There are two studies I’ve seen investigating the specific question of protein needs for muscle-building in vegans and vegetarians. Lemon et al. (1992) and Tarnopolsky (1988) found that within the range of around .36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (g/lb) to .68 g/lb, nitrogen balance in muscles could be achieved after intense weightlifting with vegetarian body builders. Basically, nitrogen balance in muscles is an indicator of muscle recovery, since negative nitrogen balance would indicate muscles are broken down. Participants in the studies who ate more protein most likely had it flushed out of their system.
These studies are great for two reasons:
- They provide scientific evidence that vegetarians can recover completely from intense workouts, which is a mainstay of any athletic performance regiment.
- They suggest that vegetarians/vegans may need only around 60-120 g of protein for optimal recovery if you weigh 170 lbs. A recent review (Campbell et al. 2009) on athletes using a range of diets(including both plant and meat-based diets) analyzed multiple studies to argue for .75g / lb for athletes. So if you wanted to be on the safe side, for a 170 lbs athlete you would want around 130g of protein.
What’s interesting about these numbers is that most people I know who are meat-eating athletes claim they must get anywhere from 1g of protein per lb of body weight all the way to over 2g of protein per lb. That means most people, if they weighed 170 lbs, are eating 170 – 360g of protein per day.
There are at least two things that could be true about these numbers:
- It could mean that eating plant-based protein is more efficient than meat-based protein.
- It could just be another example of how “general-wisdom” is not based on fact, and people are eating way more protein than they actually need.
The great thing about becoming a vegan is that you tend to investigate more about nutrition than the average person and learn how to change your diet to optimize your health and performance.
One thing you will notice pretty quickly is that a plant-diet increases the consistency of your energy levels both throughout the day and also during workouts. Some days I feel like I could continue doing a second workout after I finish a full body intense workout already. There is some science behind this, and the advantage seems to come mostly from the fact that vegan athletes are more likely to get more of the carbohydrates they need because they do not simply resort to meat to get filled during a meal.
Carbohydrates have been shown for a while to be the main fuel during heavy lifting and most forms of exercise (Lemon 1998), and there have been studies suggesting that carbohydrates should make up around 60% of an athlete’s diet (Lambert & Flynn 2002). Because of the foods vegans are likely to eat, they are already at an advantage for energy levels.
There is another often overlooked fact about a plant-based diet in terms of energy. You may recall from high school biology class that the ecosystem can be broken down in a pyramid form in terms of energy efficiency. On Earth, energy comes from the sun. At the base of the pyramid, you have plants that take in energy directly from the sun. These “producers” contain about 25,000 Kilo calories squared per year. If you move up the chain you have insects and very small mammals (“primary consumers”) that contain about 4000 Kilocalories squared. If you move up on to the highest level, the level containing the animals ingested by a meat-based diet, (“tertiary consumers”), the energy lost is so great that they only contain about 25 Kilocalories squared! That is correct: plants contain about 10,000 times more units of energy than animals eaten in a meat-based diet. What would you guess is best to eat if you want more energy?
Unfortunately, studies directly comparing overall sports performance of vegans or vegetarians to meat-eaters do not exactly exist as far as I am aware.
However, there is an interesting older study I found (Minckenberger 1989) that investigated vegetarian ultramarathoners who ran the wildest race I have ever heard of. It involved running about 680 miles in 19 days (35 miles per day!). The study tested their performance, caloric intake, and vitamin and mineral levels. Besides the fact that the vegetarians actually finished the race–impressive for anyone, no matter what you eat!–they were all found to have normal levels of all the items they were tested on compared to non-vegetarians.
There is also some data on creatine levels and supplementation in vegetarian athletes. One study showed that vegetarians had lower creatine in their blood and urine compared to meat-eaters, but this may have nothing to do with creatine levels in skeletal muscles which are what may be important for explosive athletic performance (Delanghe et al. 1989). One study found that vegetarians who supplemented with creatine had significant increases in their power output during exercise, while meat-eaters did not. However, another study found that vegetarians did not show gains in power output from creatine supplementation (Shomrat, Weinstein & Katz 2000; Clarys et al. 1997).
My recommendation given these conflicting results is to try creatine supplementation if you are training for explosive power. Because some data suggests that vegetarians / vegans may be lower in creatine levels than meat-eaters, you could take it just in case if you are worried. I train mostly for speed and explosive power and have had decent, though not dramatic, results with supplementing with 5g of creatine per day. Just to be precise, I’ve seen about a 5% increase in my 1 repetition maximum in both bench press and squat.
Vitamins and Minerals
The only other aspect of nutrition one might worry about for vegan sports nutrition is vitamins and minerals.
The good news is that a recent survey (Fuhrman & Ferreri 2010) found that vegans have been shown to have normal levels of almost all vitamins and minerals related to athletic performance. One mineral of interest to many people is iron, and the article basically dispels the myth of vegans not getting enough iron. As it turns out, a plant-based diet has tons of available source with high iron content. Most people get caught up on the fact that plant-based iron (non-heme) is absorbed about 10% less than meat-based iron (heme). However, your body absorbs non-heme iron more efficiently than heme iron when iron stores in the body are low. Moreover, vegans are very likely to intake a high amount of dietary iron due to a more balanced diet, so whatever difference there would be quickly cancels out. Just to throw some evidence in that direction, a recent study looking at iron intake in vegetarians found that there were absolutely no cases of low-iron intake or anemia in the vegetarians studied (Hunt 2003).
The review does, however, make some recommendations specifically for vegan athletes about supplementation for the following items:
B12 isn’t difficult to get enough of if you take a multi-vitamin or eat vegan foods fortified with b12 like many tofu products, vegan milk, cereals, oatmeal, and nutritional yeast. However, you can always supplement if you feel your diet planning has not worked out. Almost everyone is deficient in Vitamin D, including meat-eaters, so no matter who you are you should be supplementing vitamin D. Zinc is common in a multi-vitamin as well. When it comes to taurine, I would suggest supplementation for the more serious athletes. Apparently higher levels of taurine have been associated with increased muscle efficiency.
So, what are the first steps if you want to start eating vegan without giving up your athletic goals? We’ve got some recommendations on the next page!
Image Credit: Quinoa photo via Shutterstock