Plant-based diets are popular for a number of reasons: environmental, ethical and health to name a few. Sure, these diets revolve around plants which contain a large amount of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, but they can also provide enough nutrition to promote fitness goals.
In short, plant-based athletes need to address these five concerns:
No plant-based eater wants to hear “but what about protein?!’”, but there is some truth to this. Athlete’s protein needs are higher than the general public, and bodies actually absorb about 10% less protein from plant sources compared to animal sources. This puts you at risk for falling short if your diet doesn’t contain enough major plant protein sources like beans, lentils, pea, hemp, edamame, tofu and tempeh.
Eggs and dairy can play major protein roles for vegetarians. Target your heavy protein consumption post-workout to ensure your body has enough to recover and repair muscles. Most vegetarians don’t have to worry about incomplete protein. As long as your diet contains variety, you’ll get all the amino acids you need.
You get plenty of fiber on a solid plant-based diet, which is awesome for general health. However, it can lead to GI issues during workouts, so skip high-fiber foods before training sessions, and opt for fruits, starchy vegetables and grains instead.
Plant-based diets tend to include more bulk with less calories, making this diet great for feeling full with fewer calories. For an athlete needing more calories, however, this can be detrimental. If you have high-energy needs, add more energy-dense sources to your meals such as dates, bananas, coconut oil, nuts, seeds and more grains and starchy vegetables to fuel workouts.
Plants are loaded with nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals, but there are a few key nutrients found mostly (if not completely) in animals: vitamin-B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and iron are concerns for those avoiding all animal products. Vitamin B12 and iron are vital to energy production and strong performance; calcium, vitamin D and zinc promote bone strength and immunity which support strong bodies that can keep performing well day to day.
Supplementation should be considered due to the limited amount consumed from plant sources and the body’s limited ability to absorb these nutrients from those sources. Iron, for example, might have 50% bioavailability from plant (non-heme) versus animal (heme) sources, and iron and zinc have been shown to be utilized more in athletic training.
Many processed, low-nutrient, high-calorie options still exist, and should be avoided in favor of whole or minimally processed plant foods.
The more strict your plant-based diet (e.g., total vegan), the more these issues apply. Ultimately, any person, regardless of level or activity, following a strict plant-based diet should check with a nutritionist to make sure they aren’t short on any nutrients. As long as the diet is of good quality and the above concerns are addressed, a plant-based diet can realistically and adequately fuel your performance goals.
SAMPLE DAILY DIET FOR A PLANT-BASED ATHLETE
Oatmeal with almond milk, banana, pumpkin seeds and maple syrup
Protein shake: 2 cups almond milk with pea protein powder or 2 cups chocolate peanut milk
Macro bowl with brown rice, lentils, broccoli, orange segments and shredded coconut drizzled with a maple-tahini dressing.
Almond butter, apple and coconut water
Southwestern stuffed sweet potato with black beans, salsa, crumbled tempeh and avocado, served over a bed of greens.