Among the other benefits of a plant based diet, like reduced risk of morbidity and mortality, heart disease, cancer, or developing type 2 diabetes, a plant-based diet also has shown to be especially beneficial for athletes. Many studies show multiple benefits that I am going to review in this post, so if you are interested how to get your performance to the next level, have a read. In the end I also mention the most important facts that you should take away from all of this in order to benefit you training, recovery and health and some practical advice to take small steps towards a better nutrition.
This is about what you should try to eat more of, rather than what you should not eat!
If you want to built muscle and help your muscles recover faster from training, getting a good amount of indispensable amino acids like BCAAs (what proteins are made of) through our diet is really important as they are important for promoting muscle protein synthesis and our bodies can´t make them themselves. Many people are worried that they won´t get enough protein on a vegan diet because they won´t get the protein from meat or dairy protein such as Whey. (7) According to the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine the protein recommendation for endurance and strength-trained athletes ranges from 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg (1). From my own experience I can say that it is really manageable to get that amount of protein on a fully vegan diet if you eat enough calories from whole foods such as legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds (have a look at my earlier blog post if you want to learn how to built a perfect healthy meal). Protein is in everything we eat and that´s where the animals get it from in the first place. Therefore animals are just the middle men and we can avoid them by eating the plant ourselves. If you are not convinced picture just picture an ox for a second. Does this animal look weak to you? NO, because it is huge, has enormous muscles and you definitely don´t want to come near it if it looks angry. And guess what it eats… not meat but only plants. For long, the misconception that vegan diets provide insufficient amino acids, labelt plant protein as an incomplete protein source as they don´t have a “complete” amino acid profile. But even if whole foods like quinoa or even cacao didn´t have that it wouldn´t matter because we don´t need to get all amino acids at exactly the same time, but throughout the day or week and that is easily done by eating a variety of vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Furthermore, consuming animal protein also results in us having higher circulating levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).TMAO is a substance that injures the lining of our vessels, creates inflammation, and facilitates the formation of cholesterol plaques in our blood vessels. And that, of course, is highly problematic for cardiovascular health and inhibits blood flow to our muscles which results in poorer recovery. (4)
Data of a huge cross sectional study showed that omnivores consumed more total energy, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and protein but less ﬁber, calcium, and iron than vegetarians. Vegans consumed the least energy, saturated fat, sodium, and calcium, but the most ﬁber and iron as the diet is naturally higher in whole foods and furthermore provides the body with more vitamins and nutrients. The study concluded that the main advantage for the serious athlete to adopt a nutritarian-style vegan or near vegan diet may be the improved immunocompetence (better immune response to viruses etc.) with the positive effect of not missing training and events because of illness . This is especially important for people doing all sorts of sport because training causes stress to the body and alone a single intense workout temporarily diminishes immune function. So we should do all that we can to help our bodies to reduce stress and inflammation in the first place as we are more vulnerable anyway if we train hard. For example excess fat intake and poor food choices may exacerbate exercise and induced immunosuppression where as Carotenoid (pigment molecules abundant in green and other coloured vegetables) are known to enhance immune function. Furthermore antioxidants (molecules in colourful vegetables) are really helpful to reduce inflammation in the body which is created through free radicals which are produced during exercise and are known to play a role in prominent conditions such as cardiovascular disease and the development of cancer. Antioxidants can neutralize inflammation and studies found that supplements of specific isolated antioxidants would be vastly outperformed by the complex combinations of antioxidants and other phytonutrients in high-micronutrient, whole foods. So it can be said that it is most effective to eat more foods that are high in antioxidants, some of which are listed below (the same is observed in epidemiological studies). In Conclusion there are simply many proven benefits of eating more colourful vegetables to help recovery and reduce inflammation that is created through training.
Practical things to take away from all the science and studies:
- eat more green leafy vegetables as they support immune function
- eat more colourful vegetables because they are high in antioxidants and help your body recover
- limit your animal protein intake as it inhibits blood flow and therefore optimal recovery, especially after training
- –> maybe try some plant based protein (as it isn´t inferior to animal based protein and see how that works for you. I have personally noticed that I don´t feel all too good after having whey protein and that my recovery is so much better after a plant-based protein shake)
- I already listed some of my favourite plant based protein supplement companies that I tried and I personally think that their protein is just as good as the whey protein ones, with multiple flavour options and a great taste, so have a look at the article below if you need some inspiration (don´t make the mistake to take pure hemp protein or some such and expect it to taste like something other than grass)
All that said it has also be taken into account that “vegan” does not necessarily directly mean healthy as it can nowadays also consist of processed foods such as meat alternatives. Furthermore athletes should be testing their blood from time to time in order to make sure that their ferritin (iron stores) is high enough due to the reduced bioavailability of the type of iron that is found in plants. But again I have made the experience that if I eat a good amount of whole foods I don’t have any problems with that. (coffein has also a big impact on iron absorption so if you always have coffee straight after or with your meals you should consider that the iron absorption is really limited). Furthermore vegans or vegetarians should take a vitamin B12 supplement because B12 is made from bacteria in the soil and we can’t make it ourselves (animals can’t either, but they get supplemented as well so you can get vitamin B12 through meat). In Addition to that I would advice to take a Vitamin D supplement as well, at least during the winter, as our bodys need sunshine to produce it and we would need around 15 min of direct exposure to strong sunlight in order to produce a good amount (most effective on bare forearms or the forehead).
If you found this post interesting please give me a like and make sure to follow this blog ; )
The next recipe will be a healthy snack to fuel you training and recovery properly so stay tuned for that!
1 Nutrition and Athletic Performance. (2009). Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise AMERICAN DIETETIC ASSOCIATION DIETITIANS OF CANADA
2Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete Joel Fuhrman and Deana M. Ferreri Dr. Fuhrman.com, Inc., Flemington, NJ