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.
However, with the rise of plant based diets, there have been questions of whether it is feasible for athletes. Can you get enough protein as a vegan/vegetarian? Can you build muscle? 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.
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 conscious that you are consuming enough calories to support muscle growth, endurance, and power.
Most people on a plant based diet are eating foods that are very nutrient dense but not very calorie dense. Nutrient dense means that the food provides lots of nutrients with minimal calories while calorie dense means that a food provides 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, but it doesn’t always ensure that you are getting enough overall calories. Fruits and vegetables are very nutrient dense, but not very calorie dense. 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
It’s recommended that athletes consume 1.5-2.0 grams/kilogram of body weight per day. This would equate to 102-136 grams of protein per day for a 150 lb person. 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 whether the protein supplies amino acids in amounts proportionate to the body’s needs. These needs are increased with 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 depends 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 foods
Different foods have different amino acid profiles.This relates back to the concept of protein quality. 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 make sure 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 will be good.
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, diligence, 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. If you feel better eating a more plant based diet, then continue to do that, just ensure that you are eating a variety of different foods that provide enough calories and protein to meet or maintain your goals. It is possible to achieve your fitness goals being a vegetarian or vegan, it just may require more effort, planning, and conscious thought to ensure you are getting adequate calories and protein.
We are not nutritionists. We only address nutrition as it pertains to your health and performance in the gym/clinic. We do, however, work closely alongside several nutritionists in the Charleston area. If you want to learn more about what the latest research says about diet and nutrition, reach out to us today! We would love to help you on your path to improving your health and performance. Prime Performance Rehab serves active adults in the Charleston area get out of pain and get back to doing the things they love. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org today to connect with us!
This blog was written by Ansley Bucknam; student at Meredith College majoring in Nutrition and future DPT student.