If I don’t eat meat where will I get my protein?
Yes! You can eat a meat-free diet and still get plenty of protein to train hard! However, it will probably take more planning and intentionality. Meat gives the body protein to help build and repair muscle that is broken down when we train. If you are avoiding meat, ensure you are getting high quality, complete protein by eating a variety of non-meat protein sources such as quinoa, eggs, nuts, beans, soy, dairy and legumes.
Two potential problems when not including meat in your diet include the difference in protein per serving size between meat and non-meat options and lower levels of leucine in non-meat options. Note- A 3oz portion of lean ground beef contains 25g of protein compared to a similar 3oz portion of soy containing only 13g of protein. People who regularly consume soy products as their main protein source, would need to consume more than the serving size in order to obtain an adequate amount of protein. Leucine is an important essential amino acid for muscle synthesis. Vegetarian and vegan options such as tofu and soy milk have less than .2g per 1oz serving. Meats and fish have much higher levels of Leucine, with steak being the highest at .7g of leucine per 1oz serving. Soy protein isolate found in protein supplements and meat substitutes has a considerably higher amount of leucine, 1.9g per 1oz. When making a meal time decision on protein, focus on portion size and subsequent leucine amount to ensure you are getting the highest quality protein.
One way to ensure you are getting all the amino acids you would from meat is to eat complementary proteins (legumes with grains, grains with dairy, dairy with nuts/seeds). Complementary proteins must be paired together as shown above in order to be high quality complete protein, meaning it has all of the essential amino acids present. Vegans can also get complete proteins by eating soy products and quinoa.
It is important to keep in mind that vegetarian/ vegan athletes are at higher risk for several vitamin/ mineral related deficiencies, especially B12 and iron deficiency, that can have a tremendous impact on athletic performance. Lab tests can help monitor iron and B12 levels and fortified food and supplements can help increase intake of these nutrients.
If you’re interested in reducing or eliminating meat from your diet, the best way to ensure that you are still getting enough protein and other nutrients is to work with a dietitian.