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Protein, vegetarianism and performance: mission impossible?

Protein, vegetarianism and performance: mission impossible?

Nutrition student

Meat consumption is an integral part of the Quebec population’s eating habits. Indeed, Quebecers are accustomed to finding these foods on their plates at almost every meal, so a meat-free plate can provoke quite a reaction. The association between meat and protein is so strong that many people think a vegetarian is at high risk of protein deficiency. What’s more, many claim that a vegetarian athlete cannot perform as well as an omnivorous athlete. What’s really going on?

What is a protein?
Before answering the question, let’s clarify what proteins are.
Proteins are long chains of amino acids. There are a total of 20 different amino acids, 9 of which the body cannot synthesize itself. They are therefore called essential amino acids: these 9 amino acids must be present in our diet, otherwise our bodies risk running out of them. Amino acids are attached to each other in precise and extremely varied sequences (there are over 30,000 different proteins in our bodies).
Not a very concrete definition, is it? All right. Let’s compare a protein to a train. Each amino acid represents a carriage on the train. Together, the individual carriages (amino acids) make up the whole train (the protein). Several types of trains (proteins) are possible, as there are 20 different cars that can be attached to each other. Now that’s much clearer!

What are proteins used for?
Proteins are used to maintain muscle mass, but they are also useful for the growth and maintenance of structures such as skin and bones, right down to our toenails . Proteins have a host of other roles, such as enzymes, transporters, hormones, regulators between acids and bases in our body, anti-coprs, regulators of fluids in the body and, last but not least, as a source of energy (for example, during very long fasting, which is not desirable). In short, proteins are essential to the proper functioning of the human body. To ensure that your machine can perform all these functions, a constant supply of protein and energy from the diet is essential.

Is it possible to get enough protein without eating meat?
As mentioned earlier, 9 of the 20 amino acids are essential to our diet, since the body cannot manufacture them. These amino acids are all present in animal products (meat, poultry, fish, yogurt, milk, eggs, cheese). Animal proteins are therefore complete proteins, as they contain all the amino acids essential to the body. The quality of soy proteins (found in tofu, soy milk and soy beans) is comparable to that of meat. Other plant proteins, such as nuts, seeds, legumes, soybeans and vegetables, are not complete proteins, i.e. they do not contain all 9 essential amino acids in a single food. Some plant foods are low in an A amino acid (let’s call it that), but high in a B amino acid. Conversely, other plant foods may be low in the B amino acid, but high in the A amino acid.

The wonderful trick of complementarity
How do you get all the essential amino acids in a single day? By using complementarity, which involves combining foods with different amino acid contents. By doing so, you ensure that you consume all the essential amino acids. For example, you can consume…

These food combinations can be made in the same meal or on the same day without any problem. In addition, people who include milk, eggs, cheese and/or yoghurt in their vegetarian diet can rely on these sources for complete protein.

Protein requirements for athletes
The protein requirements of athletes are higher than those of sedentary people and vary according to the sport. For example, the protein requirements of a person building mass or practicing a power sport are higher than those of an endurance athlete. Here is a table outlining protein requirements according to sporting discipline:

It is important to bear in mind that this table presents general recommendations and not quantities to be respected to the letter. What’s more, it’s important to know that protein plays a key role in muscle recovery, but it’s not the nutrient to prioritize just before a competition if you want to optimize your sporting performance (carbohydrates are the human body’s favorite energy substrates!). Finally, how should vegetarian athletes manage their protein intake? In fact, the winning solution is to spread your protein sources intelligently throughout the day to ensure recovery and satiety, just like an athlete who consumes animal protein. In short, plant proteins are compatible with recovery and performance.

Now that we all know it’s possible to consume quality protein without eating meat, it’s time to let your imagination run wild! Couscous and chickpea salad, vegetable and tofu stir-fry on a bed of vermicelli, rice and black bean burrito, barley and lentil soup…the possibilities are endless! Will you be tempted by a meatless meal?

Written by Maude Lalonde, Nutrition Student

References :
Rolfes, Whitney and Hammond Piché, Understanding Nutrition. Nelson Education, 2013, p.170-194.
Ledoux, Marielle, Natalie Lacombe and Geneviève St-Martin, Nutrition, sport and performance. Collection Géo Plein Air, 2009, p.49-64.
Lamarche, Benoît and Jean Soulard, Le soulard des sportifs. Les éditions La Presse, 2016, p.49-55.

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