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“But where do you get your protein?”

As a plant-based ultra-endurance athlete, if I had a dollar for every time I fielded this inquiry, I could put my four kids through college.  So let’s address the elephant in the room, once and for all.

We live in a society in which we have been mistakenly led to believe that milk and dairy products are the only source of dietary protein worthy of merit.  Without copious amounts of animal protein, it’s impossible to be healthy, let alone perform as an athlete, train and race at your peak. The message is everywhere – from commercials pushing chocolate milk as the ultimate athletic recovery beverage to compelling food labels to a dizzying array of fitness expert testimonials.  Protein, protein, protein — generally reinforced with the adage that more is better.

Whether you are a professional athlete or a couch potato, this hardened notion is so deeply ingrained into our collective belief system that to challenge its propriety is nothing short of anathema. But through direct experience I have come to believe that this pervasive notion is at best misleading, if not altogether utterly false, fueled by a well funded campaign of disinformation perpetuated by powerful and well-funded meat and dairy lobbies that have spent countless marketing dollars to convince society that we need these products to live. The animal protein push is not only based on lies, it’s killing us, compelling us to feast on a rotunda of factory farmed, hormone and pesticide induced foods generally high in artery-clogging saturated fat, a significant contributing factor to our epidemic of heart disease and a number of many other congenital infirmities.

Indeed, protein is an essential nutrient, absolutely critical not just in building and repairing muscle tissue, but in the maintenance of a wide array of important bodily functions.  But does it matter if our protein comes from plants rather than animals?  And how much do we actually need?

Proteins consist of twenty different amino acids, eleven of which can be synthesized naturally by our bodies. The remaining nine – what we call essential amino acids – must be ingested from the foods we eat. So technically, our bodies require certain amino acids, not protein per se. But these nine essential amino acids are hardly the exclusive domain of the animal kingdom.  In fact, they’re originally synthesized by plants and are found in meat and dairy products only because these animals have eaten plants. Admittedly, plant-based proteins are absorbed differently than animal proteins. And not all plant-based proteins are “complete”, containing all nine essential amino acids – two arguments all too often raised to negate the advisability of shunning aminal products. But in truth, a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet that includes a colorful rotation of foods like sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes will satisfy the demanding protein needs of even the hardest training athlete.

Just ask MMA/UFC fighters like Mac Danzig, Jake Shields or James Wilks.  Cyclists like Dave Zabriskie and Ben Bostrom. Triathletes like Brendan Brazier, Hillary Biscay or Rip Esselstyn. Ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek. Or undefeated boxer Timothy Bradley, Jr. who is about to go toe to toe with Manny Pacquiao. They will all tell you the same thing:  rather than steak, milk, eggs and whey supplements, opt instead for healthy plant-based protein sources like black, kidney and pinto beans, almonds, lentils, spirulina, quinoa, spinach and broccoli.

Provided your diet is made up of different combinations of the aforementioned foods, I can absolutely guarantee that you will never suffer a protein deficiency – it’s impossible.  Despite the incredibly heavy tax I impose on my body, training at times upwards of 25 hours per week for ultra-endurance events, this type of regimen has fueled me for years without any issues with respect to building lean muscle mass and properly recovering between workouts.  In fact, I can honestly say that at age 45, I am fitter than I have ever been, even when I was competing as a swimmer at a world-class level at Stanford in the late 1980’s.

And despite what you might have been told, I submit that more protein isn’t better. Satisfy your requirement and leave it at that. With respect to athletes, to my knowledge no scientific study has ever shown that consumption of protein beyond the RDA advised 10 percent of daily calories stimulates additional muscle growth or expedites physiological repair induced by exercise stress. In fact, and over the long-term, excessive animal protein intake can be harmful. Not only is it stored as fat, it contributes to the onset of a variety of congenital diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, impaired kidney function and heart disease.

Still not convinced?  Consider this: some of the fierceest animals in the world are plant powered. The elephant, rhino, hippo and gorilla share one thing in common – they all get 100% of their protein from plants. So ditch that steak and join me for a bowl of quinoa and lentils.

For more information on Rich, visit his website at richroll.com and follow him on Twitter at @richroll.

Rich’s inspirational memoir FINDING ULTRA (Crown / Random House) hits bookshelves May 22, 2012 and is currently available for pre-order.  For more information on the book and Rich, visit richroll.com.

For more on how Rich fuels his family and training, check out his and his wife Julie’s plant-based e-cookbook JAI SEED – a beautiful coffee-table style cookbook for the digital iPad set that contains 77 glossy pages of plant-based nutrition information and easy to prepare recipes certain to satisfy even the most finicky family member.

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10 comments on “Slaying the Protein Dragon: Plant-based Protein and the Endurance Athlete”

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9 Months Ago

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10 Months Ago

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Tao Nutriton
5 Years Ago

Great article - some great food for thought. As a vegan endurance athlete myself, I've found that Pea Protein Isolate and Sprouted Brown Rice Protein make a healthy protein source on a plant based diet. Michael

5 Years Ago

Not to mention that fruits and vegetables are excellent for mental well-being! :)

5 Years Ago

Nice article, except that you never really stated how much protein we actually need daily.

6 Years Ago

You should probably just leave science to... scientists

6 Years Ago


Juan Moreno
6 Years Ago

Don't forget one of the best proteins in the world! Hemp seeds or also called hemp protein pack with nutrients and all essential amino acids. 2 tablespoons of raw organic hemp protein gives you 24% of RDA and 90% of RDA of insoluble fiber. Plus a whole lot more of nutrients.

Juan Moreno
29 Mar 2012

24% RDA of protein

Roger Williams
6 Years Ago

Great article. However you need to update the amino acids part. The theory that you need to combine certain proteins was disproven in 1988 and redacted by its original proponent in 1991: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_combining We need to stop this theory in its tracks today. I go by the simple adage to eat enough calories of the rainbow of veggies and get some beans, nuts, and grains and all will be good.

richroll (@richroll)
23 Mar 2012

Thanks for your comment Roger. I am well aware of your argument and agree. Although I did use the word "combining" I did not intend to submit that one "must" combine in order to meet protein / nutritional needs on a plant-based diet. Per the article you site: "Nonetheless, it can be shown that eating a mixture of plant proteins, throughout the day, can serve as a well-balanced and complete source of amino acids." I attempted to underscore this philosophy when I stated: " a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet that includes a colorful rotation of foods like sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes will satisfy the demanding protein needs of even the hardest training athlete." Apologies if this was confusing and I appreciate your thoughts!

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