Many people embrace plant-based eating plans for various reasons, ranging from health issues to spiritual beliefs. Is such an eating plan complementary to an athletic lifestyle, though? Can those who go hard daily get adequate intake of calories and protein on such a diet?
Of course they can. Protein consists of amino acids, and while meat is a convenient source, it’s possible to get what you need by combining different plant-based foods. If you’re a fitness instructor or professional competitor thinking of giving vegan or vegetarian eating a try, here’s what you need to know to power your workouts.
1. Ensure Adequate Caloric Intake
Those who switch to plant-based eating for health reasons, not as an excuse to binge on fast food french fries and pizza, can find consuming adequate calories daily challenging. The human body absorbs most nutrients more readily from whole foods than from supplements, and eating too few calories leads to exhaustion and poor athletic performance.
Those who consume cheese fare slightly better in terms of getting enough calories. Those choosing vegan lifestyles can double down on foods high in iron and zinc to prevent deficiencies from eschewing meat. Be cautious when juicing greens such as spinach and kale. While such drinks can help you meet your caloric needs, they can lead to an increased level of oxalates when consumed too often, leading to painful kidney stones.
2. Keep the Water Bottle Handy
Those who constantly experience food cravings on vegan or vegetarian diets may suffer from dehydration, not malnutrition, especially if they regularly consume foods and drinks high in salt. The body needs some electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, and drinking too much plain water can lead to hyponatremia. Athletes currently engaged in running a marathon or triathlon should consider alternating sports beverages containing electrolytes with sipping water.
That said, the body needs water to digest food properly. Those who find themselves hungry when not embroiled in competition should sip away to see if doing so assuages their pangs.
3. Load the Grocery Cart with Leafy Greens
Dark, leafy greens such as kale, collard greens and Swiss chard contain high levels of protein and iron. Vegans and vegetarians who find themselves craving beef constantly often suffer from an iron deficiency. Symptoms of iron deficiency include brittle nails and hair, pale skin and cold hands and feet.
When prepping salads, combine greens with vegetables and fruits in various colors, such as bell peppers, radishes, blueberries and cranberries. Differently colored plants indicate variations of phytonutrients critical for optimal health. The more vibrant your salad, the greater the mix of vitamins and minerals you consume.
4. Go as Nutty as a Squirrel
When it comes to protein sources for vegans, few foods outshine the humble nut. Nuts contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, good fats requisite for proper neural functioning. Not only can consuming nuts provide muscle-building amino acids, but it also can improve coordination and mood — handy on days you feel like skipping the gym.
Nuts such as macadamias contain over 200 calories per serving, making them a godsend for those struggling to get adequate caloric intake. Nuts like peanuts contain high levels of vitamin B-7, or biotin, essential for healthy hair and nails. Competitive bodybuilders can turn to nuts to get a healthy glow and shiny hair before taking the stage.
5. Beans, Beans the Magical Fruit
We all heard the little song as kids, “beans, beans, the musical fruit: the more you eat, the more you toot.” When it comes to protein, filling fiber and other nutrients, frijoles can’t be beat.
Beans help keep intestines and bowels moving smoothly, reducing bloating athletes may find distressing. One type of legume, the Adzuki bean, acts as a potent liver tonic. Those who have had a few too many the night before should nosh on this.
Consuming kidney beans can reduce colorectal cancer risks significantly. By all means, dig into that bowl of vegan chili and slash your risk of disease.
6. Cook Foods in Healthy Fats and Oils
All fats are not created equal. Some benefit neural and cardiovascular health while others increase the risk of high blood pressure and type II diabetes. Typically, vegans and vegetarians naturally consume more of the right types of fats.
Saturated fats such as butter come from animals. Not all vegetarians swear off butter, and several studies indicate it proves healthier than artificial trans fats found in many processed foods. Those who swear off animal products out of concern for their welfare should scorn margarine made with palm oil, as the cultivation of this crop decimates orangutan populations.
7. Load up on Eggs
If you’re an ovo-vegetarian, meaning you eat eggs, you’ll benefit from taking a trip to the local farmers market. Most of the eggs sold there come from healthy, pasture-raised hens.
No farmers market nearby? It’s possible to find store-brand humane eggs, though it takes a bit of research, trial and error. If the eggs you bought have a dark yellow or orange-ish yolk, chances are they came from hens who lived happy lives. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens have darker yolks than their cage-raised counterparts, and top chefs aver they taste better, too.
8. Exercise Caution with Soy
Soy provides an excellent protein source, but it also contains phytoestrogen, a plant-based version of the female hormone. While not dangerous to many people, too much soy protein may increase the risk of breast cancer in susceptible individuals.
Male competitive bodybuilders often swear off soy, as they fear the hormones may inhibit muscle growth. However, conflicting scientific evidence exists to support such claims.
9. Turn to Ancient Grains
Those choosing vegan or vegetarian diets should monitor their grain intake. While many athletes prefer the definition-cutting power of eliminating most grains, for endurance athletes such as triathletes, consuming these complex carbs fuels the machine. White flour offers few nutrients, but ancient grains like quinoa offer filling protein, calories and fiber.
10. Choose Dairy Products Wisely
Vegans take a pass on dairy products but can find creamy goodness in things like plant-based Greek yogurt. Vegetarians who consume cheese should select the right types.
Hard cheeses such as cheddar contain the highest number of calories as well as the most saturated fat. Low-fat mozzarella and ricotta cheeses make excellent substitutes. Those who enjoy the texture of cottage cheese can also dig in, perhaps adding a few berries or honey for a sweet end to a meal.
Fueling the Body Without Consuming Meat
Choosing a plant-based diet offers many advantages, including decreased heart disease and diabetes risk, as well as improved athletic performance. Once you learn how to obtain sufficient fat, protein and calories from non-animal sources, the sky truly becomes the limit to your training potential.