Recently, there has been a shift towards more plant based eating in the world of health and wellness. There are a host of benefits associated with eating less animal products and these include a reduction in body weight, aging, inflammation, and risk of disease. Eating more plant based also helps support a healthy microbiome and provides lots of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. At Made 2 Move, our physical therapists believe in the power of including more vegetables and plants in your diet but also recognize that there is no one size fits all approach for nutrition.
With the rise of plant based diets, there have been questions of whether this lifestyle is feasible for athletes. Can you get enough protein as a vegan or vegetarian? Can you build muscle without eating meat? Is it possible to get enough calories?
Below are a few tips for those who are trying to eat more plant based while also trying to maximize their athletic performance. These tips hold true for any athlete, but especially for vegans and vegetarians who may find it more challenging to balance their nutrition and performance. A reminder that we are not dietitians at Made 2 Move, and these are just suggestions based on our own research.
Tip #1: Make sure you’re eating enough overall calories
A cup of spinach is 25 calories while a cup of chicken is roughly 340 calories. This is why eating more fruits and vegetables aids in weight loss. However, if you are working out heavily and eat mostly plant based, you have to be sure that you are consuming enough calories to support muscle growth, endurance, and power. The work you are doing in the gym requires proper fuel!
Most people on a plant based diet are eating foods that are very nutrient dense but not very calorie dense. What does this mean?
Nutrient density refers to the food providing lots of nutrients with minimal calories.
Calorie density refers to a food providing lots of calories with minimal nutrients.
The nutrient density of plant based diets is great in the sense that you can ensure that you will be getting high amounts of vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables are packed with micronutrients and would be what we’d call nutrient dense vs. calorically dense! You may feel full after your big salad for lunch, but did it provide enough carbs, fat, and protein to fuel your PM workout? Thus, it can be challenging to get enough calories as a vegan or vegetarian.
In order to ensure you are getting enough calories to support athletic performance, try to eat more frequent meals and snacks. Including a protein shake or smoothie into your diet is another easy and effective way to meet your calorie and protein needs. Also make sure to include higher calorie foods, like nuts and nut butters, seeds, olive oil, legumes, quinoa, rice, and avocados.
Tip #2: Up your protein
Research recommends that athletes consume 1.5-2.0 grams/kilogram of body weight per day. This would equate to roughly 102-136 grams of protein per day for a 150 lb Made 2 Move athlete. However, this number assumes that the athlete is consuming adequate calories and 65% of those calories are coming from animal sources. Thus, protein requirements are higher for vegans and vegetarians since they are not getting 65% of their protein calories from animal products.
This is related to the concept of protein quality. Protein quality refers to the protein’s ability to supply amino acids in amounts proportionate to the body’s needs. The body’s need for protein increases with increased physical activity. Meat, dairy, fish, and eggs would be of high protein quality, while plant based proteins like beans would be of lower protein quality.
Thus, vegan and vegetarian athletes should be consuming more than 2.0 grams of protein/kg of body weight. It is possible that vegetarians could get enough high quality protein through eggs and dairy products, but vegans may find it more challenging. The exact amount of protein increase is individualized and is a number that we suggest Made 2 Move athletes consult with a dietitian over. PRotein needs depend on personal goals, training programs, and sport, but overall, when adopting a more plant based diet, protein intake should increase.
Tip #3: Eat a VARIETY of WHOLE foods
When we say a variety of foods, we are not referring to the variety of processed plant based foods that the industry has pushed out to the market. We are referring to whole foods. Plant based meats, powders, and substitutes are not going to be your best fuel source as an athlete.
At Made 2 Move, we definitely eat processed foods every once in a while (we love ourselves some oreos dipped in peanut butter) but we aim to make whole foods like vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and meat as the bulk of our diet. For our plant based Made 2 Move athletes, try to include the “plant based substitutes” in minimal doses, while consuming the “whole foods” (beans, legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables) in maximal doses.
VARIETY OF FOODS:
Different foods have different amino acid profiles. This relates back to the concept of protein quality, discussed in the section above. What exactly are amino acids? Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and protein is the building blocks of muscle. There are nine essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the body and must be consumed from foods. Animal products, like meat, dairy, and eggs tend to have a full amino acid profile, making them a complete protein. Most plant based proteins are incomplete proteins, meaning they lack one or more of the amino acids.
Thus, vegans and vegetarians must be very diligent about eating a variety of foods so that they can get a variety of amino acids to help support muscle protein synthesis. However, eating a variety of foods is not the same as “protein combining.” Protein combining is the concept that vegans and vegetarians must combine proteins at every meal to ensure they are consuming complete proteins, but this myth has been debunked. Your body has a “pool” of amino acids that are stored up throughout the day. You do not have to eat every amino acid or combine beans and rice at every meal to avoid deficiency. If you eat oatmeal for breakfast and beans for lunch, you can likely cover your bases for your amino acid needs.
It is 100% possible for vegans and vegetarians to meet proper calorie and protein needs to support athletic performance. It just may require more conscious effort and planning than someone who is on an omnivore diet.
Ultimately, any diet can be tailored to your goals and the ideal diet depends on many factors including age, body size, sex, genetics, environment, and type of training. Thus, just do what works for you. Consult with a dietitian if you have confusion or want to dial in your diet, but life is too short to spend preoccupied with every little detail of the diet. If you feel better eating a more plant based diet, then continue to eat that way, just be diligent about eating a variety of whole foods that provide enough calories and protein to meet or maintain your goals.
At Made 2 Move Charleston, we are not dietitians, but we recognize the importance diet plays in performance and recovery, which is why it is an area we try to educate our patients on. We utilize a whole person approach when it comes to rehab, recognizing that there are many factors that contribute to your well being, diet being a major one. Interested in dialing in your training or rehab program? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org today to set YOUR initial consultation!