6 meals each day. However, there are many factors that influence this recommendation such as the protein source, the timing of the meal, the pattern of the distribution of the protein and the co-ingestion of macronutrients around exercise.

Egan suggests the following 6 tips for athletes to determine how much protein to consume each day:

1. Establish daily targets for energy intake (calories) and for macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) based on the type of sport, the phase of the season, the training volume and one’s goals.
2.  Base protein, fat and carb intake on a gram per kilogram of body mass basis instead of on the percentage of calories.
3. For better digestion and maximum absorption, consume protein evenly throughout the day, ideally with 3-4 main meals and one to three snacks. This will help meet the leucine threshold and keep you in muscle protein synthesis.
4. Set the protein target as 20-40 grams per meal or snack.
5.Create a meal plan based on whole foods with a variety of protein sources.
6. Using a plant-based protein powder to fuel up throughout the day and replenish after a workout is an excellent way to get extra protein in the diet and repair muscles after rigorous exercise.

Other factors that influence this protein recommendation are the type of sport, the training volume, the training phase and the athlete’s goals. For example, those partaking in power sports and those with high training volumes (i.e. marathon training) require higher intakes. Those that are injured require 1.6-2.5 g/kg and calorie intake must be balanced, reflecting the fact that they may reduce their activity levels. If one’s goal is fat loss and calorie restriction, one should opt for 1.8-2.7 g/kg and this should be combined with a 500 kilocalorie per day energy deficit as well as resistance training. Therefore, a personalized approach that considers multiple factors is required when determining optimized protein intake. The benefits and "gains" of going plant-based are 100% worth it. Just take it from one of the most well know natural vegan body builders out there...

“I definitely have more energy, an easier digestion, increased metabolism, and much reduced recovery time after workouts. I have less inflammation, can train harder and faster, and my heart and joints are much healthier—there is really nothing negative I can think of as being a plant-based athlete.” 
Robert Cheeke
Vegan Bodybuilder, Activist, Motivational Speaker, Author

To learn more, please refer to Dr. Brendan Egan’s review, “ Protein intake for athletes and active
adults: Current concepts and controversies
,” published in The British Nutrition Foundation’s 2016 “Nutrition Bulletin.”

THE BENEFITS OF A PLANT-BASED DIET ON EXERCISE PERFORMANCE

Athletes are increasingly adopting plant-based diets and are touting the benefits from increased energy to decreased recovery time and more. These benefits may not be solely anecdotal; there is some emerging scientific evidence showing athletic performance benefits on a plant-based diet, but more research must be conducted to truly understand the benefits. 

Plant-based diets like vegetarianism and veganism are not new. Plenty of research has been conducted showing the benefits to one’s health (i.e. increased lifespan, improved immune function, enhanced cardiovascular health and more) of adopting such a diet. However, what is new is an increased interest in studying the benefits of this diet on athletic performance. As such, there is somewhat limited information in the scientific literature.

Much of the literature revolves around nutrition recommendations for vegan athletes (i.e. recommendations regarding avoiding deficiencies etc.), but there is a research gap regarding how it impacts athletic performance. Thus, there is a need for more research and luckily, with the rise of vegan athletes, scientists may be able to close this research gap. 

While sparse, there is some research suggesting enhanced athletic performance. David Rogerson cites three studies in his review entitled, “Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete” that shows either improved athletic performance or no difference in athletic performance. One study conducted in the 1900s showed increased strength and endurance in vegetarian athletes compared to omnivorous athletes. A study in 1970 showed no difference between thigh muscle width and pulmonary function between vegetarian and omnivorous athletes. A 1986 study compared vegetarian to omnivorous female Israeli athletes and found no difference in pulmonary function, endurance, limb circumferences, and other strength measures. The vegetarians also performed equally well compared to their omnivorous counterparts in athletic events of long duration. So, while there may not have been a difference according to these last two studies, the studies do show that a plant-based diet does not hinder performance as some might suggest. 

In 2016, John Craddock, Yasmine Probst and Gregory Peoples conducted a review of the literature regarding plant-based diets and athletic performance. The review showed that a plant-based diet neither improved nor hindered athletic performance. However, only eight studies were found and reviewed and these studies differed greatly with regard to experimental design and aims/outcomes causing the researchers to state that further research is warranted.   

However, there is some current research showing benefits. A recent 2016 study conducted by Heidi Lynch, Christopher Wharton and Carol Johnston at Arizona State University found improved VO2max in female vegetarian endurance athletes compared to their omnivorous counterparts meaning they had greater cardiorespiratory fitness/aerobic capacity. They also tested leg extension peak torque finding no difference between the groups suggesting that the two groups have comparable strength. 

As more research is conducted, the reasons for increased athletic performance may be further clarified and elucidated. Some researchers have posited that plant-based diets may yield performance benefits due to the increased intake of antioxidants, micronutrients and carbohydrates which aids in training and enhances recovery. The increased antioxidants and phytochemicals may reduce oxidative stress caused by prolonged exercise and it may enhance immunity. The increased carbohydrate intake may lead to improved glycogen stores which may translate to improved performance. Another reason may be that plant-based diets have an alkaline effect on acid-base levels due to the high fruit and vegetable consumption and the low consumption of animal products. Intramuscular acidity can limit high-intensity exercise. Therefore, a plant-based diet may combat this acidity yielding performance benefits.

Clearly, there is a need for more research as the scientific evidence is mixed and it is sparse; however, the anecdotal performance benefits from a multitude of world-class athletes is quite compelling. Further, the health benefits alone are enough to suggest that we should consider shifting towards a plant-based diet.

PLANT-BASED ATHLETES SMASHING STEREOTYPES & RECORDS

Although clinical evidence about plant-based diets being superior has been historically been underfunded compared to animal-based studies, one can't help but recognize the anecdotal first-hand experiences of the many world class athletes that have made the switch to plant-based fuel.

 Plant-based diets are going mainstream with many people moving towards vegan and vegetarianism. In fact, 6% of Americans now identify as vegan which is up 1% since 2014 and a recent report cited that two major consumer trends were “going meat-free” and “ethical eating.” It is not just consumers that are taking notice of the benefits of plant-based diets- athletes of all calibers and across a wide range of sports are going plant-based. 

Athletes are always seeking ways to improve their performance and health and many have discovered the benefits of a plant-based diet. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthy, nutritionally adequate and may provide benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases for all people in any stage of life, including athletes. Knowing this, many athletes have made the switch. Here are just a few.

Tia Blanco is a Puerto Rican American surfer and animal loving vegan who won the first place Gold medal at the International Surfing Association Open Women’s World Surfing Championship in 2015 and in 2016.

Scott Jurek, ultra-marathon runner and vegan, has set eleven major course records, one of which was for the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trial which he ran in an astonishing 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes. He won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon twice and 153-mile Spartathlon three times. Scott attributes his short recovery times and lack of injuries to a plant-based diet. 

Patrick Baboumian is a strength athlete who has said, “Go vegan and feel the power!” Patrik won the title of “Germany’s Strongest Man” in 2011. 

Olympian Kendrick Farris broke the United States record at the 2016 Rio Olympics by lifting 831 pounds and 431 pounds in the clean and jerk. He reports that he recovers faster, feels lighter and focuses better on a plant-based diet. 

Jehina Malik, vegan since birth, is a successful bodybuilding champion. She is the first vegan to win the title of “Professional Bodybuilder” by the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness.

Tennis player and raw vegan, Venus Williams, has won seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles, five Wimbledon women’s singles titles and four Olympic gold medals.

The NBA has been commenting on Kyrie Irving’s (a basketball player for the Boston Celtics) lean body and great performance recently. Kyrie states that his energy is up and his body feels amazing since going vegan. 

Other vegan athletes include Tony Gonzalez of the Kansas City Chiefs, Arian Foster of the Houston Texans, Ironman Brendan Brazier, track and field Olympian Carl Lewis, bodybuilder Kenneth Williams, professional hockey player Mike Zigomanis and former WNBA athlete Taj McWilliams-Franklin.

These successful athletes prove that they can thrive and moreover, that they can outcompete their competitors on a plant-based diet. They are smashing stereotypes regarding vegan athletes being weaker or having hindered performance. They are also smashing personal, US and world records. 

“I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover, by continuing to eat a vegan diet, my weight is under control, I like the way I look. (I know that sounds vain, but all of us want to like the way we look.) I enjoy eating more, and I feel great.”
Carl
Lewis  
World Champion Sprinter with 9 Gold & 1 Silver Olympic Medals

While the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has endorsed plant-based diets, the scientific evidence regarding performance enhancement is currently fairly sparse warranting further study. Much of the reported benefits have been anecdotal. However, these positive, anecdotal performance and health benefits are quite compelling for any athlete or consumer and one would be wise to make the switch to a plant-based diet. 

REFERENCES:

7 Serious Problems With Animal Protein. (2016, December 31). Retrieved March 02, 2018, from https://www.forksoverknives.com/animalproteindangers/#gs.LQvUPj0

Animal Protein. (n.d.). Retrieved March 02, 2018, from https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/animal-protein/

Song, M., Fung, T.T., Hu, F.B., Willet, W.C., Longo, V., Chan, A.T., Giovannucci, E.L. (2016). Animal and plant protein intake and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: results from two prospective US cohort studies. JAMA Internal Medicine, 176:10, 1453-1463. doi: doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182”

Craddock, J.C., Probst, Y.C., & Peoples, G.E. (2016). Vegetarian and omnivorous nutrition-comparing physical performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 26, 212-220. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0231

Fuhrman, J., & Ferreri, D.M. (2010). “Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete.” Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(4), 233-241. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181e93a6f

Lynch, H., Wharton, C., & Johnston, C. (2016). Cardiorespiratory fitness and peak torque differences between vegetarians and omnivore endurance athletes: A cross-sectional study. Nutrients, 8(726), 1-11, doi: 10.3390/nu8110726

Rogerson, D. (2017). Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(36), 1-15, doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9

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