Plant Protein for Performance & Overall Health

Consuming quality protein is critical for overall health and athletic performance gains and recovery. I wrote a blog almost two years ago, The Protein Myths, where I chronicled some of the common myths about protein and where we should have our focus. Here I will share a bit more about protein in the context of athletic performance and how we can optimize recovery and gains.

To recap just a bit, when we consume animal foods and take in protein in this manner  we increase:

  • Cholesterol
  • Risk of cancer
  • Risk of diabetes
  • Risk of heart disease
  • Weight
  • Chances of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Skin/acne issues
  • Fatigue
  • Frequency of being sick
  • What did I miss….

Change the word “increase” to “decrease” when consuming whole plant-based foods and plant protein. It’s a beautiful thing… If you are exercising for general health or training for performance one of things that is vitally important is recovery.

Recovery consists of how we are dealing with many factors – exercise load, sleep, stress, active recovery, passive recovery and nutrition. When we exercise we cause stress and inflammation to our bodies. As noted in my previous blog Dr. Michael Greger shares how when people consume animal food, it causes immediate inflammation that sticks in our bodies for 5-6 hours. If you consume animal foods at each meal your body is in constant inflammation.

When consuming plant-based protein it comes with antioxidants that help reduce inflammation. So the question is, do we want the nutrition we consume fighting against the inflammation our body just incurred from exercise or add fuel to the fire by adding more inflammation? This is how nutrition can either speed up recovery or not. I couldn’t believe the transformation it made for me when I made the switch. I kept wondering why I felt so bad during, after exercise and the next day. As I was told when I was consuming animal products, “you can’t out train a bad diet.” That is exactly what I was trying to do and it’s just not possible.

There are best practices that help speed up recovery post exercise. But first let’s look at general guidelines for protein. I went back to look at the book, Proteinaholic, written by Dr. Garth Davis. To say this doctor knows science and analytics is an understatement. He was once a big meat eater and wondered why his health was deteriorating so he went out to find why and this is what led him to write the book and turn him plant-based. He’s now an Ironman competitor and is killing it.

He references guidelines provided by the World Health Organization and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The recommended daily allowance for Americans is .8 grams of protein for each kilogram of weight. So if I weigh 163 pounds that equates to 74 kg of weight. 74 kg multiplied times .8 grams of protein means I should be consuming 59 grams of protein each day. The World Health Organization uses a slightly lower guideline (.66 grams) based on lean body weight and is probably the more realistic number but we’ll save that for another day. In a nutshell however the .8 grams of protein guideline is plenty and we have don’t have issues getting to this number if consuming enough calories each day.

If exercising regularly for fitness or training hard for an event we burn more calories and could benefit from additional intake.  What I think from a big picture perspective is when I exercise more I eat more and naturally I consume more calories and protein. So I don’t get obsessed about the protein numbers I consume because I know I’m eating more when exercising and I’m eating the right foods to reduce inflammation and not throw gas on the fire.

The target ranges for one exercising regularly seem to be 1.0 grams and slightly more if you are trying to build muscle growth/mass..up to 1.8 grams for Olympic type endurance athletes or body builders. In the documentary Game Changers they cited a study that showed no additional benefits above 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So you can see there is a range and a good idea is to journal your intake to see what works and feels good. It’s a great idea to journal about your overall nutrition intake from time to time simply to see if you learn anything about what you are consuming. I do this every so often and I learn something new every time I journal, often identifying new patterns I’ve created.

One of things I try to do is fuel myself immediately after a rigorous training effort or race. What Dr. Garth Davis (Davis, 249-252) found in his research of the research shows we can benefit by:

  • consuming protein right after exercise to rebuild and grow muscles
  • targeting 20 grams of protein
  • adding carbohydrates to increase protein synthesis (the targets should be around 3:1 or 4:1 – carbs/protein)

I usually follow one of my workouts with a sport recovery drink and carbohydrates consisting of fruit. My usual morning cereal is loaded with oats, bananas, strawberries and blueberries that provide the carbohydrates along with the protein I’m getting from the drink. Heck, the cereal combo alone provides 12 grams of protein and over 90 grams of carbohydrates.

Very timely, I just listened to Dr. Neal Barnard, on the latest episode of the Rich Roll Podcast today state that excess protein of any source reduces sleep quality and we need sleep to repair our body from exercise and rest the brain.

There are many ways to do this so find what works for you and feel the benefits in your next workout. It’s a snowball effect. By enhancing recovery means you can go harder in your next workout so each workout is performed at a higher level enhancing performance. That along with the overall health implications of avoiding animal products shared above. It’s a win-win..

I hope this gives you food for thought in helping you fuel your body to maximize performance and overall health.

– Add Health to Your Life

Davis, G., & Jacobson, H. (2016). Proteinaholic: how our obsession with meat is killing us and what we can do about it. New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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