The biggest myth out there about veganism is that it'll leave you weak, at risk of anemia, lacking in energy and struggling to build muscle. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Protein, like the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats), is an essential part of a healthy diet. To build and repair muscle tissue, organs and bones, we undoubtedly need protein. But how much?
Protein has become big business, with vested interests perhaps distorting our perception of how much we really need. The whey (milk‑based) protein industry alone is worth $6.9 billion globally, which is predominantly a result of the body-building and fitness industries. Supplement companies sponsor athletes and celebrities who promote their products, which in turn inspires their fans to purchase the product.
The protein myth
I've been eating a vegan diet for more than three years now. When I started, I believed I already had an excellent understanding of nutrition and how it affected the human body. It's something I've been interested in for a long time, and as a bodybuilder, I'd spent a lot of time researching. But since becoming vegan and adapting my diet, I've radically changed my perspective on nutrition.
I discovered that I'd bought into a protein myth: I believed I needed far more protein than I really did to maintain and build muscle.
I was consuming about 200-240 grams of animal protein daily as an omnivore, the ideal amount according to traditional bodybuilding knowledge, which recommends 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. But the evidence to support the amount of protein I was consuming was extremely flimsy.
Once I started to look beyond fitness magazines and bodybuilding blogs, searching for credible scientific evidence to back this up, I simply couldn't find any proof.
I've reduced my protein further in the past year after I came across a meta‑analysis (a large study taking its results from several other studies) that measured the effect of protein supplementation in resistance training.1 It showed optimal results could be achieved with a far lower protein intake than had previously been thought necessary.
Protein, it turns out, has been seriously overhyped by the bodybuilding community.
When you're bodybuilding, the aim is to tear your muscle fibers (microtears), which the body will then repair using protein. You want to achieve an optimal amount of microtearing, and consuming sufficient protein to repair and grow the muscles is a necessity.
As somebody who had trained consistently since my teens, through my 20s and into my 30s, I often supplemented my meat and egg‑based meals with extra protein in the form of whey powders and supplements. My cupboards were full of huge plastic tubs of whey protein powders, and various boxes of protein bars that I considered "healthy snacks."
My fridge had been packed with pints of milk, and I'd sometimes guzzle most of a bottle at breakfast, and eat chicken, minced beef and vegetables from my plastic Tupperware containers. I didn't even like milk—I only drank it because I was told it would make me big and strong and give me healthy bones. But after years of consuming lots of it, drastically reducing my intake felt a bit scary.
I was worried I'd lose strength. But as I got used to it, and kept on training, increasing the intensity of my exercise regime and reducing my protein intake, I continued to make progress.
I now know that the amount of protein I need for optimum health is 5-10 percent of my total calories per day. This is a tiny amount in comparison to the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fat).
I don't go in for any of the gels, shakes or isotonic drinks. Instead, I get my protein from lentils, tofu, quinoa, buckwheat, tempeh and plenty of vegetables on the side. I occasionally use a combination of brown rice and pea protein because they have a high amino‑acid profile.
Since I've gone vegan, my pound‑for‑pound strength has increased, and I feel more energized and stronger than I previously did eating meat and dairy products.
My endurance has increased considerably since I've stopped eating animal products. Long‑distance running used to kill me, but now I can keep on going, comfortably, for at least 15 miles.
In the past, I'd have said I simply didn't have the physique for endurance exercise: power and strength were my forte. But now I can see that many of the assumptions I made about my body and my fitness were based on my response to a diet high in animal products that left me feeling sluggish and heavy.
My BMR (basal metabolic rate—the minimum daily amount of energy the body requires when at rest, including when asleep) increased week by week. Before I discovered the benefits of a plant‑based diet, I used to down whey protein (milk‑based) drinks almost every day.
A typical day back then might include six eggs, salmon and avocado for breakfast, chicken and rice for lunch and a similar dinner, occasionally swapping the chicken out for fish. I aimed for 1-1.5 grams of protein per 1lb (0.5 kg) of body weight a day, which is twice what I eat now. It was far more than I needed.
Over time, my digestion slowed, and I became constipated on a few occasions. I only put two and two together and realized protein was the culprit when I reduced my protein consumption and upped my fruit and vegetables, and finally found my bowels began operating normally again.
A life‑changing decision
Soon after the transition, I began to follow a cardio‑based exercise routine. Running and endurance had always been my fitness nemesis, but the first time I took to the roads was when I noticed the power that plant‑based nutrition had on me. A slow 3‑mile jog turned into a quick 3‑mile run.
Here are seven reasons why I believe plant‑based diets are the best way to support a fit, healthy, athletic body:
#1 Vegans are NO MORE LIKELY to be anemic than meat eaters
You've probably heard that vegetarians and vegans are more likely to be deficient in iron. Iron is essential for energy, and a deficiency will leave you feeling weak and tired—not ideal if exercise is important to you.
But a closer look at the evidence shows there's nothing much to back up this pervasive belief. A 1994 study found that the rate of iron-deficiency anemia was no higher in those eating a vegan diet.2
A subsequent wide‑ranging study published in 2009 by the American Dietetic Association, with data drawn from a range of studies, states that: "Incidence of iron‑deficiency anemia among vegetarians is similar to that of nonvegetarians."3
So why are vegetarians and vegans no more likely to be anemic if meat offers a far more 'bioavailable' source of iron than plant‑based sources?
It's partly because dairy decreases iron absorption by up to 50 percent. And partially because vegans usually eat more vitamin C‑rich foods, which significantly increase iron absorption.
Vegetarians also tend to eat more iron overall than most meat eaters, although the iron in meat is the more readily absorbed heme type.
Too much heme iron, however, can lead to constipation, stomach pain and nausea, and excessive supplementation has been found to lead to elevated risk of liver and bowel cancer and type 2 diabetes.4
If you're worried about your iron levels, cutting down on caffeine, which interferes with iron absorption, and drinking a glass of orange juice with your meal will boost your iron absorption.
#2 Vegans don't stink out the gym
Despite the anti‑bean propaganda, milk and dairy products are one of the leading causes of excess gas, mainly due to the surprising number of people who are lactose intolerant.
If you're of East, Central or Southern Asian origin, or African or Afro‑Caribbean heritage, you're far more likely to suffer from this affliction. Some studies put lactose intolerance rates at around 90 percent for some populations, so it might be worth investigating your risk.5
Several studies have measured whether upping consumption of legumes leads to a matching increase in the incidence and quantity of gas. Research reveals a mixed picture, with minor and temporary increases in flatulence appearing to fade after a few weeks. Researchers concluded the gassy reputation of beans has been exaggerated.6
#3 Vegetables count as 'performance‑enhancing' substances
To take one incredible example, beets have been shown to enhance performance in endurance cycling to the extent that athletes drinking nitrate‑rich beet juice before a long ride saw an astonishing increase in their oxygen efficiency
The benefit exceeded improvements in oxygen uptake observed in previous studies focusing on sprint training, endurance training and even hyperoxia (in which athletes wear a mask to breathe a higher percentage of oxygen while exercising).
In a 2009 study, cyclists were able to work at the same intensity with 19 percent less oxygen uptake than a placebo group. In the same study, those who drank beet juice took 90 seconds longer to reach exhaustion than the non‑beet group.8
Just a single shot of beet juice has been found to allow free‑divers to hold their breath for half a minute longer than usual, and similar benefits have been observed in runners, too.
Eating beets a couple of hours before training should give you a boost. Just grate raw beets into a sandwich, salad or slaw, or cook them with tomatoes, vegetable stock and a little garlic to make a delicious and nutritious 'red soup.'
#4 Legumes tick the 'high‑quality' protein box
Until recently, the dietary assessment of protein quality was based on the impact of different foods on rats. This led to the undervaluing of the quality of protein from legumes.
Now, the World Health Organization has adopted an alternative way to measure protein efficiency, correcting for human digestibility. The protein scores of beans, when measured in this new way, are better.9 Soybeans, in particular, score extremely high on the revised scale.10
#5 Vegan diets strike an excellent ratio of macronutrients
Even the most mainstream omnivorous diet advice recommends eating a high ratio of vegetables and complex carbohydrates to protein. By choosing a vegan diet, you take the hard work out of the calculations, as you'll already be drawing your calories from plants.
Vegans and vegetarians eat far fewer calories than omnivores, on average, which has been shown to improve metabolism and reduce central obesity, both of which will help to balance the hormones leptin and ghrelin that regulate appetite.
#6 Vegan muscles bounce back faster
As any athlete knows, recovery between training sessions is essential. Adequate recovery enhances performance and endurance and allows the body to repair itself. The only way to build muscle is to overload your muscles progressively by challenging them to exhaustion.
I used to suffer really badly with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)—pain 12-72 hours after training resulting from the microtears in my muscles. When I was eating a meat‑based diet, it would sometimes take three days for the soreness to subside after an intense workout.
From a physiological point of view, the pain is a result of inflammation, the body's response to the oxidative damage of exercise.
Foods that raise muscle glycogen levels are what the body needs to repair the damage. These are found in carbohydrates, and plant‑based carbs and whole grains are the best sources.
#7 Vegans have more stamina
The image of meat is one of strength. We associate it with satiation and sustenance, and it taps into the hunter‑gatherer idea of feasting on sustaining proteins. But in a famous study at Yale way back in 1907, even sedentary vegetarians had greater stamina than meat‑eaters who exercised—with sedentary meat‑eaters coming off worst of all in the tests.11
How much protein do you need?
The EAR is the daily Estimated Average Requirement for individuals. It was formerly known as the minimum daily requirement, but considering emerging research, some are using it as a guideline for optimal nutrition. The EAR is 0.5-0.6 grams (0.01 oz) of protein per 1 kg (2.2 lb) of body weight per day, considerably less than the bodybuilding figure I used to go by!
A woman who weighs 60 kg (132 lb) needs only 30-45 grams (1-1.5 oz) of protein per day, for instance. And if she was to eat the following meals and snacks (approximate protein levels shown), she'd be getting more than she needs, and plenty to support an intensive training regime:
Breakfast (10.5 g protein):
Porridge made with soy milk (9 g protein)
50 g stewed dried apricots (1.5 g protein)
Snack (1.8 g protein):
150 g raspberries (1.8 g protein)
Lunch (12.5 g protein):
Bowl of lentil soup (8 g protein)
Half an avocado (1.5 g protein)
Slice of whole wheat toast (3 g protein)
Snack (6 g protein):
1 serving of almonds (6 g protein)
Dinner (14 g protein):
50 g falafel (6.5 g protein)
15 g of hummus (0.75 g protein)
75 g quinoa served with finely chopped beef tomato, a drizzle of olive oil and parsley (7.5 g protein)
190 g broccoli (2.5 g protein)
Men don't require much more than this—just work it out according to your body weight (your weight in kilograms × 0.5 is the number of grams of protein you need per day).
Coconut quinoa delight
Whether sweet or savory, quinoa tastes great, and it's super‑nutritious. It's low on the glycemic index (GI) scale, meaning it digests slowly, so it won't cause a rapid spike in your blood sugar levels followed by an inevitable crash. It's also a great source of protein. I often have this recipe without the agave syrup as I find the fruit makes it sweet enough. You may want to try with and without.
1 oz (½ cup/90 g) quinoa, cooked to packet instructions
1½ pints (3 cups/880 mL) coconut milk
½ tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp agave/maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp chopped kiwi
2 Tbsp chopped mango
2 Tbsp chopped pineapple
1 Tbsp chia seeds
1 Tbsp flax seeds
1 Tbsp sunflower seeds
1) Combine the quinoa, coconut milk, cinnamon, agave syrup and vanilla extract in a saucepan and cook until the quinoa can be fluffed with a fork.
2) Divide the quinoa between two bowls and top with kiwi, mango and pineapple. Drizzle a little coconut milk over the fruit and top with seeds.
Thai red lentil curry with wild rice
This curry is packed with antioxidants and antibacterial properties. Curries with the right ingredients are super good for you and also have medicinal properties.
12 oz (1 cup/350 g) red lentils, rinsed and cooked to packet instructions
12 oz (1 cup/350 g) wild rice, rinsed and cooked to packet instructions
1½ pints (3 cups/600 mL) water or vegetable broth
2 Tbsp coconut oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 onions, diced
½ in (1.5 cm) fresh ginger, chopped
1 red pepper, diced
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp cumin
2 Tbsp Thai red curry paste
1 Tbsp tomato puree
14 fl oz (1¾ cups/400 mL)
2 handfuls fresh spinach
14 oz (400 g) can coconut milk
2 Tbsp vegan coconut yogurt
2 Tbsp fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped
1) Cook the wild rice and lentils as per packet instructions.
2) While the rice and lentils are cooking, heat the coconut oil in a wok over medium heat and gently stir fry the garlic, diced onions, ginger, red pepper, turmeric and cumin for about 5 minutes.
3) Add the cooked red lentils, Thai curry paste and tomato puree and gently stir before pouring in the broth and bringing to a boil. Reduce heat, add the spinach and the coconut milk and simmer for a further 15 minutes.
4) Serve the curry on top of the wild rice. Top with the yogurt and a sprinkle of coriander.
Date, cacao and coconut energy balls
This is a tasty and healthy snack you can make in advance and freeze. I make a big batch every month to keep me energized—they keep really well and have become my lifesaver. I keep them on hand for a quick pre‑workout bite. They taste so good; even my daughter is obsessed. You can freeze them for up to one month and keep them in the fridge for up to a week.
7 oz (2 cups/200 g) ground almonds
14 oz (1 cup/400 g) Medjool dates, destoned and chopped
4 Tbsp raw cacao powder
1 Tbsp chia seeds
2½ Tbsp almond butter
2 heaped Tbsp coconut oil
4 oz (1 cup/100 g) desiccated coconut
1) Put the dates into a medium bowl and soak in water for 1 hour.
2) Place the ground almonds, almond butter, dates, cacao powder, desiccated coconut (reserving enough to coat the finished balls) and chia seeds in a blender or food processor and whizz until smooth. If the mixture seems too thick, add a little water and blend again.
3) Transfer the mixture to a bowl and allow 30 mins for the chia seeds to soften.
4) Divide the mixture into 15 equal portions and roll each one into a ball using your hands.
5) Place the remaining coconut in a shallow dish, add the balls in and shake them up to coat.