By Jordan Joy, PhD, CISSN, CSCS
Is switching to a plant based diet a complete "Game Changer?"
It certainly is, just not in the way that the new James Cameron documentary – if we can even call it that – wants you to believe. In fact, quite the opposite.
Protein intake and protein quality is and has been linked to performance for years, and the literature supports the use of animal proteins over plant proteins for recovery and optimal performance.
Before I was interested in low-carb and keto diets, I primarily researched protein and other ergogenic aids. Including comparison of plant and animal proteins
First, let’s discuss the theoretical benefits of protein and protein quality based on available science.
Protein is the nutritional stimulus for muscle recovery and growth, and both are anabolic processes. Proteins are composed of the 20 proteogenic (protein-forming) amino acids, of which 9 are essential, meaning they must be obtained via our diets. Muscle anabolism is triggered by the essential amino acid (and BCAA), leucine.
Leucine is most abundant in animal proteins, as are the other EAAs. For example, whey is about 10% and meats are about 7-8% leucine.
Research has shown we need to cross a minimum threshold of leucine to have meaningful increases in muscle protein synthesis, which translates to about 25-30g of animal protein.
For maximal rates, it is estimated that we require 0.05g of leucine per kg bodyweight . These quantities of leucine would be easy to hit on a per day basis, yet these are the suggested number per meal.
To extrapolate, the increase in anabolic signaling lasts for about 3 hours. If you’re awake for 15 hours and trying to sustain high rates of recovery and/or muscle growth, that would translate into 5 meals of no less than 25g of high-quality protein just to get the recovery signals firing.
For an 80kg weightlifter (~180lbs), that’s about 50g of protein x5 = 250g protein per day for the most optimal protein feeding for recovery.
It’s at the high end, but even if we shave this back to the standard recommendation of 2.0 g/kg for a weightlifting athlete, that’s 160g that will be spaced out (ideally) over 4-5 meals (32-40g per meal). However, if this protein is coming from plant proteins, things change substantially.
Compared to animal protein sources, plant protein sources are about 50% as effective based on leucine content.
While it is true that some plant proteins have higher quantities of leucine, such as pea or soy at ~7-9%, most are much lower around 3-5%. In other words, about half that of animal proteins.
Quick math rapidly escalates an optimal protein dose from 160-250g for our 80kg lifter to 320-500g coming from plant proteins! Couple that with other macronutrients (mostly carbs) found in plants, and individuals need to eat far too many calories to maintain healthy weight and achieve optimal protein intake.
Even reasonable protein intake is challenging. Hence why it is so common to see either some sort of micronutrient deficiency (without supplementation, which is a rather strong indicator that we’re not meant to eat that way) or an overweight, low muscle mass phenotype.
Just the 320-500g represents 1,280-2,000 Calories on its own. Now factor in that even higher protein plants are only ~20% protein, and one will end up consuming 6,400-10,000 Calories!
That is, unless there is significant supplementation occurring, and that is an option. However, even as a company that sells supplements, our moral compass commands us to say that obtaining large proportions of your protein from supplements is inadvisable.
They’re supposed to be supplementary, not mandatory – not adding something you should be obtaining from your normal diet, such as B12, Vitamin D, and Choline to name a few.
In 2014, we compared rice protein powder head-to-head with whey protein as a test of the leucine threshold theory of muscle recovery and growth.
As we’ll discuss shortly, athletes don’t perform as well when vegan/vegetarian.
However, there is a scenario that it can work out okay, and it’s already been alluded to – with high energy intake. What athletes have notoriously high energy demands? Endurance athletes.
Indeed, many endurance athletes are vegetarian/vegan. They regularly consume several thousand calories per day while also being of smaller body mass (lower protein requirement) than most other athletes.
While we discussed an 80kg man, 60kg for a male endurance athlete is more ideal for their sport, bringing their reasonably ideal plant protein intake to ~180g (1.5g/kg [their conventionally assumed needs/kg] doubled for lack of protein quality) yielding just 720 Calories.
If they eat just 3,600 Calories (which is not that much for endurance athletes), they’re all good – protein doesn’t really even need to cross their minds!
I would argue that eating 60-90g of carbs per hour of racing just so the wheels don’t fall off is tedious and introduces practical difficulties that are unnecessary, but that is a discussion for another time.
Game Changers appears to be a documentary centered on “debunking” the “myth” that animal proteins are required to perform at a high level. If we’re speaking in absolute terms, sure, it is possible to perform at a high level without eating animal proteins.
However, even their best examples here fall well short of anything extraordinary.
Still, the producers get these athletes in front of the camera and present them as “plant-based athletes” while NOT sharing that most of them built their careers to their peak while eating animal proteins then switched, and in most cases, declined.
Before we go into any personal details, almost all of these individuals are more physically accomplished than myself and very likely more than those reading as well.
There is absolutely no disrespect meant here in discussing their performances, and despite the fact that I think they could have selected better dietary practices for their sport, they’re still training their asses off and deserve to be recognized for that. But before discussing them, James Cameron.
Why did James Cameron make this movie? I’m sure that he believes this is the right thing for him to do. I don’t believe he is consciously trying to harm anyone or detract from their goals or accomplishments.
I do think that there is at least some motivation to push the agenda due to a significant financial stake in pea protein manufacturing, but this is also very likely born from a desire to do good.
It just so happens that he is wrong about what is actually good instead of what has become believed to be good.
The biggest name, and the easiest to identify as an athlete who built his career consuming animal protein, as is thoroughly documented. Nowadays, it doesn’t really matter – he is not competing.
Nonetheless, by his own admission, he is not vegetarian and is only trying to eat “less meat” at the request of his doctor.
His doctor who, if like almost all doctors, knows next to nothing about nutrition and is more likely trying to protect himself from a malpractice suit than offering sound dietary advice.
As a younger athlete in the less-than-mainstream sport of surfing, not much is available on Tia. Unlike all of the others mentioned here, Tia has been at least vegetarian her entire life.
According to worldsurfingleague.com, she currently ranks #43. While it is certainly an achievement to be a professional athlete, #43 doesn’t present a strong argument in favor of vegetarianism for elite athletics.
Patrik is a bodybuilder turned strongman who began vegetarianism in 2005 and veganism in 2011. As a bodybuilder, he won at least one show in 1999. As of 2007, his personal best lifts were a 215kg bench, 310kg squat, and a 360kg deadlift at 116kg bodyweight.
By professional standards, those numbers are okay, but by no means great.
Patrik looked pretty good in his pre-plant-based bodybuilding days, and not surprisingly looked a bit more like a strongman while plant-based, yet after going vegan in 2011 appears to have added unnecessary fat mass lost some muscle mass, then retired and appears somewhat average today based on recent YouTube videos.
It seems that he did well with meat in his diet, changed, and at least experienced a significant attenuation in his rate of gains.
Rip was a collegiate athlete (All-American swimmer) on scholarship until 1986, and he didn’t start eating plant-based until after college at 23.5 years old, as stated on this podcast.
Also stated there, “even as a scholarship athlete in college, Rip was chowing down on hamburgers, steaks, and BLTs.
He shares why he opted to ditch meat and dairy after graduating from school.” While he did compete in triathlons for another ten years after college, he has no notable victories. A perfect example of thriving athletically with meat in the diet, but having no significant achievements while plant-based.
Scott is the most accomplished of the bunch – perhaps aside from Arnold, but Arnold is in no way, shape, or form plant-based.
Jurek is a decorated ultra-endurance runner. As such, he perfectly fits the bill described earlier – low body mass, very high energy intake to support his very long runs which translates into acquiring adequate protein by proxy.
While Scott is certainly an elite athlete, it is worth noting that low-carb, very much non-plant-based athletes are performing just as well (elite, world-record-setting performances), if not better, without the bothersome fueling strategies.
Dotsie is a USA cycling champion who medaled in 2012. According to her own website, “After concluding a prolific professional cycling career that produced a medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games, eight US national championships, two Pan American gold medals and a world record, Dotsie Bausch has become a powerful influencer for plant-based eating for athletes and non-athletes alike.”
Although I could not find a precise date for when she began eating plant-based, this quote and other statements found around the internet suggest the change came late, if not after, her athletic success.
Bryant is a boxer who began eating vegan in August 2013. Prior to which, he was 17-0. Since making the switch, he is 7-3. That would be good in some sports, but I wouldn’t consider boxing one of them, as elite boxers have few, if any, professional losses.
Damien is an accomplished soldier and a caring man. While I appreciate his charitable spirit, he went vegan in 2013, but he left the armed forces in 2008, so allusions to being a vegan soldier are illusions.
Kendrick is an Olympic weightlifter. He placed 8th in the 2008 Olympics. He went vegan in late 2014. He placed 11th in the 2016 Olympics.
Griff is an American football player who went vegan in 2013. He joined the NFL in 2012, but he didn’t see much action and played for 6 different teams through 2018 plus one year of preseason for the CFL. His career NFL stats include 51 receptions, 532 yards receiving, 3 touchdowns, and 6 fumbles.
Again, every one of these athletes deserves credit and respect. Just because we may believe they made poor decisions for their dietary practices doesn’t take away from the things they were still able to achieve.
I only believe they would have been better suited to accomplish more if they had a more optimal diet.
Unfortunately, the only strong case in favor of plant-based athletics is Scott Jurek who has a very plausible and unique case to meet his protein needs through plant consumption.
That doesn’t seem to extend very far outside of ultra-endurance, as the majority of examples reached their peak while eating meat.
In particular, it is no secret that protein is of critical importance for strength athletes and bodybuilders. Any argument to the contrary is fundamentally and objectively false.
Making the argument that athletes can get all the protein they need while plant-based is objectively true, just practically implausible and based on the evidence presented, it doesn’t appear to offer the same benefits.