5 Warning Signs You Aren’t Getting Enough Protein: A Guest Post from No Meat Athlete

Greetings from the middle of Virginia!  While I am transporting my life across the country, I have a special surprise for you guys.  No Meat Athlete is one of the first vegetarian blogs I started reading way back in the day, and I still look forward to each new post that pops up in my reader.  I even have the t-shirt (ignore my scraggly hair). 

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Matt’s blog is all about helping people run marathons and ultramarathons on a vegetarian diet – VERY cool.  You guys are in for a real treat today, because he wrote a special guest post just for Front Burner readers!  And it’s on a topic that I know a lot of you are interested in, because I get emails about it ALL the time.  So without further adieu…

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5 Warning Signs You Aren’t Getting Enough Protein

A guest post from Matt Frazier, writer of the No Meat Athlete blog.

Where do you get your protein?

If you’re a vegetarian, especially an athletic one, you’ve likely heard that question dozens of times. We hear it so often it becomes a joke. But the question is a valid one: So many people who try out a vegetarian or vegan diet can’t make it last. After the initial energy gains, an imbalance in their diet (usually a protein or iron deficiency) catches up with them, and everything goes downhill. Their bodies crave meat again, they obey their cravings, and that’s the end of it.

What I did wasn’t perfect either

When I became vegetarian, I felt incredible. And I ran better than ever, qualifying for the Boston Marathon and running my first 50-mile ultramarathon, thanks largely to a lighter frame and more energy that allowed me to train and recover like I never had before. But with this energy and these accomplishments came the idea that my diet, by virtue of being plant-based, was exempt from traditional sports nutrition rules. I concluded that we don’t need nearly as much protein as the people in charge would have us believe. This belief caused me to let my diet slip, loading up on carbohydrates and slacking on the effort I once made to include protein in every meal. And—surprise, surprise—my performance suffered. And not just in running, but in my day-to-day activities. Fortunately, I recognized what was happening and addressed the problem. But had I been a new vegetarian when this happened, it might have led me to conclude that "a vegetarian diet doesn’t work for endurance sports," and I never would have made gotten all the benefits of such a clean diet. In case you’re that new vegetarian, here are five signs that (just once!) you need to listen to the critics when they say you need more protein.

1. You’re tired when you shouldn’t be.

Most vegetarians will tell you they have more energy now than when they used to eat meat. If you experience less energy, not enough protein might be the cause. I’m not talking about feeling groggy when you wake up. I mean wanting to take a nap in the middle of the day or evening when you never used to. And it doesn’t have to be just physical—a mental lack of motivation is also sometimes associated with protein deficiency.

2. You’re weak when you lift weights, run, do yoga, or do any other strenuous activity.

When you don’t get enough protein, your muscles aren’t able to repair themselves after a workout. In such a case, strenuous exercise can actually be counterproductive—you aren’t able to rebuild what you tear down, and you actually become weaker.

3. You’re flabby where you used to be muscular.

It’s not just the performance of your muscles that declines when you’re protein-deficient: Their appearance and size does, too. Why? If your body can’t find enough protein in your diet to sustain itself, it takes it from wherever it can find it. And wouldn’t you know it, your muscles, not your body fat, are where the protein is. Bottom line: If you don’t give your body enough protein, it’ll cannibalize its own tissue to get what it needs.

4. You’re getting injured and not recovering quickly.

Slowed recovery doesn’t just apply to rebuilding muscles after a tough workout—when you’re injured and protein deficient, your body will take longer to heal. Again, it’s pretty logical. Protein is necessary to build new tissue, so if it’s not available, your body can’t rebuild itself.

5. Your hair is falling out.

Seems like a weird sign of protein deficiency, doesn’t it? What’s going on here is that when you’re not getting much protein, your body goes into conservation mode. Among other things, it stops spending valuable protein on the production of things like hair and nails. The result: Hair in your shower, broken, brittle nails, and other pleasantries.

What to Do About It

So while the protein question is fair, there are plenty of good answers to it for vegetarians and vegans. Here’s what to do if you think you’re not getting enough. To figure out how much protein you should be getting each day, take your body weight in pounds and multiply by 0.4. That’ll get you slightly more than the U.S. recommended daily allowance. And as an athlete, you may find you need to up that number. There are plenty of fine non-animal sources of protein, even if you’re not down with eating soy at every meal. My favorite sources are beans of all kinds, but you’ll also find a good amount of protein in nuts, grains and seeds like quinoa, and even vegetables like spinach and broccoli. (Vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke has a great list of vegan protein sources on his website.)

Supplementing is another option. I find that starting the day with a smoothie with protein powder helps me ensure I get enough. Hemp protein is my favorite, but pea, rice, and soy protein powders are all viable vegan options. Finally, make sure you’re getting all the essential amino acids. If you rely too heavily on a single protein source, it’s likely you won’t be getting all the amino acids you need. On my website, I have page dedicated to helping people go vegetarian, which includes a chart of the amino acids in vegetarian foods.

So the next time someone asks you the protein question, don’t just blow them off. They have a point; protein should be a concern for vegetarians and vegans. But it’s absolutely not something you can’t overcome if you’re committed to experiencing all that this diet has to offer.

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Many many thanks to Matt!  You guys make sure you check out his blog – I guarantee he has a lot more to teach you. 

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be in my new home – wheeeeeeeeeee!