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Plant-Based Protein Science For Vegan Athletes

03 May,2022

Plant-Based Protein Science For Vegan Athletes

 Plant-based protein refers to protein sourced from plants and vegetables, and it refers to the primary way that vegans can get their protein. It is considered that vegans may lack sufficient protein because the most common protein sources are animal sources. This fact is even more critical for vegan athletes who need protein in their bodies than non-athletes. However, plant-based protein and plant-based protein supplements may help vegan athletes get the amount of protein they need to perform optimally.

This article aanalysis the effect of plant-based protein on body composition and athletic performance.This article then offers some plant-based protein suggestions that may be helpful to vegan athletes.

Plant-Based Protein, Performance, and Body Composition

Protein is an essential nutrient for the body, especially for athletes. As noted by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN)noted thatthe athletes' body protein contributes to their performance and adaptation to exercise.

Scientific literature and evidence suggest that the protein requirements for exercising individuals and athletes are 1.5-2.0 fold higher than generally recommended for non-athletes. According to a paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), high-protein diets may assist with fat loss, more significant activity-related energy expenditure, and a greater thermogenic effect from food than other macronutrients。

Read full details on the study here:

Furthermore,protein required by individuals will also be determined by the nature of their sports and the goals they seek to achieve in their bodies. Whether plant-based or otherwise, protein can affect body composition, particularly in the muscles, fat, and bone.

However, studies conducted by the ISSN and other scientific bodies reveal that vegan athletes and trainers seem to consume less protein than their counterparts who take mixed diets.  plant-based protein sources often lackessential amino acids and typically contain fewer Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) than their animal-based counterparts. Prominent examples of amino acids that are limited or absent in plant-based protein include methionine, lysine, threonine, isoleucine, and tryptophan. The most commonly absent seems to be lysine, especially from cereal grains. The implication is that vegan athletes and trainers would have to intentionally optimise their diet through supplements and specific intakes of certain foods to ensure their bodies get the protein they need.

Suggestions on Plant-based Protein for Vegan Athletes and Trainers

1.Eat High-Protein Foods

One way for vegan athletes and trainers to get all the protein they need is to specifically eat certain foods that have been proven to be rich in protein. An ISSN article aimed at offering practical advice on vegan diets to athletes and trainers stated that foods such as legumes and beans are rich sources of lysine- one of the significant BCCA missing in most plant-based protein sources. Furthermore, it was also noted that leucine could be gotten from lentils and soybeans. Seeds, tree nuts and chickpeas are also excellent sources of Branched Chained Amino Acids (BCCA).

Read full details on the article by the ISSN here:

High Protein Food Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians

a.Soybean - Estimated 18 grams of protein per 150-gram serving when cooked

b.Tempeh -  Estimated 18 grams of protein per 85-gram serving

c.Lentils -  Estimated 9 grams of protein per 100-gram serving

d.Tofu - Estimated 8-15 grams of protein per 85-gram serving

e.Almond - Estimated 6 grams of protein  per 30-gram serving

f.Wild rice- Estimated 8 grams of protein per 200-gram serving

g.Chickpeas- Estimated 6 grams of protein per 120-gram serving

h.Spinach- Estimated 4 grams of protein per 100-gram serving (when cooked)

i.Cashew - Estimated 5 grams of protein per 30-gram serving

j.Potatoes - Estimated 4 grams of protein in 1 medium white potato

k.Avocado- Estimated 2 grams of protein per ½ avocado

l.Quinoa- Estimated 4 grams of protein per ½ cup

m.Nuts- Estimated 7 grams of protein per ¼ cup

n.Hemp seeds- Estimated 7 grams of protein per 2 tbsp

o.Legumes- Estimated 7 grams of protein per ½ cup

The ISSN also made a table of some high-protein foods ideal for vegan athletes.

See full details of the table in this link:

2.Eat a Variety of Protein Foods

Another critical practice for vegan athletes and trainers is to consume a  wide variety of protein foods, and  the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has recommended this method  (AND) . It is expected that taking a variety of protein foods will ensure that athletes consume all the essential amino acids (EAA) and BCAA that they need to support recovery from injuries and to adapt well to training and sports performances.

3.Consider the digestibility of plant protein

Another factor that vegan athletes must consider for a diet plan is the digestibility of plant protein markedly lower than animal protein. As stated by the ISSN, there are two primary methods of determining protein digestibility, and animal protein sources rank higher in both forms. These methods are: The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) and Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). Important plan-based protein sources such as rice, peas, and hemp all score markedly lower than animal-based sources such as eggs, chicken, and beef using either system. 

The implication is that vegan athletes have to consume even more protein to make up for the low digestibility of the plan-based protein sources. In the ISSN's opinion, since vegan athletes consume no animal protein in their diet, it may be prudent to target protein intakes closer to the high end of the ISSN's protein recommendation of 1.4 to 2.0 g/kg per day while on energy-neutral or energy-positive diets. The ISSN also stated that during weight loss phases, values between 1.8 g/kg/per day to 2.7 g/kg/ per day might be appropriate to compensate for the low digestibility and biological significance of plant-based protein sources. 


Several plant-protein supplements are commercially marketed. While more extensive research will still be needed to assess the effect of these supplements on individuals, emerging research suggests that plant-protein supplements are effective at improving recovery from training and amplifying exercise performance. This is supported by a study published by the NCBI, which revealed that the administration of plant-based protein powders post-resistance exercise improved exercise performance and body composition indices.  

Read full details of the study here:

As reported by the ISSN, preliminary research suggests that plant-based supplements and animal-based supplements have very similar effects on body composition and exercise performance. Therefore, vegan athletes may consider supplemental protein when it is difficult or impossible to get the protein they require from food and diet. Some additional proteins that have been studied and are commercially available include soy (and soy isolate), pea, rice, hemp, and composite/blended protein products. 


Vegan athletes require protein just as much as their counterparts who take mixed diets. Therefore, vegan athletes may need to pay careful attention to what foods they consume, ensuring they are rich in protein; they may also need to consume more plant-based protein foods to mitigate the lower digestibility rate of plant-based protein. Lastly, some supplements may assist a vegan athlete in catching up on the protein required to be optimal. 

To know more about plant-based protein, get learning resources such as those listed below, and register today to be a Sports Nutrition Specialist (SNS®) on the GPNi® platform.

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