And yes, you can get all the protein that you need from plants.
Just last week, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Can athletes perform well on a vegan diet?” The short answer is YES. (See link to article below) For the most part, the article provided some reassurance to serious athletes who might be considering a vegan diet.
But none of the experts mentioned the natural diet for the animals whose DNA is almost identical to ours—the gorilla and the chimpanzee. They eat only raw plants and don’t have a team of doctors, nutritionists, and dietitians coaching them on their diet. They also become very strong without resorting to protein shakes.
So what about protein? Here’s what two of their experts had to say to this question: Is it hard for someone who’s training vigorously to get enough protein on a vegan diet?
- David Nieman: The foods that vegans like Scott Jurek avoid, like dairy products and eggs, are the easy ways to get protein in a plant-based diet, obviously. But you still have grains, nuts, soy. Eat enough of that and you’ll be fine. The one issue is vitamin B12, which is found only in meat; B12 is important for endurance athletes, since it affects red blood cell production. But many cereals and soy milks are fortified with B12 now, or you can take supplements.
- Nancy Clark: You do have to be diligent about protein intake if you’re vegan. I have clients, especially women, who say, ‘Oh, I put a few chickpeas in my salad.’ But that’s not going to do it. Women need about 60 to 90 grams of protein a day, and athletes are on the high end of that. That means you have to eat cupfuls of chickpeas. And you can’t eat a quarter of that cake of tofu. You need to eat the whole thing. It’s not that there aren’t good sources of vegan protein. But it’s not as bioavailable as meat. So you need to have more.
Not as bioavailable as meat? That’s the problem with most of our nutritional experts in this country—they have been trained in a meat & dairy based system, and it will take many more decades for them to understand what the gorilla already knows. And not only the gorilla—the strongest animals in the world eat nothing but raw plants. Elephants, horses, hippos, etc. I have dedicated 14 separate blog posts on the topic of “protein concerns” because it is a genuine concern for over 90% of our population. For a review, you can visit my Protein Page.
But what about protein and the serious athlete? Once again, there is some disagreement among some of the experts. Some think juices and smoothies are great and others disagree. My position is basically the 4Leaf mantra as stated by Dr. Campbell, “The closer we get to eating a plant-based diet, the better off we will be.” All five of the medical doctors in the first chapter of our book agree with that, but they have differences of opinion on some of the details.
But I have observed that people have been successful with many different forms of a whole foods, plant-based diet. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal choice and choosing a diet-style that you can stick with. If you cannot maintain it indefinitely, then it really doesn’t matter what your theory is.
On the topic of smoothies. I have written about Brendan Brazier before. (See link below to his book) He is an extreme athlete who has written books on this topic and has attracted the attention of two very serious athletes in my family: my son Jason and his wife Lisa. In response to a friend just yesterday on this question, Jason wrote:
Hey Clark – first, thanks for joining the cause. We can’t have too many bright young minds on the case.
- It’s all about lean muscle mass; bulk will only slow you down and limit and your long term flexibility.
- You are on the right track with the vegan protein (stay away from the whey)
- 5 days a week is ok as long as you are not working the same muscle groups on consecutive days.
- Sleep – at least 7-8hrs is a must to effectively repair/rejuvenate.
- Smoothie – make a 32 ounce plant/protein smoothie every morn first thing: drink 16oz when you wake and the rest immediately after your workout (our daily recipe below)
Jason’s Protein Smoothie—In a vitamix in the following order:
- Add cup of your favorite unsweetened nut milk (soy, almond, rice or hemp)
- 2 scoops of plant protein blend (Pea, Hemp, Rice with Chia Seed; amazon link)
- 1 banana (very ripe is the best)
- 2 tsp chlorella (amazon link)
- 1 sliced apple
- 5 kale leaves or 2 cups of spinach
- 1 cup of frozen blueberries
- 4 pitted dates
- 1 tbsp of flax
- 2 cups of water
- Blend and enjoy!
I should point out that Jason gets most of his daily calories from whole plants, chewing every bite, complete with all the digestive juices involved. But, like Brendan Brazier mentioned below, he has had success with his fruit and veggie smoothies. “It’s working for him and Lisa.”
The New York Times article: Can Athletes Perform Well on a Vegan Diet?
Brendan Brazier’s book, Thrive, The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life by Brendan Brazier. My son and co-writer, Jason Hicks, and many of his friends have found this great book invaluable in helping them deal with the high calorie requirements of the seriously active lifestyle of many athletes.
One of Jason’s friends, an M.D., had this to say, “As a triathlete myself, the idea that a whole foods plant-based diet could allow an athlete to compete and do well at such a high level was very exciting. I bought the book and devoured every word. Brendan’s words were right in line with the research I had done for my thesis. The lifestyle he promotes is one in which the body utilizes nutrient-rich foods in their natural state, as opposed to the refined, processed foods of the traditional Western diet.” Click here to purchase Thrive on Amazon. To visit the website of the marathon-running M.D. who is quoted above, click here for Dr. Charlotte Moriarity’s website.
Three previous blog-posts about athletic performance
Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from Amazon.com
- The movie that’s changing the lives of millions: Forks Over Knives DVD
- Healthy Eating, Healthy World, The “big picture” about food (our book)
- An essential scientific resource: The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell
- Dr. McDougall’s new book, The Starch Solution, with lots of great recipes.
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Blogging daily at hpjmh.com…from the seaside village of Stonington, Connecticut – Be well and have a great day.
—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation