“You mostly eat plants. How do you get enough protein?”
If you’re an athlete who’s a vegan, vegetarian or just someone who eats a mostly plant-based diet, like I do, believe me, you hear this question all the time. People have this idea that they need to eat bucketloads of protein to build muscle, and they think protein must come from animal sources. And sure, musclebound bodybuilder types are called meatheads for a reason, but a plant-based diet high in fruits and vegetables and low-to-nil on meat can give you more than enough nutrition to make and maintain serious muscle.
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Want proof? Consider that the only Olympic weightlifter to represent the U.S. at the Rio Olympics is a vegan. So is Nike Elite Performance Coach Robert Dos Remedios and David Carter, a 300-pound behemoth who used to play defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals (he’s a free agent now, but he followed a plant-based diet when he was on those teams’ rosters).
These guys don’t fit the model of wimpy vegetarian types, and neither do I. I’m 5-foot-10, 215 pounds and train at least 6 times per week. That’s a picture of me above.
Since I went mostly plant-based three years ago, I’ve recovered faster and feel better after workouts—and I found out that a lot of what I had thought about nutrition was wrong.
I should state up front that I’m not a crusader. I’m not here to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong. In fact, I’m not even going to say that eating meat is wrong. As you can probably guess from my repeated use of the word “mostly” next to “plant-based,” I still eat meat (rarely, but I do). If there’s one thing that the debate on nutrition doesn’t need, it’s more zealots.
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Anyway, the things I learned after switching to a diet that primarily consists of produce surprised me, so I thought I’d share them with you. That’s why I’m here—to break down what I do now, share what I’ve learned, and let you be the judge of what’s right for you.
Taking the leap and learning nothing is real
For most of my life I ate what I’d call a pretty typical American diet—meals that consisted of a protein main course (steak, chicken, fish, whatever) with some sides. But things started to change for me around three years ago, when my first daughter was born. I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives, which is a strong gut punch for just about anyone following what we call a “conventional diet.” The movie made me think, then it made me dig deeper. I read probably 10 books on the topic. And I decided to take the leap and go plant-based.
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It wasn’t an easy decision. I have a fairly muscular build, and I didn’t want to trade that in for an emaciated distance-runner look. And like most people who are into health and fitness, I had read over and over again about how you need to eat mountains of protein to keep your muscles fed and happy. (Here’s an example from Arnold Schwarzenegger: “The importance of protein for a hard-training lifter can’t be overstated. Everything I ate as a competitor was geared first and foremost to how much protein it had.”)
So I dug in to ways that I could get the protein I felt I needed. Here’s what I learned: We’re all taking in plenty of protein. According to the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, even strict vegetarians get about double what they need in a day. And high-protein diets haven’t proven themselves to be any more effective at building muscle anyway.
Huh. Okay. So then came the task of planning my own protein intake—something I expected to be complicated thanks to essential amino acids. You’re probably familiar with this: There are nine “essential” amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. They have to be consumed through food. Meat is an easy answer, since it nearly always contains all nine. Vegetarians have to get theirs by planning their meals according to a protocol called protein complementing. Or so I thought.
As it turns out, the need to plan around complementary proteins is a myth. As Jeff Novick, MS, RD, explains, “Modern researchers know that it is virtually impossible to design a calorie-sufficient diet based on unprocessed whole natural plant foods that is deficient in any of the amino acids. (The only possible exception could be a diet based solely on fruit).”
The key term there is “calorie-sufficient.” Athletes are active people, so they need to eat a lot. Fruits and vegetables are by and large less calorie dense than meats and processed foods, so a person who eats a plant-based diet must eat a higher volume of food to meet his or her needs. But it certainly can be done.
It turns out that the idea that plants aren’t complete protein sources is also a myth. Quinoa is a complete plant protein. Nuts and seeds give you an incredible amount of protein, along with fiber and healthy fat. And though it’s not totally necessary, combining complementary foods is actually pretty simple. Black beans and rice is one easy combo. Chickpeas and pita bread is another. Peanut butter and bread, that’s one too.
For what it’s worth, I’ve tested Novick’s fruit exception. I love fruit so much, sometimes apples, mangos, blueberries, watermelon and pomegranates are all I eat for dinner. I realize it’s purely anecdotal, but I haven’t seen any steep dropoff in my muscle mass.
Going green in good company
I’ll admit that my body has changed since I switched to a diet consisting primarily of plants. I used to be a lot more bulky. Today I am, in my view, just as muscular, but a bit leaner and athletic. More important, I feel great. I’m in much better cardiovascular shape, and I recover from intense exercise at a much faster rate, even though I haven’t changed my workout routine all that much. If anything, I’m training harder now than I ever have.
I’m not the only one. From former NFL player Tony Gonzalez to tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, many pro athletes realize the benefits that a plant-based diet can offer. Vegan bodybuilder Derek Tresize shows that you can get all the necessary amino acids from eating a balanced amount of whole plant foods to build serious muscle. And if you’re more concerned with performance than size, check out ultra-endurance athlete and author Rich Roll, who powers 100-plus-mile runs with a vegan diet.
I’ve found I feel best when I maintain a high intake of green veggies, which are amazing sources of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, an aspect of healthy eating that hasn’t been as well understood as it should be, but which is gaining attention. And here’s a fun fact: Dr. Joel Fuhrman explains that green vegetables actually have more protein per calorie than animal foods. They also have many anti-cancer effects, may prevent heart disease and improve overall immune function.
So if you’ve been thinking about going vegetarian or vegan, but you’re worried about what it’ll do to your performance or physique, rest assured that if you take the proper steps and eat a sufficient amount of calories, you will be fine.
Even if you aren’t going to go all-in on a restrictive diet, you’ll benefit from eating more veggies. As I said, I still eat meat every once in a great while—usually a gyro, pizza or some chicken wings. I get cravings, too. I’m not perfect. I guess what I’m saying is: You don’t need to be, either. But you definitely don’t need to worry about losing your muscle mass because you eat more plants. Hippos, gorillas, horses, rhinos and elephants carry enormous amounts of muscle, and do you know what their protein sources are? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not other animals.