Why I Do It
First question I usually get after someone learns that I am plant-based, after the initial ridicule, is about protein. The second is usually why do you do it?
It’s simple really: The environment. It felt like one thing I could really do to have an impact on climate change.
- Water. It takes way more water and fossil fuels to produce meat protein than plant protein. The idea of water productivity, the production per unit of input, is extremely telling of the efficiency of plants vs. meat, especially in terms of nutrition. This is called nutrition productivity and it measures how effective the water is at producing specific nutrients (protein, fats, energy, calcium). Meat has one of the lowest nutrition productivity of most agricultural products (Renault, D. and Wallander, W. W.,1999, page 285).
- Land. Livestock takes up 70% of agricultural land and 30% of the earth’s land surface (Steinfeld et al., 2006). This means that as population grows and meat consumption stays the same per person, or grows per person, that more and more land will need to be dedicated to livestock i.e. rainforests.
- Gases. Livestock is responsible for 12.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Steinfeld et al., 2013). A.k.a. climate change.
So with all these facts, I decided to do some research and decide if plant-based strength training could be done at all.
First of all, you absolutely CAN get enough protein on a plant-based diet. While the typical recommendation for protein intake is 0.8g/kg, intake for any athlete, but also plant-based strength training athletes should be in the 1.2-2.0 g protein/kg of bodyweight range (Egan, B., 2016). This means for every kg of your body weight (kg=lbs/2.2), you should eat between 1.2 and 2.0 grams of protein. The problem on a plant-based diet is that plant protein varies in structure from what you want it to become, a.k.a. muscle. When you eat muscle, it has a better profile for becoming muscle, which is why nothing will ever top meat as a protein source for muscle synthesis.
Hartman et al found that subjects who supplemented workouts with a soy protein saw similar increases in strength and muscle size as compared to subjects who supplemented with an animal protein. These results did show greater increases in the animal protein group than the soy group, but both saw increases (Hartman et al., 2007).
Two major problems in getting enough protein on a plant-based diet, is caloric density and protein quality.
- Plants have lower caloric density. This means that per weight unit, plant-based foods carry less protein and calories. You will get full because of the volume (amount) of food, but not the caloric density (how many calories you ate). This means that as a plant-based athlete, you will have to eat more, and more frequently than your omnivorous counterpart.