Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Check out these tips to learn how following a plant-based diet can also complement your training.
The idea that a vegan diet and endurance training are mutually exclusive isn’t uncommon. Many believe athletes need to eat a high-protein diet that includes animal products to fuel their training and cope with physical stress.
While the optimal vegan diet for athletes has yet to be defined, many have put it to the test. Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek and triathlete Brendan Brazier are among a handful of elite athletes who live solely on plant foods such as vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds, and have eliminated all animal products from their diets.
Vegetarian Times reports that 1 million Americans are vegans, and experts tout the lifestyle’s reported health benefits, which include reducing the risk of diseases and cancers, and adding an average of three to six years to the typical human lifespan.
So how can you follow a plant-based diet that also complements your training? New York City-based registered dietitian Laura Cipullo of Whole Nutrition Services gives five rules to follow over the following pages.
1. Maintain A Balance Of Carbs And Protein
When animal products are eliminated, so is a large portion of protein. “Without sufficient dietary protein, the carbohydrates consumed will reach the bloodstream faster, causing insulin levels to spike and then crash,” said Cipullo. To avoid this energy decline, she recommends snacking on protein during the day in between meals to allow carbohydrates to be absorbed by the bloodstream at a steady rate, thus delaying the onset of hunger and sustaining energy levels. “Tempeh [a soybean product], seitan [wheat gluten], soybeans and raw nuts make great snacks,” said Cipullo. To maintain an adequate amount of protein for recovery and muscle repair, keep a four-to-one ratio—four grams of carbohydrates for every one gram of protein consumed. Try a bagel with peanut butter, sweetened soy drinks or pita and hummus post-workout.
2. Vary Protein Sources
Make an effort to get the eight essential amino acids needed for muscle and hormone synthesis by eating a variety of protein sources such as beans, peanut butter, tofu and quinoa. “The amino acids found in lentils and beans are balanced by those found in nuts, seeds and grains. Combining these ingredients into one meal helps ensure you are getting a complete source of daily protein,” said Cipullo. Tempeh and legumes are high in the amino acid lysine, which is known for its anti-viral properties.
3. Take Supplements
Calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron intake are reduced when eliminating animal products, increasing the risk for anemia and other deficiencies, according to Cipullo. While calcium and iron can be found in almonds, dark leafy vegetables, green beans and blackstrap molasses, vitamins B12 and D aren’t generally found in plant sources. A daily supplement and exposure to 15 minutes of daily sunlight will facilitate red blood cell synthesis. Additionally, fats such as flax and hemp seed oils, which have anti-inflammatory properties, will help make the vitamins more absorbable.
4. Try Algae
The concentration of omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish is due to the microalgae they consume, which produces the oils. When fish is eliminated from a diet, athletes can use algae powders and supplements to get the adequate amount of DHA, one of the main nutrients found in omega-3s. Try adding a scoop of chlorella or Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae, to your smoothies or mixing it with rice and olive oil.
5. Don’t Fall Prey To Quick Fixes
Avoid quick soy protein sources such as manufactured veggie burgers and fake meats. “These products are highly processed and high in sodium and artificial fillers. Choose one soy food per day,” said Cipullo. She suggests limiting soy intake to whole soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, miso and edamame.