Before you start thinking about how much protein you need and how you’re going to get it, you might want to take a minute to consider what protein is in the first place!
In short, protein is made up of individual amino acids. (If you’re curious, amino acids are organic compounds that are made up of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen.) (2)
Amino acids influence our organs, glands, tendons, and arteries. Basically, there’s almost nothing that amino acids can’t do! Below are just some of their functions in the body: (4)
- Support wound healing
- Tissue repair – especially muscle, bones, skin, and hair
- Facilitate removal of metabolic waste
- Hormone synthesis
- Immunity support via antibody protection
There are 20 amino acids. 9 of those amino acids are considered essential, which means that our bodies can’t make them on their own and we have to take them in through our food! (2)
9 Essential Amino Acids
The essential amino acids with a “*” are branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). (4) For now, there isn’t enough science to back up that any individual essential amino acid can provide a “bodybuilding” effect. The current science only supports the fact that you need all of the essential amino acids to make new muscle. (1)
Protein’s Role in Recovery and Muscle Damage
So what the heck does protein even do for athletes? Well, protein plays a pretty important role in recovery and muscle damage.
Pretty much across the board, science agrees that protein intake plays an important role in long term muscle synthesis and adaptation. (4)(6) Some science claims that carbohydrate consumption of 1g per kg of body weight in addition to 20g of protein immediately after exercise can support both immediate and long term recovery. (4)(7) All of that being said, there isn’t a whole lot of science to back up protein’s role in immediate recovery. (4)(6)
Protein recommendations differ greatly depending on a variety of factors. It’s probably not surprising that athletes require more protein when compared to sedentary adults and recreational exercisers. (1)
What you might find interesting is that athletes that are restricting their calories require more protein than athletes that aren’t trying to lose weight. This is because protein is converted into glucose and used for energy instead of muscle building and repair if calorie intake is too low. (1)
Estimating Protein Intake
Protein intake is a hot topic among exercisers and athletes, but how many of these athletes actually sit down to calculate their needs? Probably fewer than you think!
Take a second to calculate your protein needs so that you have an accurate place to start. Use the chart above (protein recommendations) and the chart below (estimating protein intake) to determine how much protein you should shoot for every day.
The example above would be for an adult endurance athlete weighing 135 lbs. Assuming you are an endurance athlete, just replace 135 lb. with your weight! If you’re not an endurance athlete, refer back to the above chart to calculate your needs based on your training and goals.
Plant Protein Sources
Below is proof that you can get enough protein from plants! Tempeh, lentils, beans, tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and nutritional yeast are all pretty delicious ways to make sure you recovery from your workouts. Honestly, any excuse to eat peanut butter sounds good to me!
What is a complete protein and does it matter?
Complete proteins are considered high quality proteins. “Complete” simply means that they have all of the essential amino acids in the correct ratio to maintain nitrogen balance and allow tissue growth and repair. (2) Yes, most plants are considered “incomplete” sources of protein because they don’t have all of the amino acids. The concept of complete and incomplete proteins lead to the concept of complementary proteins. A complimentary protein is basically combining multiple “incomplete” proteins to form a “complete” protein.
But is this concept of complete, incomplete, and complementary proteins necessary? Nope. Believe it or not, our bodies are pretty smart and it stores all of your amino acids in an amino acid pool. (4)(5) The body takes all of the digested proteins you ate throughout the day, breaks them down, and stores them in an amino acid recycling pool. Then, the amino acids are taken from that pool to assemble complete proteins that can be used in the body. (4)(5)
Long story short, you can get all of the essential amino acids from a plant-based diet! Don’t let anyone bully you into thinking otherwise. Take a look at this amazingly handy chart from the Thought for Food Lifestyle, LLC eBook, “Dude, where do you get your protein?”
Protein Distribution and Timing
Let’s get some definitions out of the way! What is nutrient timing and why does it matter? Essentially, nutrient timing is the impact of when and what you eat in relation to exercise. (1) Nutrient timing has a lot of potential to give you a competitive edge!
So how does it work? Don’t over complicate it. Try and consume around 20g of high-quality protein shortly after exercise, followed by an even distribution of protein-containing meals and snacks throughout the day. (1) It’s also important to note that your body can only use 20-25g of protein at a time, so more is not better in this case! (1)
After your workout, there is about a 45-minute window of opportunity to optimally nourish, repair, and build muscle. (1) Does this mean that you absolutely must eat 20g of quality protein after a workout? Absolutely not. That being said, if your goal is to build muscle, this strategy is optimal!
Long story short, instead of focusing on the quantity of protein you’re eating, you’re likely better off to put that focus into when you are eating your protein.
Supplements vs. Food
You’re probably not surprised that I’m an advocate for FOOD FIRST. Believe it or not, supplements are there to do exactly what their name promises. Supplements are there to supplement your diet.
While it’s nice to be able to drink 20g of protein after a workout without having to do any meal prep or planning, you’ll be missing out on the rest of the nutrients found in real food! When you’re in a pinch, you’re better off using supplements to supplement a whole foods, plant-based diet – not replace it.
Plus, there is little-to-no FDA regulation and oversight of the supplement industry, so it can be pretty sketchy. Before choosing a protein supplement, do your research and choose a company you can trust! I typically go with Vega.
Take Home Message
Don’t let your protein intake stress you out! Most of us (including plant based folks) get plenty of protein without even trying and it’s a safe bet that you are a part of that group too! Instead of focusing on the quantity of protein you are taking in, focus on protein quality, distribution, and timing.
1 Clark, Nancy. Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. 5th ed., Human Kinetics, 2014.
2 McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. (2013). Sports and Exercise Nutrition(4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer.
3 Food Composition Databases Show Foods List. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list
4 Stuber, A., & Long, J. (2016). Dude, where do you get your protein? Thought for Food Lifestyle LLC.
5 Munro, H. N. (1970). Mammalian protein metabolism. New York: Academic Press.
6 Jentjens, R. L., Loon, L. J., Mann, C. H., Wagenmakers, A. J., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2001). Addition of protein and amino acids to carbohydrates does not enhance postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis. Journal of Applied Physiology, 91(2), 839-846. doi:10.1152/jappl.2001.91.2.839
7 Nieman, D. (2009). Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Yearbook of Sports Medicine,2009, 144-145. doi:10.1016/s0162-0908(09)79472-3