There is an increasing trend in sports and the health and fitness industry to go plant-based. Due to different reasons, more and more athletes and exercisers tend to stay away from animal-based foods and stay green.
Whatever your reasons may be for leaving meat and dairy behind, there are certain aspects regarding your training and racing worth considering.
Currently, there is a growing amount of sports nutrition literature researching the effects of a plant-based diet. It has been revealed that a vegan diet changes certain needs of exercisers. It might be more difficult to eat enough protein, which is needed to recover properly and help you to increase performance in the long term.
Other nutritional demands which are more difficult to meet while eating plant-based are Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin D.
Food Groups Needing Attention
No matter if you are a youth or adult exerciser, there are 4 food groups which contribute to your performance and daily well being:
1) Vegetables and Fruits
2) Grain Products
3) Milk and Alternatives
4) Meat and Alternatives
On a vegan diet, groups 1 and 2 are usually nicely covered, since eating lots of veggies, fruits and grains are the base of the fueling concept.
Things get a little trickier when it comes to groups 3 and 4. Let’s look at them in more detail.
Food Group 3: Milk and Alternatives
Milk is considered an important contributor to a healthy diet of an athlete. The naturally occuring sugars and the high quality protein make it a perfect recovery fuel.
Finding a healthy substitute for milk and dairy is no longer a challenge. There are plenty of plant-based options to be found in a regular grocery store, like soy-, almond-, cashew-, and coconut milk.
Several of these plant-based options can be full of added sugars, so make sure you get an unsweetened version.
The protein content differs greatly between them. Soy, flax and pea milk have the highest protein content, rice milk is in the middle, and almond- and cashew milk’s content is lower.
Food Group 4: Meat and Alternatives
Fish and lean meats are a great source of protein for exercisers. If you cut them out, you have to make sure you replace them with other high protein sources.
Just like when looking for healthy milk-alternatives, vegan athletes will need to pay close attention when looking for meat-alternatives that are also high in quality protein.
Healthy substitutes are tofu, tofu-products, pea-protein products like pulled chunks, soy-protein products like patties or meat-less beef crumbs are also a good option.
Research shows that buckwheat, quinoa, and soy have the highest plant-based protein quality ranking.
Sometimes Less Fiber Is More
Plant-based sources of carbohydrates are usually rich sources of fiber. Fiber has a lot of health benefits, including keeping you full and satisfied for longer stretches of time.
High fiber foods include: nuts, oats, beans, fruits (eg. bananas, strawberries) and vegetables (generally, the darker the color, the more fiber). If this is the case, you may want to limit your fiber before workouts and around race days. Foods such as rice, pasta, noodles and buckwheat contain less fibre.
Eat More Protein
Focusing on a lean protein is not only beneficial for health seekers trying to lose weight, but also for vegan exercisers. It seems like there is a need to eat more protein than meat eaters, to compensate for the lower digestibility of plant-based sources.
Plant-based athletes might need to aim for the higher range of the recommended daily protein intake: 1.4 to 2g/ kg.
Since vegan exercisers tend to consume fewer Omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for growth and development, it might be wise to increase your nut and seed intake.
Walnuts as well as flax, hemp and chia seeds are great sources of Omega 3 fatty acids.
Overall, eating a vegan diet while exercising and traveling (eg. due to racing) needs a little bit more prep than eating a regular, mixed diet. If you plan ahead, you will have healthy choices available.
Stay away from falling into the food trap of eating more unhealthy foods to meet your caloric demands. French fries are vegan, but obviously not a good substitute to fill up on ;o)
You might want to eat smaller portions more often, and add some high energy dense foods such as nuts, seeds and oils to ensure your energy demands for your training and racing are met.
With all this in mind you can ensure your properly constructed vegan diet is NOT keeping you away from any deficits in protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, or any other micronutrients.
Plan ahead to have healthy choices easily available!
Recipe Tips for Vegans