It seems we are hearing more about the benefits of plant-based diets for their improvements in heart health to memory and even prevention & treatment of Type-2 diabetes. However, a growing number of athletes across different sports (Venus Williams, Nate Diaz, and Rich Roll for example) are also incorporating a plant-based diet into their lifestyle.
The main advantages to a vegan or plant-based diet appears to be related to the foods you’re eating more of rather than those you’re eating less of. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy sources of fat. Plant-based diets are also rich in phytochemicals which are compounds that help your body run smoothly. For example, flavonoids found in apples can help reduce inflammation and beta-carotene found in sweet potatoes, carrots, and dark leafy greens help with immunity, skin and bone health. This is important to note because prolonged intense exercise generates large quantities of free radicals. Free radicals overwhelm cells and causes oxidative stress to rise which increases inflammation, cell damage, and overtime can increase risk of chronic disease such as heart disease and cancer. Plant-based diets due to their richness in anti-inflammatory foods such as those listed above can reduce levels of inflammation keeping you healthier and less susceptible to injury and disease.
For athletes looking to go plant-based or vegan the single most important factor to continue to perform at an optimal level is consuming enough calories from carbohydrates and protein. As an athlete, your energy needs are higher due to the demands of exercise and sport. Adequate calorie consumption will help fuel your body whether you’re at rest or during your workouts.
However, adequate protein intake is important for repair and recovery post workout. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight for athletes. To figure this number out, divide your current body weight by 2.2 and then multiply by 1.2-2.0. This will give you a range to aim for consuming each day. For example, if you weigh 150 lbs then then you would aim to consume 81-136g of protein each day.
A vegan diet can provide adequate protein intake without any animal products. Edamame and lentils each contains 17g of protein per cup and cooked soybeans contain about 28g of protein per cup. One thing to be cautious of is that most plant-based proteins (except for soy and quinoa) do not contain the full amino acid profile that animal-based proteins have. This means that most plant-based proteins are considered an incomplete source of protein. However, you can fix this by complementary pairing these plant-based proteins with other foods.
Complementary Protein Pairings
Grains and Legumes
Legumes and Seeds/Nuts
- Garbanzo Beans and Sesame Seeds (or Hummus)
- Peanut Butter and Flaxseed
- Trail Mix with Peanuts and Pumpkin Seeds
Corn and Legumes
Vegetables and Grains/Nuts/Seeds
- Spinach Salad with Creamy Sunflower Dressing (can top salad with additional sunflower seeds for extra crunch)
- Italian Pasta Salad
- Rainbow Peanut Butter Stir Fry
Vegans can also supplement with protein powders such as pea protein or brown rice protein. Protein powders aren’t necessary but can help fill the gaps if you are not hitting your daily protein needs. Vegans should absolutely supplement Vitamin B-12 as this vitamin is only found in animal products and is needed for production of red blood cells (amongst other things).
Example Day of Eating
Breakfast: Oatmeal cooked in soy or nut milk, blueberries, strawberries, and peanut butter (can mix in vegan protein powder into cooked oatmeal for additional protein).
Preworkout: Date and nut bar
Postworkout: Fruit smoothie with soy milk or other milk alternative and vegan protein powder
Dinner: Vegetable stir fry with tofu and brown rice
A vegan diet can help reduce levels of inflammation in athlete’s bodies due to the variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals abundant in their diet. As an athlete, protein is essential for repair and recovery post training sessions. A vegan diet can provide adequate amounts of protein through pairing complementary protein sources as well as eating foods that contain soy and quinoa.
About Kyla Gavlin, RD
Kyla Gavlin is a Registered Dietitian and can help athletes improve their performance, free chronic dieters from yo-yo dieting, and help you manage diet related medical conditions.
Contact Kyla for your no-cost discovery call today!