Protein for Vegetarian Athletes

Protein for Vegetarian Athletes
by Aishea Maas, Phase IV Director of Exercise Sciences

Protein is essential for all athletes, along with carbohydrates and fats. We use amino acids as building blocks, to make protein for our blood, skin, cartilage, muscles and bones, hormones and enzymes. At rest and during exercise, the body strives to conserve protein and therefore does not usually rely on it as a fuel source. People who have a well balanced diet, protein provides for less than 5% of energy expended.

Vegetarians need complete protein to get all the essential amino acids to avoid a negative protein balance. A vegetarian diet can supply all essential and nonessential amino acids from plant foods alone only if a variety of them are consumed throughout the day.

Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins

A complete protein means that all eight essential amino acids are present in the right amount. For example, foods from animal sources have complete proteins and some plant foods, like soy and quinoa, have complete proteins.

An incomplete protein refers to foods which have all the essential amino acids, but are low in one or more of them. This is referred to as the 'limiting amino acid'. Most plant foods have one or more limiting amino acids which limit the availability of all the other amino acids in the food. This is why these foods are called incomplete proteins. For example, each plant food has its own unique amino acid profile, from barley to quinoa, from lentils to tofu and from macadamias to Brazil nuts. Your body puts together amino acids from different plant foods to give you complete protein throughout the day. For example, the amino acids in beans and lentils are balanced by those in grains, nuts and seeds.

By eating a variety of combinations of plant foods with incomplete proteins throughout the day, you can effortlessly get enough complete protein.

Recommended Daily Requirements

Protein needs vary depending on many variables like age, growth, health, physical activity, body type/size, pregnancy and lactation. For example the average recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein for an adult is 0.8 grams per 2.2 lbs per day. For endurance athletes the range is from 1.2 to 1.4 grams per 2.2 lbs per day (60 grams of protein for a person weighing 165 lbs and 105 grams of protein per day for and endurance athlete at the same weight). When doing intense training, including weight training, athletes should increase their intake to 1.6 to 1.7 grams per 2.2 lbs of body weight per day. Please remember these are averages and everyone’s physiology is different whether you are vegetarian or not that is why metabolic testing is crucial to find your specific nutritional needs.

Essential Amino Acids and their Functions

The body can produce 16 of the 23 amino acids that are needed. Therefore, there are 8 essential amino acids (9 for children), which must come from the foods we eat. See the list below.

1. Isoleucine (Ile) - muscle production, maintenance and recovery after workout.
2. Leucine (Leu) - growth hormone production, tissue production and repair, prevents muscle wasting, used in treating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
3. Lysine (Lys) - calcium absorption, bone development, tissue repair, hormone production, antibody production.
4. Methionine (Met) – break down fat, digestion, antioxidant (cancer prevention), good for heart health.
5. Phenylalanine (Phe) - supports learning and memory, brain processes and mood elevation.
6. Threonine (Thr) - monitors bodily proteins for maintaining or recycling processes.
7. Tryptophan (Trp) - niacin production, serotonin production, pain management, sleep and mood regulation.
8. Valine (Val) - helps muscle production, recovery, energy, endurance; balances nitrogen levels; used in treatment of alcohol related brain damage.
9. Histidine (His) - the 'growth amino' essential for young children. Lack of histidine is associated with impaired speech and growth. Abundant in spirulina, seaweed, sesame, soy, rice and legumes.

List of Muscle Building Foods for Vegetarians

Below is a list of muscle building foods. When creating a daily meal plan make sure to know how many calories you should be feeding yourself. You can achieve this by doing a Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) test. This way you can take the guess work out of how much you should be eating and build a well balanced nutrition plan using the foods below combined with fats and carbohydrates. Phase IV nutrition experts can help you by creating a specific nutrition and meal plan based on your specific physiological needs in order to attain your body goals.

Quinoa - It’s a great source of plant based calcium, protein (24 grams per cup) and fiber.

Pea-Rice-Hemp Protein Powder - It’s high in protein and fiber, and low in carbohydrates.

Avocados - Full of antioxidants and healthy fats - including saturated fats that help support the production of the hormone you need to produce muscle, testosterone.

Steel-Cut Oats - Filled with fiber, minerals and protein.

Almonds - High in fiber, protein and minerals.

Black Beans - Most nutrient-packed bean that is full of protein, fiber, and antioxidants.

Broccoli - 40% protein, high in fiber and low in calories.

Coconut Milk - Is higher in calcium and lower in calories than traditional milk and generally fortified with plant-based B-12.

Sweet Potatoes - A great source of potassium, vitamins A and C, and fiber.

Seitan - Often to referred to as ‘wheat meat’ because it’s derived from wheat protein. It has the same amount of protein compared to steak but lower in calories and fat.

Spinach - Good source of protein, iron and fiber.

Chia Seeds - Large amount of Omega-3’s, which fight inflammation and help speed muscle recovery, and may also help improve the process by which your body produces muscle.

Garbanzo Beans (Chickpeas) - Full of nutrients, protein, fiber, and antioxidants. White counterpart of the black bean.

Natural Peanut Butter - Stay away from processed peanut butter, instead chose the natural kind which is higher in fiber and protein and not full of sugars and other unnatural ingredients.

Walnuts - Great source of Omega-3's, and are packed with Vitamin E which is a powerful antioxidant that can help your muscles recover.

Collard Greens - Packed with vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, as well as Folate.

Cauliflower - They are not only low in calories they are loaded with vitamins and are about 30 percent protein.

Lentils - A protein powerhouse and are a great source of fiber. Good grain replacement.

Portobello Mushrooms - Close to 50 percent protein and are a good source of fiber and other nutrients. Great replacement for chicken/beef burgers and sandwiches.

Peas - Protein-packed, high in fiber and a great source of vitamins and minerals.

Nutrition for Vegetarian Athletes

Vega sports performance nutrition is 100% plant based, free from dairy, soy and gluten and contains no artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners. Vega has a variety of products that will keep you well nourished and energized during those long workouts.