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Vegan Athletes

February 21, 2012

It’s sad that the misconception that vegan diets do not contain enough protein, at least for large, muscular, athletic men, persists. At dinner over the weekend, a discussion began among a group of friends about vegetarian and vegan diets. Multiple friends expressed disbelief about the ability of a vegan diet to sustain heavily active individuals. One of the guys present, who was very well built and a personal trainer, challenged, “Could you design for me a vegan 4000 calorie diet that contained 250g of protein?” to which I emphatically replied, “Yes!”

There are countless examples of vegan athletes, ranging from bodybuilders to Ironman competitors and ultra-marathoners.

Brendan Brazier

The most famous and notable example is Brendan Brazier, a professional Ironman triathlete, author of THRIVE: A guide to optimal health and performance through plant-based whole foods and The Thrive Diet,  creator of the whole foods nutritional products company VEGA, and two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion. Although Brendan is just one shining example of athletic success on a plant-based diet, other examples abound. One such is Rich Roll, one of Men’s Fitness magazine’s “25 Fittest Guys in the World” in 2009 and the first vegan athlete to compete in the Ultraman World Championships. This article on CNN describes how he turned around his health and fitness at the age of 40 when he switched to a vegan diet, and two years later placed 11th in the Ultraman World Championships. Rich gives this advice about one’s diet: “[a diet of] plant-based foods and completely devoid of animal products is optimal. Conventional wisdom would say that an athlete cannot perform on plants alone. But I am living proof that this is false, and I have ample research to support this position… I cannot overemphasize the difference this has made in my own life, a secret weapon for enhanced athletic performance and overall long-term wellness. I realize, of course, that not everyone is ready to go 100 percent vegan, but a program built on a strong foundation of fresh organic vegetables, fruits and grains should be the focus… Eating whole fresh foods high in nutritional content will also stave off those unhealthy urges to binge.”

An answer to the age old question, “But how do you get your protein?” can be answered by many vegan bodybuilders on the website VeganBodybuilding.com. Bodybuilder Robert Cheeke explains,  “I pay special attention to protein and my main protein sources come from hemp, soy, tempeh, nuts, beans, lentils, grains and a variety of powders and bars including complete meal replacements, adding up to 200-300 grams per day. Tofu, a soy product, typically has 10-20 grams of protein per serving. Soy also has a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) of 1.0, which is the highest protein rating for a food to have, and it scores higher than beef protein. Hemp is one of the best sources of protein, period. It is alkalizing, packed full of nutrients, and is grown from the most sustainable methods, making it arguably the best resource. We often hear about protein combinations to make a complete protein. This is an accumulation of essential amino acids. Combining sources such as hemp, rice and pea provide a powerful amino acid profile for enhanced biomechanical efficiency.”

I personally do not eat very many grains as a protein source, but instead get my protein from vegan protein powders (such as brown rice and pea isolate), beans, tofu, nuts- especially almonds, soy milk, vegetables (yes, vegetables have protein!) and the occasional soy cheese. After analyzing my protein intake on a site such as FitDay.com, I have found that I have an approximate intake of 90g of protein (substantial).

There is protein present in a variety of fruits and vegetables. While fruits and vegetables do not contain as high of a percentage of protein as meats, they are less calorically dense and so more can be eaten to obtain more protein for the same amount of calories (in some, not all, cases). A comparison of percent protein in vegetables, fruits, and meat.

  • Broccoli: 11 percent
  • Spinach: 11 percent
  • Peas: 7 percent
  • Cucumbers: 6 percent
  • Oranges: 7 percent
  • Romaine lettuce: 7 percent
  • Watermelon: 7 percent
  • Artichoke: 7 percent
  • Pork loin: 10 percent
  • 80-20 Ground beef: 10 percent
  • Boneless, skinless, chicken breast: 23 percent
As you can see, broccoli and spinach have more protein per calorie than do pork loins and ground beef.

Lastly, VeganAthlete.com provides a list of other no-meat world-class athletes, in both strength and endurance:

Surya Bonaly
Olympic figure skating champion

Peter Burwash
Davis Cup winner and professional tennis star

Chris Campbell
Olympic wrestling champion

Ruth Heidrich
Six-time Ironwoman, USA track and field Master’s champion

Keith Holmes
World-champion middleweight boxer

Desmond Howard
Professional football star, Heisman trophy winner

Peter Hussing
European super heavy-weight boxing champion

Scott Jurek
Ultramarathoner, Course Record Holder at Badwater and Western States

Sixto Linares
World record holder, 24-hour triathlon

Cheryl Marek and Estelle Gray
World record holders, cross-country tandem cycling

Bill Manetti
Power-lifting champion

Ben Matthews
U.S. Master’s marathon champion

Dan Millman
World champion gymnast

Paavo Nurmi
Long-distance runner, winner of nine Olympic medals and 20 world records

Bill Pearl
Four-time Mr. Universe

Bill Pickering
World record-holding swimmer

Stan Price
World weightlifting record holder, bench press

Murray Rose
Swimmer, winner of many Olympic gold medals and world records

Dave Scott
Six-time winner of the Ironman triathlon

Art Still
Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs MVP defensive end, Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame

Jane Wetzel
U.S. National marathon champion

Charlene Wong Williams
Olympic champion figure skater

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2012 10:26 am

    What a great post, loved the info! I am also a Brendan Brazier fan and love his books!

  2. March 21, 2012 9:34 pm

    my brother should read this actually i make him read it :) he is always is commenting on on my choice of food .this should shut his mouth :)…thanks a lot

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