vegan athlete

Yes, Vegan Athletes Can Meet Elevated Protein Requirements. Here’s How.


By Adam Ferdinandson,
CTS Expert Coach
Reviewed by Stephanie Howe, PhD

“But how do you get enough protein?” This is something all plant-based folks have heard from coworkers, relatives, and others who feel the need to add their two-cents about dietary choices. As annoying as it may seem, the concern is valid. Consuming adequate protein with a plant-based nutrition strategy is not intuitive and requires deliberate effort. For endurance athletes training at high volumes, it only gets harder. Whether you are already vegan or vegetarian, or considering heading in those directions, this article will walk through practical ways to ensure that your plant-based diet can support training, racing, and health.

Why Would You Eat Plant-Based?

Athletes choose to be plant-based for various reasons including health, environmental considerations, and morals. Personally, I cut out animal products for moral considerations around the treatment of animals long before I considered myself an endurance athlete. Athletes can train and compete successfully using many different nutrition strategies, so long as they are eating nutritious foods, consuming enough overall energy, and fueling muscles with sufficient macronutrients. A plant-based diet is not the holy grail for performance that will catapult you to breakthrough performances. However, a plant-based nutrition strategy can fuel top performance.

At the same time, there are aspects of dietary control that can be detrimental. Some people, including endurance athletes, misuse being plant-based as a cover for disordered eating because it allows a person to avoid all sorts of foods with the excuse they don’t fit within their chosen diet. The same can be true for other dietary manipulations that eliminate food groups, dramatically restrict energy intake, or over-emphasize specific foods at the expense of others. If an athlete’s decision to be plant based originates from an unhealthy place, it’s worth working with a dietician and a licensed mental health professional to work on their relationship with food and craft a way of eating that is healthy and sustainable. 

How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

There is no perfect protein intake that is optimal for all athletes. What works for individual athletes depends on training volume and training phase (i.e. how much muscle are you trying to build or how much muscle damage are you creating). Age is also a factor, as efficiency of muscle protein synthesis decreases naturally with age. For the purpose of this article I will rely on the “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: nutritional considerations for single-stage ultra-marathon training and racing” which recommendations that “ ~ 1.6-2.1 g·kg− 1·d− 1 are sufficient to optimally simulate muscle protein synthesis, which will likely support recovery from training. Intakes of up to 2.5 g·kg− 1·d− 1 may be warranted during demanding training periods.” 

Practically, this means that a 70 kilogram (154 lb) athlete would need 112-147 grams of protein per day to support typical training, and up to 175 grams of protein per day during periods of higher workloads. These numbers can be challenging to achieve with a vegan diet. For example, one cup of cooked lentils contains about 18 grams of protein. To meet your protein requirement via lentils would mean consuming about 7 cups per day, and sometimes up to 10 cups. Although eating only lentils is not realistic, the example illustrates that vegan protein sources – many of which are high in fiber – can require consuming a very large volume of food, and more fiber than most can comfortably tolerate.  

How to Find Vegan Protein Sources

Initially, finding ways to consume enough protein can seem challenging for vegan athletes. Over time, you develop routines and go-to protein sources that increase convenience, increase variety, reduce food waste, and reduce cost. If you are trying to go vegan or struggling to maintain a vegan lifestyle as an athlete, here are some tips I’ve learned in my own journey and that I help athletes learn on theirs.

Prioritize Quantity First

The internet is full of recommendations about which type of protein is best or the most bioavailable. Too much information leads to analysis paralysis. If you spend all your time and mental energy trying to find the perfect protein source, you miss out on plenty of good but imperfect protein sources. Your first priority should be eating enough total energy, ideally from a variety of whole food sources. Don’t worry too much about the protein quality at first. You can refine that over time. Once their protein intake is within the guidelines above, you can work on improving the composition of the intake. 

Expand Variety Second

Not all proteins are created equal, and each choice has its strengths and weaknesses. Trying to log every food you eat to track your intake of specific amino acids is not sustainable or a healthy behavior. A better solution is to rely on variety to ensure you consume a full range of amino acids. Athletes shouldn’t only eat soy protein or only eat pea protein because they heard it was the best option. Eating a variety of protein sources, such as legumes, tempeh, and seeds, allows you to fill gaps that may result from eating a narrow range of protein sources. 

Don’t Get Too Picky

Vegan athletes can eat a huge variety of foods, but also have severely limited choices compared to omnivores. This is not unique to vegan athletes. Athletes who must or choose to eliminate gluten or lactose from their diets also have fewer food choices available. Taken to extremes, athletes who combine dietary restrictions (e.g., vegan + gluten free) can set themselves up for trouble by limiting their available foods to such a narrow range. If you eliminate entire food groups from your diet, you’re going to want to be as open as possible to trying new foods that fit within your nutrition strategy. In other words, if you’re going to be a vegan athlete, dig in and explore unconventional vegetables, fruits, grains, funghi, etc.

When athletes travel for races, they may not be able to find all same foods they rely on at home. This is where adaptability becomes important. Sometimes, protein from a Beyond Meat Burger is going to be better than holding out in hopes of finding a more “natural” option. Similarly, if you want all your protein to come from less processed options like legumes, you may struggle to practically take in 100+ grams of protein per day because of a fiber overload. Incorporating minimally processed sources of concentrated protein, such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan may allow athletes to meet high protein requirements on the road.

Another option is supplementing with protein powders. Although obtaining protein through real food is usually better, remember that consuming adequate quantities is your first priority. As an athlete it’s better to sometimes supplement with protein powder than to substantially undershoot your protein intake in an effort to only consume whole food sources.

Be Intentional with Meal Planning

It’s easy for vegan athletes to create fresh, energizing, and interesting meals that contain little to no protein. Think pasta with veggies, oatmeal with mix-ins, and colorful salads, all of which are great foods to include in an athlete’s diet. However, without intentionally adding protein, these can leave you far below your protein needs. This is especially true if you follow salad recipes created by omnivores, because they tend to consider salads as a side-dish that accompanies a protein-centered entree. 

To meet your protein goals, vegans need to follow or create recipes which include one or two significant sources of protein. Either design the meal around protein (e.g., tofu scramble) or add protein to a meal that may not have it (e.g., adding hemp seeds and tempeh to a salad). When traveling, it’s naturally more difficult to find quality plant-based protein sources. 

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Part of being intentional is foreseeing when one may not have access to good sources of protein. Personally, I prepare complete, protein-rich meals and pack them in a cooler when I travel to attend or compete in races in the US. If you’re flying to a race, research available market and restaurant options ahead of time so you know what to expect and where you may need to go to find what you need. Across the world, one may not be able to find options like tofu but you can almost always find legumes, nuts, and seeds. 

Vegan Protein Daily Intake Examples: 120-175 grams/day

The sample days below do not include all ingredients or complete macronutrient breakdowns. They are simply meant to illustrate that 120-175 grams of protein per day is a readily achievable intake.

Sample Day 1:
Breakfast-Tofu scramble tacos-30g
Snack- Toast with Peanut Butter-10g
Lunch-Veggie stir fry with rice, chickpeas, and tempeh-40g
Snack-Toasted pumpkin seeds-12g
Dinner-Lentils with veggies and hummus-35g
Dessert-Fruit Popsicle-0g
Daily Total:127g of protein

Sample Day 2:

Breakfast-Oatmeal with hemp hearts-20g
Snack- Coconut milk yogurt with granola-8g
Lunch-Thai curry with rice noodles, veggies, tofu and edamame-40g
Snack-Apple with peanut butter-8g
Dinner-Fried rice with Just Egg, peas, and seitan -40g
Dessert-Chocolate covered almonds-3g
Daily Total:119g of protein

Sample Day 3:
(Higher protein requirement day. Snacks need to become more like smaller protein rich meals.)
Breakfast-Berry smoothie with protein powder-40g
Snack- Dry roasted edamame-30g
Lunch-Burrito bowl with rice, beans, veggies, avocado, and tofu-40g
Snack-Cooked lentils with Soy Sauce-20g
Dinner-Pasta and veggies with textured vegetable protein -40g
Dessert-Non-dairy ice cream-2g
Daily Total:172g of protein

Vegan Doesn’t Need to Be Expensive 

One misconception about plant-based protein is that it is expensive. Quality meat is also quite expensive, so incorporating plant protein should be similar in cost or even cheaper. Protein options such as legumes and seeds are by far the most cost effective and can make up a strong foundation for your protein needs. 

A more dense, but also affordable option, is textured vegetable protein, this is a fantastic option to sprinkle into pasta, use to make tacos, etc. It is one of the cheapest forms of the more processed but protein-dense options. Tofu is also one of the more cost effective options, and a staple for plant-based athletes. As with meat, quality matters. Try to find organic tofu that is non-GMO. Ordering online in bulk is one of my best tips for finding cost effective protein. With a little effort you can find name-brand seitan that is about half price of what you would find in most stores, including the shipping costs.

Beyond that, beware of trendy marketing and small packages. These are typically snack foods, which may be good options in a pinch but aren’t going to be economical sources of the bulk of your vegan protein. Ironically, vegan snack foods tend not to be very protein dense and yet are astronomically expensive for what you’re getting. 

Putting It All Together

If you want to transition to a vegan or even vegetarian lifestyle as an athlete, I’d recommend doing so gradually if possible. Unless you’re trying to solve food sensitivities or allergies, revolutionizing your diet overnight can be so disruptive that it hurts your training, hinders your recovery, and creates more stress than necessary. Instead, make changes a bit at a time by adding vegan sources of protein to your diet and gradually removing sources of animal protein. All the while, keep an eye on your total protein intake to keep it from dropping substantially. 

Once you make the complete shift to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, stick with it for a few months and monitor how your training and recovery respond. You may notice improvements in some areas, including energy for training and rate of post-workout recovery. If your training or recovery or health diminish, consult a registered dietitian for guidance and support. A professional may be able to identify opportunities or weaknesses in your food choices and help you adjust accordingly. Ultrarunners can absolutely be successful on a plant-based diet but it requires some extra planning and there is a learning curve. And once you’re confident in your food choices, it’s easy to answer the “Where do you get your protein?” or “Aren’t you worried you won’t get enough protein?” question. I just smile and say, “Thanks, I eat all the protein my body needs.”

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Comments 11

  1. Pingback: The Best Habits for Athletes Over 40 - CTS

  2. I agree with the above…hard to eat enough protein when you’re only a 5’2″ and older cyclist. I’m lucky to get in 55 grams. P.S. I’m at 116 pounds but feel I’ve gained a few too since my conversion. I converted to vegan because of cholesterol issues. It’s helped mucho.
    —I would love to hear from a woman vegan athlete, but am also eager to try smaller portions of the menu you provided.
    —Is there a book/cookbook, etc. for athletic vegans that you could suggest?

  3. Thank you for this information! I have been plant based for a little over three years (ethical reasons like he author) and have noticed that it has affected my cycling. Since I’m 63, it’s easy to attribute it to age but I noticed a difference when I stopped eating meat and dairy. I am definitely going to try and increase protein sources. Thank you again!

  4. As a vegan and being gf, I’ve never had an issue hitting 2g/kg and it’s really a topic that’s been hit with a hammer too many times IMO, but I think this article does a nice job covering the basics. I also think most new people just need to track for a little bit until they get the hang of things. Most people who have issues, usually critically underfuel due to the caloric density of plant based foods vs processed foods or animal products and that’s where many of their training issues stem from.

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