As a vegetarian yoga practitioner one of my main dietary concerns has always been about getting enough protein. Whilst the majority of people eating a typical western, meat-eating diet need not worry about a lack of protein (quite the opposite, in fact), vegetarians or vegans need to be a bit more mindful. But there are many vegan athletes out there who prove that meat isn’t necessarily the answer.
Protein deficiency can show up in a few ways. One common way, which I’ve certainly experienced, is a constant craving for sugar or carbs. I thought I just had a sweet tooth but I learnt that the cravings actually came from not eating enough protein, causing my blood sugars to drop. Blood sugars can stabilise fairly quickly once you eat more protein. Other signs of a protein deficiency are: general tiredness, crashing during the day, feeling weak in your practice or during exercise, unusual muscle or joint pain, brittle nails and hair falling out.
Good sources of protein for vegans include: whole grains (brown/black rice, quinoa, millet, oats etc.), beans, nuts and nut butters, seeds, leafy green vegetables and super foods such as spirulina or chlorella and supplements like good quality protein powder (e.g. hemp powder). Vegetarians could add eggs, some dairy in moderation and bee pollen. Seitan is also high in protein but is made from wheat so not suitable for anyone with wheat or gluten intolerance.
Some people can handle grains and dairy better than others, just like some people need more protein than others. Soy is one to be wary of – unless you were raised eating it, you may find it difficult to digest. It’s also often highly processed and genetically modified in the West. If you want to eat it go organic, fermented and in moderation.
With all options, it’s best to experiment see what works for you. In general, always favour natural sources of protein over processed powders or bars, which are often loaded with sugar. And variety is key. Many plant proteins are lower than animal proteins in one or more essential amino acids (critical for muscle maintenance, tissue repair and immunity) but eating a variety of plants can certainly serve as a well-balanced and complete source of amino acids and provide enough protein for sustained energy and vitality. If one kind of food, such as beans or vegetables, does not contain a certain amino acid, that gap is likely to be filled in with amino acids available in grains, nuts or seeds.
So experiment, see what new plant proteins you can add in to your diet, mix it up and monitor how you feel.