As a vegetarian athlete, I strive for quality protein in my diet. I am also a believer that if I emphasize wholesome food (with little to no ingredients) in the majority of my diet, my body will have an easier time digesting, absorbing and using the nutrients and fuel that I consume on a daily basis. Although my transition to vegetarian athlete has been an exciting and educational journey, I feel confident in my daily food choices because I focus on wholesome choices. Although we should aim for around 20% of the daily diet to be from protein, we want to be sure that we provide the muscles, brain and body with the BEST protein possible in order fuel workouts and your lifestyle routine. Because not all protein is considered equal when it comes to digestion, we want to focus on the amino acids within our protein choice, which help to increase lean muscle mass as well as fuel the brain and muscles during exercise (specifically, the branch chain amino aids). I recommend to aim for the most easy-to-digest natural protein sources that fit into our diet (regardless of vegetarian or meat eater).
(This table from BodyBuildingPro.com has been around for a while but the protein quality hasn't changed much over the years)
Whey protein, milk and eggs are two staples of my diet. Veggie burgers and cottage cheese will certainly help me met my protein needs but when it comes to how my body utilizes the protein in my diet, I recognize that some proteins are more advantageous than others. And when it comes to supplements in the diet (ex. whey protein), I believe that we must supplement when we can not properly consume adequate amounts that will help us meet good health standards. Whether you are an athlete or fitness enthusiast, recognize that no one has a perfect diet and your body may lack certain nutrients based on training regimes, dietary preferences and lifestyle commitments.
The Biological Value (BV) of protein determines what percentage of protein is utilized by the body (in more detail, it is derived by determining nitrogen uptake vs nitrogen excretion). Ultimately, as athletes we want to strive for high biological value protein sources, with protein to comprise around 25% of our meal. When I work with athletes, I often focus on the Plate Method (new to the USDA as a replacement to the Food Pyramid, but many dietetic professionals have been using the plate method as a simple way to plan meals).
Here you can see that 50% of the meal is from non-starchy veggies (and fruit) and 25% from complex carbohydrates such as whole grains. Based on research, it seems as though 20 grams of protein is the magic number per meal, but I believe in focusing on two things as an athlete:
protein quality and nutrient timing.
The foundation of any training/exercise routine comes from great overall nutrition. Our body relies on a consistent intake of carbs, protein and fat as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals. To improve the quality of your diet, aim to eat a little protein with carbohydrates (ex. when eating snacks such as fruit) and complement your plant-based meal with protein and healthy fats at meals.
Most importantly, focus on that post-workout snack... This is the PRIME time to become stronger from training, to quickly heal tissues and to help curb cravings and prevent overeating later in the day (by controlling hormones and blood sugar post-workout).
BCAA's(Branch Chain Amino Acids) are 3 very important essential amino acids which have anabolic effects on protein metabolism. By consuming protein with a high "gold standard" biological value (such as whey protein post workout) you will help increase the rate of protein synthesis, thus encouraging a more efficient use of fuels during exercise as well as rapid tissue repair post-workout.