Athletes are different! For the majority of the non-athletic population getting enough food and energy through the calories we eat isn’t a problem. In fact the opposite is often true, too many calories, not enough exercise and weight gain becomes a problem. For athletes energy intake to fuel their training and competing is key to optimal performance. Getting enough fuel, or calories in, when energy expenditure is high can be an issue.
The plant-based athlete is no difference but there is a potential problem! Eating a healthy, balanced plant-based diet involves eating predominantly whole foods which tend to have low calorie density.
So what do plant-based athletes eat to ensure that they not only consume enough energy but also achieve the right nutritional balance and what challenges are there when consuming a plant-based diet?
CARBOHYDRTE FOR ENERGY
A plant-based diet has the potential to make you feel better through a greater supply and range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. It also tends to be rich in carbohydrate (CHO) which is the main macronutrient for energy supply, particularly during exercise. A plant-based diet will tend to be low in processed sugars and high in unrefined CHO and therefore supply a healthy balance of macronutrients.
A well-planned plant-based diet can match an athlete’s overall macronutrient, vitamin and mineral needs, even at high training volumes, but careful planning to optimise health, training and performance is needed to match energy intake with energy expenditure. Utilising plant-based foods with relatively high calorie density such as nut butters, avocados, nuts, seeds, oils and pasta can help an athlete achieve the higher calorie intakes required.
PROTEIN FOR MUSCULAR GROWTH AND REPAIR
This is the most common myth associated with a plant-based diet for athletes, as meat consumption is associated with a rich source of dietary protein intake.
I am sure that all of us who follow a vegetarian and particularly a vegan or plant-based diet have been asked the question “where do you get your protein from?”.
Well the answer is everywhere! Almost all foods contain protein in varying amounts, and it is therefore possible for an athlete to get adequate protein on a plant-based diet with a bit of planning.
For day to day health and well-being a plant-based diet can supply the athlete with enough protein for muscular growth and repair. The athlete basing their diet around fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and vegetables and ensuring they consume enough overall energy and have plenty of variety within their diet can not only meet their protein needs but also supply additional health promoting nutrients, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre which are not found in meat.
There are a wide variety of high-quality plant-based protein sources which can be used individually or in combination to supply a complete set of essential amino acids including soya (ideally from organic sources), sunflower, pumpkin, and almond. Plant-based milks are also quite often fortified with other challenging nutrients when eating a plant-based diets, such as vitamin B-12, calcium, iron and zinc.
The exception to the above can be athletes in high volume or intensive endurance or strength-based training where higher energy and protein intakes are needed. In these cases, plant-based athletes may find it difficult to consume sufficient protein and therefore plant-based supplements can then be a useful addition to the diet.
Are you a plant-powered athlete? We are curious to discover more about how you boost your performance. Share your experience and your favourite cruelty-free recipes with us!
Author: Philip Woodbridge
Philip Woodbridge is a registered Sports Nutritionist with the SENr (Sports and Exercise Nutrition Register) and specialises in plant-based nutrition through his consultancy P4S Nutrition. Philip is author of a nutrition guide and cookbook Plant-Based 4 Running.