The Healthy Plant-Based Athlete

The Healthy Plant-Based Athlete

By Jenny Tschiesche BSc(Hons) Dip(ION) FdSc BANT

Our interest in plant-based living has risen of late. There is so much in the media and a very popular Netflix documentary on the subject of plant-based athletes. Media attention is always good for raising the profile of a subject, but it is important to do your own research to see if a vegan diet would suit you, your body and your lifestyle.

An entirely plant-based diet can easily lack a balance of amino acids and can be deficient in some fatty acids (e.g. EPA, DHA). Some key vitamins and minerals that may also be deficient are vitamin B12, zinc and heme iron. From a digestive perspective a purely plant-based diet tends to contain high levels of compounds called lectins (in beans, pulses, grains) that can damage gut membrane function, and limit nutrient absorption so preparation of these ingredients in an appropriate way is important. If your sport takes you abroad then eating purely plant-based may not always be feasible so it may be necessary to be a little flexible. As with any new way of eating a little planning will go a long way.

If you are wanting to become a fully plant-based athlete, then you may have a few questions.

What to Eat on a Healthy Plant-Based Diet?

The healthiest foods to focus on to try and get the greatest range of nutrients and to minimise deficiencies are:

All kinds of vegetables, cooked and raw

Vegetable sprouts

All kinds of fruits, cooked and raw

Beans and other legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans ideally soaked before cooking

Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes

Brown rice

Wholegrain pasta – wheat, brown rice, buckwheat

Organic wholegrain bread, pittas, and bagels

Other grains and seeds: bulgur wheat, buckwheat, farro, millet, quinoa, flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds

Oils – flax oil, hemp oil, walnut oil

Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts, almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter

Protein powder – hemp, pea, rice, chia

Fermented Foods – Natto, Miso, Sauerkraut, Water Kefir, Kimchi, Kombucha

Soy products: tofu, tempeh, natto, miso, soy sauce


plant based diet

How do I ensure I do not get bored?

If you are new to plant-based eating it may be a struggle initially to create enough variety in your meals and snacks. There are lots of ways to be creative though. Something you could aim to do is to ‘eat a rainbow’ of colours throughout your day. This may include berries, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, avocados, and dark leafy greens for example.

Increasing the variety of vegetables will broaden your horizons but it is also a good idea to celebrate the vegetables within the dish. So often when moving from a meat-eating diet where vegetables were an accompaniment to a meal people struggle to be diverse in their vegetable choices. Vegetables in this new way of eating are now central to the dish. The dish may even be named after the main vegetables in it, you never know! This change in mindset will help you get the nutrients and vitamins your body needs.

Should I Supplement my Plant-Based Diet?

At the outset I mentioned possible nutrient deficiencies on an entirely plant-based diet. This is where supplements can really help. These are the nutrients you may wish to supplement on a plant-based diet:

Vitamin B12

Omega-3

Creatine

Vitamin D3

Protein

Magnesium

 

However, I would also recommend working with a nutrition professional to determine what vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you may need personally.

What about Protein Powders?

If you feel like you are struggling to get enough protein on a plant-based diet, then using protein powders is one way to gain extra protein. It should under no circumstances become your sole source or even main source of protein, but protein powder can provide a useful top-up. There are several plant-based protein powders to choose from. Some popular options include:

Pea protein

Hemp protein

Rice protein

Pumpkin seed protein

Chia seed protein


protein smoothie
How do I get enough calories?

As an athlete you need to eat a lot of calories to keep your body performing at a peak level. Eating a plant-based diet means your meals may have reduced calories. You may choose to address this by eating more frequent meals and snacks. However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of eating vegan snacks which are not always the healthiest. As with any plan to eat healthily and boost performance planning is key!