The Vegan Athlete - How to train on a plant-based diet
In the past it has always been assumed that to be a strong athlete, you must consume vast amounts of steak, eggs, lean chicken, of which the key component is of course animal protein. But today there is a far greater understanding of the science behind our nutritional requirements which has enabled a freer approach to our dietary choices.
One development is the decision to separate protein requirements from animal products and consider where else we can get this essential macro-nutrient in sufficient quantities to perform and train at our best.
What is ‘plant based’?
Plant based means your diet consists of foods derived from natural plant sources (the focus is on your food intake, not that you do not engage with animal-derived products such as leather goods). However, there are a few interpretations to consider:
- Vegan. In its strictest sense, “plant-based” refers to a vegan diet, one that includes only plant foods and no animal foods. For example, someone who is vegan might eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, but not eggs, honey, or dairy.
- Vegetarian. Plant-based can also refer to a vegetarian diet, one that focuses its meals around plant foods, such as vegetables but also includes small amounts of eggs or dairy.
- Pescatarian. Some people who follow a plant-based diet eat seafood, like salmon and shellfish, in addition to plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
- An omnivore. Yep, some plant-based diets even include meat! In this case, meat, seafood, and other animal products are consumed in small quantities, but the diet mostly focuses on vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods. A really good example would be the Mediterranean diet.
As long as the diet is predominantly plant derived, then you can consider it as plant-based.
Some misconceptions about plant-based diets
Below are a handful of some common beliefs around this diet choice, along with the truth.
- You will not get enough protein
Plant-derived food products do contain protein, you just need to understand which ones and in what quantities.
- You need red meat to get enough iron (that is, not to be anaemic).
Similar to protein, plant-derived food does contain iron, so take time to educate yourself on which ones.
- Plant proteins are not complete so it is complicated to combine meals.
With preparation and practice, and maybe a little guidance from a nutritionist, you can combine wonderful plant-based meals very simply.
- Athletes cannot be strong on plant-based.
Consider tennis superstar Venus Williams, a committed vegan. Or David Haye, multiple world champion heavyweight boxer, who has been plant-based since 2014 or Rich Roll a vegan triathlete, podcaster who has completed the Epic 5 or Ultraman in Hawaii several times. It is a myth that you cannot be strong without meat.
- Veganism is healthier.
Not necessarily true. Any diet that does not consist of the right balance of complete nutrients and wholefood will have a negative impact on your health.
What are the benefits of eating a plant-based diet?
Below are some of the potential benefits, however it is always important to remember that many personal factors should be taken into consideration:
- Lower BMI and propensity for obesity
- Lower blood pressure due to the presence of more wholefoods
- Lower cholesterol due to fiber concentration
- Reduced inflammation, because of the higher intake of phytonutrients (phytonutrients are compounds in plant that help fight bacteria and infection)
- Support for brain and cognitive health due to high antioxidants
- Lower incidence of pathological and chronic conditions - diabetes, stroke, and heart disease
- In some instances, plants can be easier to digest and process.
But what about as athletes? How will I get enough energy from just eating plants?
Whether you eat animal or plant products, as an athlete you need to pay particular attention to your diet and the type of training that you do, will have a huge impact on the diet you need. For example, strength training and muscle building versus endurance training, rely on different amino acids for growth. Are you building muscles or breaking muscles down for energy?
Put some time into researching and pairing foods that you love. Pay attention to how they make you feel and make adjustments when you need to. Consider the nutrient density when doing this, and how whole and unprocessed food goes a long way into supporting the body with essential nutrients and building blocks for the body.
The bottom line is that you can absolutely get the nutrients you need to perform at your best just from plants.
How do I know how much protein I need?
Aim to eat 1.4g to 1.6g of protein per kg of bodyweight daily.
Critically, this should be evenly spread throughout the day between breakfast, post training shake, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner.
For example, a 70kg person would need between 98g and 112g of protein per day.
Some examples of great plant-based snacks to add to your diet:
Hummus with carrot sticks or cucumber.
Dates and nuts muesli bar
A handful of nuts
Frittata, if you eat eggs!
Seeded crackers with almond butter and a few slices of apple
Coconut yogurt and berries
And why not consider switching out your chicken or beef, for one of these healthy plant-based alternatives
Legumes such as red kidneys, lentils, butter beans, chick peas
Good quality Tofu and tempeh
Grains such as quinoa, wheat, buckwheat and farro
How can a nutritionist help me as a plant-based athlete?
Every person has individual nutritional requirements. When you are an athlete this is even more personal and therefore requires a tailored approach to get the best outcome. If you are still learning about plant-based diets it can be helpful to have an expert on hand to get the best combinations and most flavourful and nutritious alternatives.
Make sure to consult with a health professional anytime you consider dramatically changing the way you eat to best support your nutrient intake and support you in your journey.
As a registered sports nutrition therapist, I can support you in your health goal and with your nutrition towards improving your performance and offering your body the right nutrients within whole food or vitamins when necessary.
Why not get in touch and we can get started?
Here are some of my favourite plant-based books, to whet your appetite.
The Happy Pear, Stephen and David Flynn
The Plantpower Way, Rich Roll
Deliciously Ella, Ella Woodward
The Plant-Based Cyclist, Nigel Mitchell