Have you ever wondered if athletes can succeed eating plant-based or if your physical performance will plummet if you eat fewer animal foods? I myself am by no means an athlete but I am well-versed in plant-based nutrition and know that athletes can thrive on a plant foods if they wish. It does take a little extra planning (and as most athletes know, no matter your dietary preferences, you need to be mindful about how you feed your body before, during and after an event or tough training session).
So whether you’re decreasing or ditching animal foods for ethical, environmental or health reasons, or just want to see what all the fuss is about with plant-based eating, I hope you learn some valuable strategies here!
To provide top-notch information I interviewed my friend, long-time vegan and plant-based nutrition expert Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD. Matt co-authored the books No Meat Athlete and Plant-Based Sports Nutrition (affiliate links to support independent booksellers). He’s also done some extreme endurance events and knows first-hand what it’s like to fuel for intense activity. I also chatted with a female plant-based athlete who’s experienced some cool changes in her performance since tweaking her eating pattern. Now let’s get into it!
Can Athletes Succeed While Eating Plant-Based?
Whether you’re simply eating more plant foods or going vegan, there is lots of evidence to support plant-based eating for optimal athletic performance. According to the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Vegetarian diets are linked to decreased risk for chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, while their naturally high carbohydrate and phytochemical content may help athletes optimize their training, performance and recovery.”
In other words, you’re more likely to experience benefits from this style of eating than disadvantages. As long as you’re meeting your fueling needs and eating satisfying foods, a plant-based eating style can support your sports performance and your overall health!
Amanda Wagner, who is a plant-based athlete and registered dietitian, said that her performance and recovery has improved since switching to a plant-based eating style. She even qualified for the Boston Marathon while eating vegan! Now if that’s not a successful athlete, I don’t know what is. “I’m training for my second marathon now on a vegan diet and feeling the best I’ve felt in years and running personal bests in all my races so far this summer. I am confident my vegan diet has played a key role in my strong athletic performances this year,” she says.
How do Athletes Get the Nutrients They Need from Plant-Based Foods?
No matter your eating style, carbohydrates are key for fueling workouts. You’re probably familiar with carb-rich plant-based foods including grains, potatoes and fruit. It’s not tough to get enough carbs while eating plant-based! Sometimes all the fiber in plant foods can fill you up too fast and it’s OK to eat some refined grains such as white pasta and white rice.
Many of us have been trained to believe that we need protein from meat, dairy and eggs to maintain strong muscles and bones. In actuality, plant foods can provide all the amino acids and protein we need! Protein-rich plant foods include beans, lentils, nuts and soyfoods such as tofu and tempeh. Bonus: these foods tend to be way more affordable than animal-based protein foods!
Another concern about plant-based eating as an athlete may be getting enough calories. While it’s true that vegetables are low in calories, there are calorie-dense foods in the plant kingdom including nuts, seeds, avocados and olives. “Nuts and seeds and nut and seed butters are crucial for athletes. And there’s no shame in so-called ‘processed foods’ like veggie burgers and vegan meats,” Matt says.
“Try to cook whenever possible, but do not shy away from packaged vegan foods, frozen dinners, or restaurant meals as they can help you fill your daily vegan athlete plate,” Amanda says. She echoes Matt’s sentiments about processed foods and incorporates protein bars and powders into her day for an extra boost, especially during heavy training periods.
Beyond the macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat), athletes also need to be mindful of certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). According to Matt, “Iron should be on the mind of all athletes, especially plant-based and vegan ones. Fortunately plenty of plant foods have iron and absorption is increased by combining them with vitamin-C containing foods. This pairing happens naturally — salsa in burritos, tomatoes in falafel sandwiches and bell peppers in tofu scrambles.”
Keep in mind that women need more iron than men so this is a nutrient that females of child-bearing age (or anyone who menstruates) need to be mindful of. I recommend asking your health care provider to check your iron status when you go in for your yearly check-up (yes, you should be going in for those yearly visits, and not just for your lady bits!). It involves a simple blood draw and an inexpensive lab test. This is for all females, not just those who are eating plant-based or who are active (but especially if you fall into these categories).
How Can Athletes Get Started with Plant-Based Eating?
Think substitution rather than elimination. Substitute meat with tofu, tempeh, beans and lentils. Substitute dairy-based milk, cheese and yogurt with fortified plant-based versions of these foods. Hopefully you’re already eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits, but if you’re not, make it a goal to add at least two different colors of produce to every meal! Colors in vegetables and fruits represent different nutrients which are crucial for fueling and recovery.
You’ll also need to do some additions along with your substitutions. I love adding baked tofu to pasta for a protein boost of an otherwise carb-centric meal. And trying some legume-based pastas for even more of a boost. Adding peanut butter to smoothies is great for adding protein, fat and calories. Avocado in salads and wraps is another great way to add fat, calories and deliciousness to plant-based meals. And remember that it’s OK to cook with oils such as olive oil. Just because you’re eating plant-based doesn’t mean you need to start overly restricting certain foods.
Looking for specific ideas for plant-based meals and snacks? “Bean dips are so good! In taste and for easy, quick calories and protein. You can eat them with fresh veggies, on sandwiches, with a spoon, in sauces — the application is unlimited. And there’s more than hummus! I make white bean and black bean dips regularly,” Matt says.
Some of Amanda’s favorite meals are pasta with kidney beans and vegetables; black beans, rice, and vegetables; and tofu and vegetable stir-fry. “You do have to eat a greater volume of food as a vegan athlete, but it does not have to be annoying. Make it fun by trying as many new meals and snacks as your time and budget will allow,” she says.
Have fun with it, experiment with different recipes and enjoy the taste and benefits of plant-based eating! For personalized guidance on food, nutrition and dietary supplements, consider working with a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in plant-based nutrition.