Hand's down, bar none there is no other question I get asked more in my life then "Where do you get your protein from" especially when people find out I'm a vegan pro athlete. I always find it funny when that's followed up with "I could never go vegan" because some people think their lives are more demanding than that of a professional athlete, but I digress. Today we're focusing on protein, specifically why it's important, how much protein I get, and what sources I get it from.
Before We Get Started
Just like everything to do with nutrition, there are a million different factors that play into one's nutrition and nutritional needs. If you want actual nutritional advice you should go and talk to a registered dietician. This article should not be used as a supplement to your doctors or dietician's advice. That being said there are a lot of fake internet gurus out there that you should definitely avoid at all costs. I'm simply giving you the information on how and where I get my protein from as a vegan pro athlete.
I think it's important to also note before we get started that I almost never count calories or track my protein intake. I have a general idea of how much I'm getting in because I know relatively how much most food has in it but unless I'm doing a video or blog post about what I eat in a day I don't actually track. I think tracking exactly what you're eating every day can help some people reach their goals but I think for the most part it's not healthy behaviour for your mental wellbeing. Humans weren't created or designed to know the exact calorie content of our food. Our bodies are in a constant state of flux and its needs vary day to day.
Now that I think about it too none of my other teammates that are also professional athletes track their foods religiously either. Just something to think about when you're worried about eating that last slice or an extra bowl, life is all about balance and as long as you live a healthy, active, balanced life everything balances itself out.
Again for some people, they might need to track what they take in and I am in no way bashing that or taking away from it, but I think the vast majority of people don't need to and it's mentally unhealthy.
Why I'm Writing About Protein
Listen I get it, I fell for the exact same lies that we've all been told our entire lives. "You need to eat meat to build muscle" or "Meat is the only source of protein" or "Vegetables are incomplete/inadequate sources of protein" or "It's impossible to get enough protein as a vegan" or or or. I believed them all!
I grew up playing some of the toughest most physically demanding sports in the world. Hockey, Football, Backyard Wrestling to name a few. The emphasis has always been on being bigger faster and stronger, i.e. building muscle. Since I started playing sports when I was 5, my volunteer coaches (with zero nutritional certification) have been telling me I need to eat meat to grow big and strong.
If there is anyone that understands how people still think you need to eat meat to get protein it's me. Does it get frustrating answering the same question all the time? Sometimes, but I'm always reminded by the fact that people asking questions means they're curious and open to the idea. I only ever get truly frustrated when people are closed-minded and refuse to listen or even try to understand the logic (i.e. "I could never go vegan").
I'm writing this post for two purposes:
- For my own sanity so I have something to send people when they ask me this question and I don't have to spend hours answering the same questions.
- To dispel any myths around protein and help you have a full and complete picture of what protein is, why we need it, how much we need of it, and where I get it from as a vegan pro athlete.
So let's dive right into it with today's subject!
Protein: What Is It And Why Is It Important?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients our body needs to survive, the other two being carbohydrates and fats. As the name macronutrient suggests we need a lot of it (more than other nutrients) in order to not only survive but thrive.
Broken down protein is comprised of amino acids, which are the building blocks to building muscle and pretty much everything in our bodies. The body does produce some amino acids but also requires 9 essential amino acids that need to come from food sources. It's important for vegans and non-vegans alike to ensure they're getting enough of those 9 essential amino acids.
It's pretty easy to see that protein is very important to us and why so many people are fixated on this obsession with protein. But a better question might be "should we be?".
Now don't get me wrong protein is important. It's essential to our survival, without it we would undoubtedly die, but is this obsession over getting as much protein as we can healthy? Should the focus be on consuming a well-balanced diet and not glorifying one macronutrient and demonizing all other nutrients? Again that may be a discussion for another blog post but it is just some food for thought.
How Much Protein Should You Be Getting?
My all-time most hated answer ever is "it depends", it can mean so many different things and doesn't answer anything. But the answer to this question really is... it depends. Unfortunately, there is no clear cut, black and white answer. There is a lot of grey area depending on a lot of different factors, but there are some guidelines that we can adhere to that might help.
I use this protein calculator to show how much protein I need to get in a day. It asks a few questions and then it shoots back an answer at you. Here are my results:
As you can see there are 3 different recommendations depending on a couple different factors. Remember these numbers are based off my height, weight, age, and activity level so this isn't a stead fast rule for every person.
I average around 140 g per day range. A lot of people ask me how but really if you break it down that's only 40 ish g of protein per meal (which you should break up into more meals). Take my easy protein porridge recipe for example, it has 45 g of protein in it and only 776 calories. For some that might seem like a crazy amount of calories. For me when I need to get 3000-4000 calories in a day in, I could eat 3 of those bowls get my full days worth of protein in and still need to get almost a thousand calories in! Obviously this wouldn't be how I actually get my protein in but it's an easy way to demonstrate that it's actually relatively easy! I'll get into exactly what in eat in a day in future posts.
Again there a some people reading this that will only need to get 45 g of protein in throughout the day so it's all relative.
The real kicker here is that too much protein can actually be a bad thing. According to Harvard Health too much protein can lead to stress on the kidneys, dehydration, and long term effects for people that consume high protein diets is that they are more susceptible to kidney stones.
Is Plant Protein A Lesser Protein
This is something that I've seen circulating around for a while now and it's simply not true. Yet, it was also something I believed to be true for a very long time myself.
First and foremost I would like to say there is no such thing as an incomplete protein. It's just not a thing. It was a term created by an American author in the 70's that later retracted her statements about it. Plants have the exact same genetic makeup when it comes to protein than humans have. We use the same 20 amino acids. So I repeat there is no such thing as an incomplete protein!
Granted there are plant-based protein sources that are lower in certain amino acids than others but at the end of the day, they all have the same amino acids to work with. Seriously go look it up on a food nutrition calculator (like cronometer) that shows the amino acid breakdown of food and type in any vegetable in a large enough quantity that it has lots of calories and see!
Chana Davis Ph.D. absolutely crushes this myth in her article and provides a lot of really great insight into the methodology behind it. She breaks down amino acid content by food groups, so it's definitely worth checking out if you want to learn more about this topic!
In this study, they show that there is no difference in building muscle composition between athletes that use whey protein and pea protein. As in they are equally as good. This study only looks at building muscle and the efficacy of the protein powder though.
The study fails to look at the protein's overall effect on the body. Something many people often gloss over and joke about is their inability to digest cheese and dairy products. According to this study, almost 65% of the world's population is lactose intolerant. This means they have an inability to properly digest dairy products and ingesting them causes inflammation in the body. Meat does not fair much better being devoid of most nutrients and providing you with nothing more than protein and fats.
Micronutrients play an extremely important role in not just helping athletes recover but allowing our bodies to run properly and help us live healthy and happy lives. Don't listen to me on this listen to Harvard. If your body is constantly inflamed and having trouble digesting food it becomes much more difficult for your body to recover and repair itself. All we need to do is look at the opposite studies that show that by just adding an anti-inflammatory food such as Curcumin to your diet you can reduce inflammation in your body and recover better after high-intensity events, offsetting losses.
So if we were to look at both proteins from a Macro (hehe) level it's pretty easy to see that plant protein provides significantly more benefits than animal proteins without sacrificing the ability to build muscle.
My Top Sources Of Vegan Protein
I eat a lot of food... I really mean it! Food is easily my second largest expense every month only next to my mortgage payment! This by no means is due to the vegan diet being more costly than an Omni diet, this goes back to the point I eat A LOT. I actually spent significantly more on groceries when I ate meat because in Canada meat is expensive AF!
Now, I get protein from a variety of different sources. I get that most people don't need to eat as many calories or need as much protein as me so I'll break it down here which are my favourite sources to get protein from!
One thing you typically won't ever really see me stress about on here is calories. Calories are important to let your body function and literally let you live. They are your energy system and as an athlete, I understand that calories are important. Calories in recent years have been vilified like no other thing in the food world when in reality they should be celebrated! Food for thought to think about before critiquing some sources of protein.
My top 10 sources of vegan protein:
- Tofu. I eat on average a brick a day or between 3-5 a week. One block of extra-firm tofu has around 45 g of protein. Check out my crispy tofu recipe!
- Seitan. This is a pretty broad category, you can have seitan sausages, beef, chicken breasts, loaves, etc. but for the most part, it's all relatively the same protein content. 1 seitan sausage has about 24 g of protein and only a couple g of fat.
- Mock Meat. I really shouldn't rely on this stuff as much as I do but it's so convenient and tasty. A pack of Yves veggie ground round has 57 g of protein!
- Beans. Honestly, I loved beans before I went vegan. Black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, you name it, they are a daily occurrence in this household! 1 can of black beans has 14 g of protein and 1 g of fat. And no the saying about beans is not true lol
- Lentils. Often overlooked but nutritional powerhouses! 1 cup of dry lentils has 47 g of protein! Along with 200% of your folate and 70% of your daily iron intake.
- Oats/Grains. Steel-cut oats and quinoa add a nice little quick of protein to meals and they're my go-to for bases of recipes! Providing 21 g and 24 g of protein per 1 cup dry respectively. #oatmealgang
- Soy Milk. I thought this warranted it's own category because I do often add it to coffee or oats just for the added bonus of protein. 1 cup has 8 g of protein.
- Bread/Wraps. Along similar lines to grains, if you purchase the good bread (not the ultra-refined sh*t) but the stuff that goes bad in a couple of days if you don't eat it or freeze it, they can have a surprising amount of protein in them. 1 piece of the sprouted power little big bread has 7 g of protein. 1 Flatout protein up wrap has 12 g of protein!
- All-Natural Peanut Butter. 2 tablespoon has 8 g of protein and it's delicious. The all-natural stuff is the way to go through anything else is just junk!
- Veggies. When I first went vegan I didn't think veggies had any protein in them (yes I was that person). Now it never seizes to amazes me when I track my nutrient intake how many grams of protein I actually get from veggies throughout the day! On average I get an extra 20 - 40 g of protein a day from veggies, depending on which ones I eat and how much.
- My favorite high protein veggies are:
- Brussel Sprouts
- Green Peas
- My favorite high protein veggies are:
Some notable mentions that didn't make the list:
- Nutritional Yeast. I do love nutritional yeast and use it almost every day, I just don't use enough for it to be considered a top source of protein source for me. 1 tablespoon has about 4 g of protein and about 500% of your daily intake of b12 lol
- Pumpkin Seeds. Again another great source but similarly to nutritional yeast I just don't eat them enough for them to be considered a top source for me. 1 tablespoon has about 4.5 g of protein.
- Chia Seeds/Hemp Hearts/Flax Seed. More nutritional powerhouses! I have usually about 1 tablespoon of each in my oatmeal or smoothies to start the day. 1 tablespoon has between 2-3 g of protein of each.
- Protein Powders. I guess I should at least mention these at some point in a post all about protein lol here's the thing though I don't generally rely on supplements to get my nutrients. This could literally be an entire post on its own but I'll summarize. The supplement industry is completely unregulated and they can basically say and do whatever they want. Almost all of their claims are false or can easily be proven to be false. There are very few supplements that actually work (creatine, caffeine, and protein powders being a few of them) but here's the thing, they're called supplements for a reason. You're supposed to supplement your diet with them when you need it. You should absolutely not be relying on supplements every day to get your nutritional needs. I'll go more in-depth with this in another post but I generally only have a few scoops of protein a week at most. Rant over.
As you can see there are a ton of vegan sources of high protein foods out there! Most of the time you just don't really realize how much protein is in foods (especially veggies!) so you look over them. Virtually every whole food on the planet has protein in it in varying quantities.
When I first went vegan I was scrambling hard to figure out where to get protein in my diet because I went vegan overnight. But now I get way more protein than I ever did before I was vegan!
Be sure to stay tuned and sign up for our email newsletter as I'll be doing what I eat in a day posts in the future with an exact nutritional breakdown of everything that I take in during a day. You can also check out some of the youtube videos that I've created that show you as well in a less detailed way.
Here are a couple of things I use that help me perform better as a vegan pro athlete:
- Athlete's protein I use - Like I said in my post I don't rely on protein powders and think the industry as a whole is corrupt. But if you're going to use one this is the one I recommend especially if you're an athlete. It's Safe For Sport Approved which is a super rigorous test and certification that's as good of a guarantee as you're going to get in the supplement industry that your supplements aren't spiked with something.
- Foam Rollers - these bad boys are a love-hate relationship with most people. They hurt when you use but they make your body feel soooo good after! I use the hardest possible one (with spikes coming out) but most people opt for softer options.
- Compression Socks - These are an absolute must for anyone that travels by plane. Your body naturally gets inflamed when we were in a pressurized tube 30,000 feet in the air and it's important to get that inflammation circulating through the body again or it's super uncomfortable (and leads to injuries for athletes). I wear these anytime we're set to travel anywhere!