Do Some WFPB Athletes Need To Supplement With Protein?

When National Football League (NFL) future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez first went plant based after reading T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study”, he began eating lots of fruits, veggies and whole grains during his offseason.  He lost weight, but liked that he was getting leaner. When training camp arrived, he found that not only did he lose weight, but that he lost significant strength.  It scared him.

He was with the Kansas City Chiefs at the time.  He worked with Mitzi Dulan, the Chiefs’ registered dietitian to adjust his diet to enable him to regain muscle and strength while eating a plant strong diet.  He added grass finished meat and some fish, and he supplemented with both whey and plant protein powders.

He was so successful; he and Mitzi wrote a book called “The All-Pro Diet

T. Colin Campbell shares the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein for both Tony Gonzalez and Jon Hinds (Fitness expert).  The RDA for each is much lower than the perceived need of each athlete.  (The information listed below is from the “elite athlete” portion of the ecornell plant based nutrition course)

Tony Gonzalez246 Lb. (Star NFL Tight End) – RDA – 96 g/day

                   Perceived need – 180-190 g/day

                   Gets 140-150 g/day from plants

                   Gets ~ 50 gms from whey and plant protein powders

 Jon Hinds 216 lbs Bodybuilder and Trainer

                    RDA 78 g/day

                    Demonstrated perceived need – 130 gm/day

                    Totally plant based – no supplements

                    States that he never felt better

Jon Hinds has been able to build and maintain weight and muscle on a Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) diet without the need for supplemental protein.

Dr. Campbell doesn’t believe that each athlete needs as much protein as they perceive.

Athletes in serious training who switch to WFPB eating may lose weight and mass because they fail to eat enough calories to spare protein from being used as an energy source. Therefore, some of the protein they consume is not used for muscle building/maintenance.  Very often muscle and strength will return by simply increasing calorie intake by eating more whole and minimally processed plants.

In Tony Gonzalez’s case, his initial loss of strength and mass was probably due to insufficient calories.  However, both he and Mitzi Dulan felt that some meat/fish and supplements were necessary for him to be able to perform at a high level while withstanding the rigors of the NFL.   It certainly may have been possible to achieve similar results on a 100% plant based diet without protein supplements, but it is hard to fault Gonzalez for not tinkering with the successful results he achieved with his version of WFPB.

I rarely disagree with the great Dr. Campbell, but I don’t think you can ignore the experiences of elite athletes.  Only they can judge if a diet is allowing them to perform up to their standards.

I know that both Gonzalez and Hinds put an emphasis on legumes, nuts and seeds.  I think this is a good idea for many athletes in training.

Nuts and seeds are the most calorically dense whole plant foods and can make it easier for highly trained WFPB athletes to meet their caloric needs while providing many health-promoting nutrients. For weekend-warrior type athletes who are not trying to increase size or are trying to lose weight, legumes (beans, peas and lentils) should be more of an emphasis. Legumes also give you a good protein source without the large amount of fat and calories found in nuts and seeds.

If you are a WFPB athlete who is not happy with your strength, size and or physique, and are considering supplementing with protein powders, I would strongly discourage taking whey protein as it has been shown to increase serum Insulin-like Growth Factor – 1 (IGF-1) levels.  High levels of IGF-1 are strongly linked to increased cancer risk.

Whey protein has also been shown to raise fasting insulin levels.

Isolated Soy Protein has also been shown to increase IGF-1 levels so soy protein powders should also be avoided.

I haven’t been able to find information on how  other concentrated plant proteins impact IGF – 1  levels. (ie. hemp, rice and pea)

Almost all decisions in life are based on comparing perceived risks to perceived rewards. You must try to determine if there is a risk of supplementing with a particular nutrient(s). If risk has been shown or hypothesized, you must determine if the potential reward to your physique and/or athletic performance is worth the actual or assumed risk.

It seems to me that supplementing with plant protein powders may help some WFPB athletes in sports where bulk and strength are necessary.  But for most athletes, even those who train intensely, supplementation is probably not necessary and is likely to cause more harm than good.

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