Q. I’m vegetarian and am wondering if I should refuel with a protein drink after exercise? I know some nutritionists think we already eat enough protein but as a veggie I’m not sure I do.
A. It is a common concern that vegetarian diets can be lacking in protein, particularly high-quality protein, but there is no need to worry; by eating a varied and well-balanced diet, vegetarian triathletes can obtain the necessary nutrients to adequately fuel the body for hours of training and racing.
The current recommendation for all endurance athletes is to increase daily protein consumption from 0.8-1.0g to about 1.2-1.7g of protein per kilogramme of body weight. Although the protein intake of vegetarians is usually less than that of people who eat meat and fish, both groups generally consume well above this recommended protein intake, athlete or not. Therefore the adequacy of protein intake is not a concern for most triathletes. There is plenty of protein in cereals, breads, pastas, grains, legumes, nuts and dairy products.
However, protein quality is also important; animal protein contains all the essential amino acids in adequate amounts. The simplest way to accomplish a good intake of all the essential amino acids is to eat a variety of foods at each meal, such as peanut butter on toast with a glass of milk, or baked beans in a jacket potato with low-fat grated cheese.
Try to include quinoa (grain) and soya products such as tofu, as both are complete vegetable proteins. Those who avoid all animal protein sources (ie vegans) may require more careful monitoring of their protein intake because many plant proteins have limited amounts of some essential amino acids.
When it comes to refuelling, you should choose a carbohydrate shake that contains a little protein rather than using a solely protein shake. Your body needs carbohydrates to refuel your muscles – about 25g of protein after a workout optimises muscle growth, but consuming excess protein only displaces carbohydrates.
A chocolate milkshake is a better bet than a protein shake, as it will provide about 60-70g of carbohydrate for fuel and adequate protein to build muscles. If you prefer the convenience of a canned protein shake, bolster your carbohydrate intake with a banana and a wholegrain bagel.
Dr Sarah Schenker
Dr Sarah Schenker is a registered dietician, accredited sports dietician and registered public-health nutritionist. Sarah works part-time as a nutrition scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation. She is a member of the British Dietetic Association and The Nutrition Society. She has completed the London Triathlon twice. Sarah regularly writes for magazines, newspapers and journals.