Plant-Based Diets for Athletes

As sports slowly but steadily return to our daily lives amid the coronavirus pandemic, let’s turn our attention to what athletes eat for maximum performance. Whether you are a weekend warrior or a world-class star, you want to put the right fuel into your tank.

When thinking of athletics, most people first think of protein, the building blocks of muscle and other body tissue. But what about those who prefer to avoid or even eliminate animal and dairy products from their diet: Can a plant-based eating plan be enough to sustain athletic endeavors?

Yes, it can, say most nutrition experts. An appropriately planned vegetarian and/or vegan eating pattern can provide an athlete with adequate nutrition to meet their increased calories, carbohydrate and protein needs, says Yasi Ansari, the assistant director of performance nutrition at the University of California–Berkeley Athletics and a certified specialist in sports dietetics. “According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned vegan and vegetarian diet can satisfy nutrient needs and promote normal growth at all stages of the life cycle — this includes athletes,” says Ansari, who counsels athletes through her private practice and consults with coaches and sports teams at local high schools and universities.

That’s not to say it’s easy. “It is absolutely possible to get enough nutrients from a full plant-based diet, but it does take some work and planning,” says registered dietician Angel Planells, the owner of a private practice and consulting firm in Seattle and former president of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Greater Seattle Dietetic Association.

“In terms of protein, there is a concern about am I getting enough. You may hear a person complain about eating only beans and feeling like they can’t have another bean. With some education, they can realize that protein comes in all forms, shapes and sizes,” says Planells, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Will there be any vitamins or minerals I am missing? There may be a concern for iron and vitamin B12 for vegetarians, while vegans also have a need to get adequate calcium.”

[See: 10 Cheap Plant-Based Meals.]

Diets Are Individualized

Ansari, also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, believes each athlete needs to assess his or her particular diet. “For me it comes down to, can this individual athlete meet his or her needs without animal proteins,” she says. “I prefer not to say one way of eating will be better.” Her recommendations depend on a variety of factors: Does this athlete still occasionally eat animal proteins? How strict are they in following this eating pattern? Why are they following a plant protein eating pattern? Is it for a religious, environmental, health, animal welfare, spiritual, allergic or other reasons? “By better understanding why an athlete is changing their diet, the more I will be able to provide appropriate recommendations,” she says.

Ansari also asks if the athlete has easy access to all the plant proteins they need to meet their needs. “For example, I observe trends in athletes who travel for competition and they don’t always have plant protein options available on the road.” Therefore, she asks if this athlete is ready to travel with their own food sources and prepare their foods in advance to consume enough at mealtimes during travel. “If it makes sense to recommend animal protein to better meet his or her needs, then I may suggest adding that,” she says.

Exactly how much protein a person needs varies depending on the individual’s activity and overall health. “For many, 0.8 to 1 gram/kilogram will fit the bill. For athletes, the needs can be higher based on the sport, the timing of the season and the goal of every individual athlete. It can be as high as 2 gm, or as low as 0.6 gm if someone is having kidney issues,” Planells explains. (Kidneys process protein, and consuming too much can overwhelm a diseased kidney.)

[See: 7 Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet. ]

Veggies Guidelines

Ansari says she works with many athletes who follow a vegetarian or vegan eating pattern. “For the most part they have had no issues meeting optimal nutrient needs. I also recognize that those following this diet for years are more familiar with it and can recognize when something is missing from their eating pattern,” she says.

For athletes who are getting ready to transition into a vegetarian or vegan diet, Ansari first learns more about why they are doing so. “We discuss what foods athletes currently have in their kitchen, how to meet needs on a vegan or vegetarian diet and what a training plate may look like. We also discuss supplementation in addition to diet.”

Planells offers his guidelines for athletes to follow plant-based diets:

Variety. Meet daily needs for protein and essential amino acids by consuming a wide variety of plant-based protein sources, including legumes, tofu, texturized vegetable and soy protein, quinoa, nuts and seeds.

Focus on iron. Make sure you consume some plant-based iron-rich foods, which will help with oxygen transport to your muscles and body during activity. These foods can include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole and enriched grains, dark green leafy vegetables and dried fruit.

Don’t forget vitamin C. Consume foods rich in vitamin C with iron-rich foods to boost iron absorption, including citrus, peppers, broccoli, tomato and spinach.

Stregthen your bones. Look at consuming foods high in calcium and vitamin D to build strong bones and reduce the risk of stress fractures. These foods include dairy products if amenable, fortified tofu, soy milk, fruit juices, legumes and nuts.

Get vitamin B12. If you are a vegan, look at some vitamin B12-fortified foods (nutritional yeast, fortified foods (soymilk, cereal, meat alternatives) or take a B12 supplement daily.

[See: Your Plant-Based Diet Needs These 10 Foods.]

Work With a Nutrition Expert

Both Ansari and Planells recommend working with a registered dietitian nutritionist. “It is a plus if they are also a certified specialist in sports dietetics, as they specialize in sports nutrition,” Ansari says. Not doing so risks doing it wrong.

“I used to work with a collegiate volleyball player who was a vegetarian. Her goal was to cut some weight, but she wasn’t aware of the challenges,” Planells says. She stopped eating all animal products and didn’t replace any of the nutrients she was missing. “She was working out twice a day and trying to be a student athlete, but nutritionally, she was missing out on a number of vitamins and minerals. She was losing weight, but she also had no energy. She struggled in her classes and her performance suffered.”

With his help, along with some education and planning, she added plant-based foods to replace her missing nutrients to help provide more energy. “She felt less deprived, and she was able to perform on the court and in the classroom,” Planells says.

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