Vegan bodybuilders, protein synthesis and busting myths

It’s amazing how many vegans there are about these days. And the variety of vegan lifestyles there are . There’s plenty of vegan athletes and even vegan bodybuilders. But where can tehy get their protein from?

This exert from the NY Times talks about the increasing popularity of vegan bodybuilders.

The popularity of veganism has…even entered bodybuilding, perceived by many as a population of vein-popping men and women thriving off meat and artificial enhancements. Competitors like Sitko are forging a distinctive subculture of antibeef beefcakes who hope to change more of their competitors’ eating habits.

As a vegan, Sitko, 29, does not eat meat, dairy or, he said, “anything else that comes from an animal.” As a bodybuilder, he spends hours at the gym lifting barbells, running on a treadmill and sculpturing his 5-foot-11, 180-pound body. Then he spray-tans and parades before a panel of judges in a posing suit, known in the sport as a mankini. He is preparing for a competition in March.

via Vegans Muscle Their Way Into Bodybuilding – NYTimes.com.

Whether or not you’re partial to big veiny blokes or not, it’s pretty clear that there are successful vegan bodybuilders. The popular myth of animal protein is blown away by vegans competing against carnivores in body building. You simply do not need the popularly excessive volume of protein to thrive. Or do you?

Vegan Bodybuilders can do it but it’s not optimal…

However, mainstream opinion holds a quite different view. From the same article.

“Is it possible to be a good bodybuilder and be a vegan? Yes,” said Jose Antonio, the chief executive of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. “But is it ideal? No.”

Vegan bodybuilders may face challenges getting sufficient amino acids, found in meats, Antonio said, adding that although protein can be found in vegetables and nuts, they must be consumed in greater quantities to get the same amount as their counterparts in meat. “The amount of rice and beans you need to eat would fill up a Mexican restaurant,” he said.

But what do the world’s leading scientific experts think

The Sports nutrition expert has a very one dimensional approach – eat tons of protein! But does this opinion tie in with research into protein synthesis. While at university I attended a great talk by Professor Rennie concerning protein synthesis. He was touted as the world leading expert in the field. So does his research support the notion of vegan bodybuilders?

The talk was striking and has stuck in my mind for all these years for one reason. The main takeaway was that the human body simply cannot process huge amounts protein shake companies would have you consume.

Vegan Bodybuidlers - Billy Simmonds

I was astounded because I’d not realised how very little protein humans can successfully ingest at a given time.

People don’t believe me when I mention this story. So is there any substance to it? Well Professor Rennie has the pedigree. Currently at Nottingham University he certainly has a good publishing record stretching back to 1970! That’s a long list. There’s 52 occurrences of protein synthesis in that list. So that would equate to 52 published scientific articles that directly concern aspects of protein synthesis.

However, that list expands to 158 instances of protein in the titles of his publications. Surely that gives the impression that this guy knows his stuff about protein. From the abstract of his 2000 paper in the Annual Review of Nutrition (457-483)

There is no evidence that habitual exercise increases protein requirements; indeed protein metabolism may become more efficient as a result of training.

Indeed at the end of the paper in recommendations

Recommendations for Requirements

As long as energy balance is achieved and food of a normal protein content (12%–15% of total energy) is consumed, even athletes in training should not require any further protein supplementation of their diet. As far as we can see from the literature, there are no factors, such as age or gender, that modify this.

What about straight after a workout during the protein ‘window’?

A few years later (2009) in another paper Rennie is involved with called Human muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise we can glean exactly how much is the maximum protein a human can synthesise. After exercise the body wants to restore what it has used up, carbs and protein. The paper says that investigation

that there is no benefit of ingesting large amounts of protein (>20 g, which is actually a relatively small amount) in an attempt to increase protein accretion in muscle; the maximum effective dose is probably 15–20 g of high-quality protein, such as beef, egg, or soy.

I’m so pleased to find this. I’ve looked before but I now have a reliable source that provides an estimation of the maximum amount of protein that the body can take on after exercise. And that is just 20g! A lot less than you tend to find in protein drinks. In the past, I’ve had arguments about this but I could never remember how much protein was the upper limit. But know I do!

I understand why people don’t want to believe this, the perception is that protein is needed in huge amounts. And of course this goes against the implication of Jose Antonio, the sports nutrition bloke, above. So, it seems that the vast amount of protein popularly purported to be ideal for athletes is overestimated?

This would explain why Vegan Bodybuilders can be successful. They, as humans, simply do not need to ingest the huge amounts of protein bodybuilders are in the habit of forcing down. Just 20g is the maximum effective dose! It would also suggest that the protein shake industry been having us at it?

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