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Going Gold (Green): Protein Nutrition Considerations for Plant-Based Athletes

As the 2022 Commonwealth Games roll into full swing, we are witnessing incredible feats of human performance. Athletes need to pay special attention to training and nutrition in order to perform at their best on the international stage. Watching these superhumans in awe, it’s natural to ask yourself, “What exactly do elite athletes eat?”

The power of protein

Whether running, cycling or lifting weights, muscle mass and strength are critical to successful performance. We know that muscle is made up of protein, and amino acids are the building blocks of this protein. A good source is protein consumed in foods and supplements.

When protein is consumed around frequent and demanding exercise training routines, the number of amino acids deposited in muscle protein is greatly increased, which is why muscles in highly trained populations continually rebuild and adapt. Given that elite athletes typically do a lot of strenuous exercise several times a week (sometimes daily) during training and competition, they are advised to consume more protein than the general population. The recommended daily protein intake is 0.8g per kg of body weight (64g of protein for an 80kg individual) for the average Joe, but not for elite athletes, or for muscle adaptations. and those with increased recovery needs should consume about 1.6g of protein per kg of body weight (Morton etc, 2018). If like Adam Peaty he weighs 86 kg, this makes him at least 137 g protein per day. But most importantly, our muscles can only take in a limited amount of protein at one time. of amino acids (water) can only be absorbed. This is why the athlete consumes multiple high-protein meals throughout her day, with each meal or snack he eats every 3-4 hours.

Diet alone cannot guarantee success, but there’s no reason why an athlete who follows a carefully planned and varied plant-based diet can’t go for gold.

Lucy Rogers & Marie Korzepa, School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences

Protein quantity as well as quality

Aside from the typical daily intake and intake pattern, protein quality is also an important consideration for muscle adaptation and recovery. It refers to the amount and type of amino acids present. Some amino acids are “essential”. This is because we can only get it from the food we eat (not from other body tissues/organs). For example, leucine is particularly important for muscle adaptation after food intake.

Many foods contain protein, and these foods contain varying amounts of the nine essential amino acids needed to support muscle adaptation and exercise recovery. Consuming a high-quality protein source is recommended to support muscle adaptation and recovery in high-performance athletes. However, for some, this is easier said than done. Animal protein sources such as meat, fish, and dairy are usually considered high-quality, complete proteins, whereas many plant-based protein sources, such as soy, wheat, and corn, are low-quality or incomplete proteins. This is because plant-based proteins 1) contain less or lack certain essential amino acids like leucine and 2) are often digested more slowly. Plant-based high-performance athletes may mean more food (and thus more calories) than omnivorous athletes in order to obtain essential amino acids that support optimal muscle adaptation and recovery in one meal. kg potato vs 70 g beef) (Gwin etc, 2020; Pinkels, Trommelen etc, 2021).

Considerations for Plant-Based Athletes

In recent years, more and more athletes are turning to plant-based diets for environmental or ethical reasons, or in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage. This should be done with careful planning so as not to adversely affect training goals and athletic performance. Plant-based athletes should be aware of potential pitfalls associated with a vegan diet. For example, alongside low protein, plant-based diets are typically lower in fat compared to omnivorous diets (Clarys and others.2014), meaning that more food may be needed to consume the same amount of protein and calories. This is of particular concern if you need to, or if you run multiple times a day during competition. , 2000), which can add to the challenge of consuming enough calories as fuel for training, recovery, and competition. It is probably wise for people with obesity to focus on consuming energy-dense foods more frequently.

Arguably, the main challenge facing plant-based athletes lies in the quantity and quality of protein intake from their diet. However, there are strategies plant-based athletes can follow to meet their nutritional and total calorie requirements for protein.

First, plant-based athletes consuming large amounts of protein from a particular source may not perform worse than their omnivorous counterparts, and between large amounts (at least 30 g) of protein from animals or plants There is evidence to suggest that muscle adaptation responses are similar in etc, 2021) or if the total daily protein intake is high enough (Hevia-Larraín) etc, 2021).Second, rather than simply eating excessive amounts of food to meet protein and total calorie requirements, plant-based athlete alternative strategies include eating a variety of foods to support muscle rebuilding and recovery. It is important to take in all the essential amino acids necessary to etc, 2021), this may include the use of simple and convenient nutritional supplements.

While undoubtedly challenging, a plant-based diet is feasible in high-performance sports.Diet alone cannot guarantee success, but athletes who follow a carefully planned, varied, plant-based diet are more likely to succeed. There’s no reason why you can’t aim for gold.

Perspective by Marie Korzepa, Lucy Rogers, and Dr Leigh Breen (Department of Sports, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences)