By Anne L’Heureux, LD, RD
I love questions related to the vegan diet because I love a challenge. One question I get a lot is whether or not nuts can provide enough protein for vegan athletes. I couldn’t wait to write this blog to answer it.
First, how much protein is enough?
This isn’t a cut and dry answer. Needs are based on the athlete’s body composition, sport type, and daily workouts. That said, here are the basic recommendations.
- The average adult should eat about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 150 pounds, that’s 68 kilograms—54 grams of protein per day.
- Athletes should take in 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram, based on the intensity of their exercise.
You can find your body weight in kilograms by dividing your body weight in pounds by 2.2.
What are the benefits of protein?
- Energy: Protein contains 4kcal (units of energy) per gram. Energy is essential for fueling workouts and daily activities.
- Amino Acids: The body needs amino acids to produce energy. The body is able to make some of its own, but not all. Those that we can’t create, we need to get from our foods. These are known as essential amino acids. Proteins are a source of these amino acids.
Does Protein have Low or High “Biological Value”?
The biological value of a protein is a measure of how easily the protein can be broken down for use in the body, and how much it can provide to the athlete. Every protein is different.
High biological value (HBV) proteins (eggs, fish, meats, poultry, dairy) provide us with many of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts to sustain energy need.
Low biological value (LBV) proteins (grains, nuts, seeds, legumes) do not contain enough of the essential amino acids to be considered an adequate source.
Vegan Athletes and Nut Intake
So, can vegans get enough protein from nuts alone? Yes. Is it the best approach? Not necessarily. Here’s why.
While nuts are a source of protein, they are also a source of fats (healthy fats, but fats nonetheless), and fats are calorie dense. While protein provides four calories per gram, fats provide nine. So, in food sources such as nuts we are eating more calories in smaller quantities.
Amino Acid Profile
Since nuts are on the list of protein sources with low biological value, vegans need to put extra effort into eating a variety of foods which help provide a full amino acid profile. Examples of this would be beans with rice, chickpeas with pasta, and lentils with potatoes. If you aren’t incorporating other protein sources such as beans, lentils, and legumes into your diet, you will have a harder time meeting your body’s needs.
Keep in mind, though, that protein is hiding in many of the foods we eat, including all of those beautiful plants. Again, variety is key. Eat fruits and vegetables from all colors of the rainbow throughout the day and you’ll not only be getting protein, but vitamins and minerals, too.
Protein needs aside, there’s more to vegan meal planning than meets the eye. Vegans should be aware of the need for adequate intake of sources of Zinc, B12, Calcium, Iodine, Vitamin D, Iron, and Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Nuts of all varieties are sources of these, as are other foods. A variety of nuts is yet again important as they are not all created equal. Here’s a full list of sources and their appropriate portion sizes.
There are as many dietary approaches as there are sports. And like sports, they all have benefits, appeal to different audiences, and require unique approaches. Knowledge about your diet approach will be the key to your long term success and health.