Meat for Athletes – is it really necessary?

Protein is a particularly important topic for every athlete. I am not an exception and pay close attention to consume a suficcient amount of protein every day. Covering this need primarily with meat is a de facto standard in the fitness industry. Chicken breast with rice and broccoli, for example, has established itself in many minds as a synonym for the diet of an athlete. But it is important to know, that animal protein sources are not superior to plant protein in any way. Read on if you want to know why you should start to cover your daily needs with plant based protein as well and what consequences mass consumption of meat has for us!

To start off: Right now, I do not intend to completely abstain from meat. I just want to greatly reduce my meat consumption and resort to alternative sources of protein. If you want to completely refrain from eating meat though, the approaches in this blogpost will still be very valuable to you.

Busy? Then I’ve summarized the most important information of this blogpost for you.
  • Restricting our consumption of animal products is necessary to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Animal protein is in no way superior to plant based protein.
  • There are numerous sources of plant protein
    • Legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas
    • Some grains like Amaranth, Quinoa and Bulgur
    • Soy-based products (soy granules, tofu)
    • Seitan
    • Protein Powder

The facts

As explained in my article Sustainability, mass livestock farming emits more greenhouse gases worldwide than all traffic. A strong reduction up to completely refraining from consuming animal products is therefore an obvious measure to curb this. The UN also proposes this in its 2018 Annual Climate Report.

This topic is currently gaining attention worldwide and existing principles and knowledge are critically questioned. The “fact”, that animal protein and meat are essential for an athlete, is no exception. Numerous documentations already address this topic and show that things can be done differently. Many vegan athletes in elite sports confirm this as well.

Why meat?

I think that’s a question everyone should ask themselves. When I thought about this, I realized that meat tastes good to me, but in no case is absolutely necessary for me. The main reason why I incorporate large amounts of meat into my diet is to meet my daily protein needs. By consuming meat, it’s easier to consume high levels of protein quickly (at least for me).

Of course, there are other foods that contain a lot of protein. However, for a variety of reasons, which I will explain below, meat has remained my primary protein source for a long time.

I have thought a lot about how I can cover my protein needs without large quantities of meat. Therefore, if you are in the same situation as I was, then the following section is certainly of particular interest to you.

Alternatives

Legumes

One of the most well-known alternative protein sources to meat is legumes. The amount of protein in legumes should not be underestimated, as the following table shows:

  • Red Lentils: 27g protein 54g carbohydrates
  • Kidney Beans: 25g protein, 40g carbs
  • White beans: 21g protein, 35g carbohydrates
  • Chickpeas: 19g protein, 44g carbohydrates
  • Green peas: 6g protein, 11g carbs

In addition to the amount of protein, I have also added how many grams of carbohydrates these legumes contain, because that’s an important factor to consider in my opinion. The following example is based on my current protein requirement of 160g per day, which I will try to cover with red lentils as an example:

160g (my protein requirement) / 27g (protein per serving of red lentils) = 5.9.
I would have to eat about 600g of red lentils to meet my daily protein needs.

54g (carbohydrates per serving of red lentils) * 5.9 = 372.6g of carbs, which I would consume. That’s about 1640 kcal in total. If I add the kcal of the protein that I consume (704kcal) I would’ve already consumed 2308 kcal. For this calculation the fat content of the red lentils (this is quite low) has not even been considered.

Thus, I would have already covered my daily needs for kcal completely, but only with red lenses (that seems pretty boring). This example should show, that it is necessary to think more about how you want to design your meals. Instead of combining meat (protein) with a side dish (carbohydrates) and vegetables, as I have done so far, you have to think more about how you can optimally assemble your meals.

Grains

An often neglected source of protein are many different types of grains. I have previously seen buckwheat, bulgur and quinoa just as source of carbohydrates. Although the protein content of many of these foods is relatively low compared to meat, these sources of protein should also be considered in your diet:

  • Amaranth: 15g protein, 55g carbohydrates
  • Quinoa: 13g protein, 61g carbohydrates
  • Bulgur: 12g protein, 76g carbohydrates
  • Buckwheat: 9g protein, 71g carbohydrates

As you can see, a lot of grains can help you to cover your protein needs with plant based sources!

Soy

Soy essentially refers to the so-called soybeans. These belong to the legumes and contain, in addition to numerous vitamins and micronutrients, a large amount of protein. Processed in various ways, there are many known foods that serve as a substitute for meat.

For example, tofu is made from processed soybeans. Depending on the processing Tofu comes with about 15g protein, 8g fat and not even 2g carbohydrates.

However, deforestation of the rainforest is often associated with the increased cultivation of soy. However, it is important to know that an extremely large proportion of this soy is used for livestock (source 2). The animals, in turn, need the energy absorbed from this food for many processes, so only a small part is used to produce the animal products that feed us (source 3). The direct consumption of soy is therefore much more sustainable than consuming animal products.

In addition, soy contains phytoestrogens, a herbal form of the female sex hormone. There are also numerous different statements, many of which are hardly or insufficiently documented. Much is heard of sexual dysfunction, as well as male growth of a female breast. Actually scientifically proven, at least as far as I know, is currently nothing of this sort though. However, what most studies and reports have in common is the conclusion that an average consumption of soy has no negative effects.

Soy granules are primarily soybean meal, which is a byproduct of soybean oil production. In terms of nutritional value, it even surpasses meat – by far. With about 1g of fat, 23g of carbohydrates and incredible 50g of protein per 100g, soy granules are convincing in every respect. Even in consistency, it is pretty similar to meat. Many times, you can’t even tell the difference to meat in taste.

In any case, it is important to note that the origin of the products is important. Ideally, use European soy, since the regulations regarding environmental and product standards are usually stricter here. Also, the transport routes can be reduced and better working conditions, at least compared to e.g. in rainforest areas, can be ensured. The use of BIO soy granules from Europe can further contribute to reducing CO2 emissions (source 4).

Seitan

Seitan is made from wheat. For this purpose, starch and bran are washed out of the wheat flour, leaving only gluten (source) (source 5). With about 2g fat and 2g carbohydrates and 28g protein, this food also convinces with regard to the nutritional value!

However, Seitan is really just gluten. If you have gluten intolerance, you should definitely keep your hands off it. And even without gluten intolerance you should consume Seitan in moderation. For example, excessive consumption of gluten can cause allergies or irritable bowel syndrome (source 6). Generally, as with all other foods: Everything with moderation!

Protein powder

Last but not least, you can’t forget protein powder. Although I believe that protein needs should primarily be covered by natural foods, a protein shake has many benefits. On the one hand, you can consume protein very quickly and easily. On the other hand – and in my opinion that is especially important for the reduction of meat, a shake contains primarily protein!

If you think about my calculation concerning the legumes, that can be a big advantage. For example, a 25g protein shake replaces a serving of red lentils without containing large amounts of carbs or fat! The carbohydrates that you can “save” (54g = 238 kcal) can make a big difference, especially in terms of the versatility of your diet.

There is also an enormous selection of possible sources of protein powder. From Pea-, Lupinia- to Soy- but also Whey protein, there are countless possibilities – including plant based ones. You do not necessarily need to purchase protein powder made from animal sources!

Conclusion

We eat too much meat and need to drastically reduce the consumption of animal foods, that should be clear to all. For a long time this has been a difficult topic from me, especially from an athletic perspective. However, the numerous sources of vegetable protein that have been pointed out should make it clear that, when dealing with this topic in more profound ways, there are many alternatives. Although I do not intend to give up meat completely, I will still try to consume sufficienly less meat. It does not always have to be meat, neither in taste nor in nutritional value.

How do you like meat? Are you vegetarian or vegan? Do you know any other plant based foods containing large amounts of protein I have forgotten in my list? Let me know in the comments!

Sources:
1. UN Climate Change Annual Report 2018
2. Agricultural Commodity Supply Chains Trade, Consumption and Deforestation
3. Warum Sojawurst dem Regenwald nicht schadet
4. Sojagranulat ist das bessere Fleisch
5. Fleischersatz
6. Gluten kann auch Reizdarm verursachen

One thought on “Meat for Athletes – is it really necessary?

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