In July 2012, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster found just how quickly folks can change their view of you once you make the choice to stop eating meat. He decided to turn vegan—or mostly vegan, it turned out—one month before the NFL season, and the team's fans went ballistic. Accusations and questions began to swirl about his decision's potential impact on a team trying to repeat as AFC South champions.
A number of professional basketball, hockey, and tennis players, along with some elite-level endurance athletes, have eliminated animal protein from their daily diets without diminishing their ability to perform. But a football player? That struck a different chord. Football is a game of muscle. You know, mass meets mass out on the grass.
Foster claimed to have done extensive research on plant-based eating months before cutting animal, egg, and dairy proteins from his diet. In the end, his solid performance that season calmed fans and suggested that "strong" and "vegan" can coexist in one sentence.
For decades, athletes who were otherwise vegetarian or vegan have made an exception for whey supplementation, feeling they were losing too much of an edge without it. But what about the strictly vegan athlete? Can a diet that eliminates eggs, meat, and all dairy products support the grueling physical demands of competitive sports, including muscle-intensive activities like bodybuilding or powerlifting?
It can more than ever, I would argue, thanks to pea and rice protein in combination.
Getting Enough Protein From Plants
Society-wide interest in a reduced dietary reliance on animal proteins is growing, often for health and environmental reasons. Enthusiasm for plant proteins like soy, brown rice, and pea protein has grown apace, and people have begun to associate these proteins with better overall health.
The tricky part has always been figuring out how to get enough protein from plants. Whole-food plant proteins are healthy by pretty much any measure, but if you're trying to get enough amino acids to match up with intense physical training, you're probably also eating enough to see some unfavorable digestive effects. Gas and bloating are common issues for people who combine whole foods seeking to create viable vegetarian or vegan proteins for performance. Simply put, all those veggies can turn you into a gasbag.
Plant-based protein powders can definitely help mitigate these problems, but lack of choice has remained the biggest problem. Soy, hemp, and chia used to be the only vegan protein powder selections, with soy being the most common choice because of its ability to deliver a better amino acid profile.
However, some people are concerned that soy isolate could disrupt the hormonal balance in athletes, and it is also one of the most commonly genetically modified crops on the planet. Not music to the ears of any strength athlete I know.
Pea and brown rice protein are godsends for this type of athlete. These two protein powders eclipse all others in both protein content and essential amino acid profile. They bring none of soy's hormonal baggage, and they are far less likely than soy to qualify as GMO. Especially when they are combined, they become the first vegetable protein source that provides a comparable alternative to animal-derived protein powders such as whey. They can provide equal levels of essential amino acids, from a vegan source.
How Vegetable Proteins Stack Up
|Protein Source||Possible Protein Content||GMO Status||Taste||Solubility||Texture|
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, the minimum protein needs for vegans are around 0.41 grams per pound of body weight, which is slightly higher than the standard RDA of 0.36 grams per pound. The difference is because vegetable-based proteins are digested differently than animal-based ones. However, they project that the protein needs of vegan athletes could be more than double that (approximately 0.86 grams per pound).1 Sports nutrition researcher Dr. Ralf Jager, Ph.D., a fellow of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, places the upper limits even higher: 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight, especially when it comes to powerlifters, bodybuilders, endurance athletes, and others engaged in intense training.
Getting that much protein without whey or meat is a daunting task. But, in a study published in Nutrition Journal, Dr. Jager and a team of researchers from the University of Tampa concluded that rice may be up to the challenge. In the study, one group of resistance-trained males took 48 grams of whey protein post-workout, and another took 48 grams of rice protein.2 The researchers concluded that at high doses like these, rice protein is comparably effective to whey protein in increasing lean body mass, strength, and power.
"Rice protein isolate consumption following resistance exercise decreases fat mass and increases lean body mass, skeletal muscle hypertrophy, and both power and strength in numbers that are comparable to whey protein isolate, provided the overall volume is relatively adjusted," Jager says.
In other words, while there may be a difference at lower doses—say, 10 grams of whey and 10 grams of rice—that difference more or less disappears at higher doses. The total amino content of the rice isolate, researchers determined, was similar to whey protein, and while the overall amino acid absorption of rice protein isolate is slightly lower, it was 6 percent, it's "not statistically significant," Jager says.
More significant, he says, is the fact that whereas whey protein is a fast-digesting protein and casein is a slow-digesting protein, the rate of digestion for brown rice protein falls in between them. It is also hypoallergenic and free of fat, sugar, and sodium.
The Perfect Vegetarian Combination
A common knock against rice protein in particular is that it's low in lysine, an amino acid important for human growth and bone health. On the other hand, pea protein is rich in lysine and a number of other aminos such as arginine and glutamic acid, both of which lend support during intense physical exertion and subsequent workout recovery. Equally important to the athlete, pea protein offers a wealth of the crucial branched-chain amino acids isoleucine, leucine, and valine, which have been shown to contribute to muscle protein synthesis and support recovery from exercise.
So, while rice protein and pea protein each have limitations as solo acts, Dr. Jager recommends taking a look at protein powders that combine them, assuring a rich supply of amino acids to fuel protein synthesis in post-exercise shakes and meals. The novel combination of pea and rice proteins is one that vegetarian athletes everywhere should have on their nutritional radar. Whey is no longer the only way!
Learn More About Vegan Sports Nutrition
- Get inspired: "3 Athletes Who Are Owning The Vegan Lifestyle"
- Get cooking: Find tons of vegetarian and vegan recipes in our Healthy Recipe Database.
- VRG.org [Internet]. Baltimore: The Vegetarian Resource Group; c1995-2013 [cited 2013 Nov 4] Protein in the Vegan Diet. Available from: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/protein.php#r2
- Jäger, R et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013 Jun 20;12(1):86. [Epub ahead of print]