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5 Tips for Creating a Plant Based Diet for Athletes

9 Min Read

This blog post was written by guest contributor Angie Asche MS, RD, CSSD of Eleat Sports Nutrition.

The consumption of plant foods (i.e. vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds) has significant health benefits. Vegetarians and vegans, whose diets are primarily made up of plants, are shown to be at reduced risk of certain health conditions such as ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. There is evidence that high consumption of plant foods decreases the risk of several health concerns. Yet, the consumption of plant foods in the United States is far below federal guidelines. According to the CDC, only 9% of U.S. adults meet the recommended daily vegetable intake (2–3 cups), and just 12% meet the recommended fruit intake (1.5–2 cups).

Plant based diets for athletes have grown in popularity, as several elite athletes have adopted a plant based lifestyle in recent years. Some studies have proposed this way of eating could offer potential performance benefits for athletes. The antioxidant (polyphenols), micronutrient, and carbohydrate rich foods typical of plant based diets may assist an athlete’s training and enhance recovery. Plant based diets also contain high-carbohydrate food sources such as whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables, which are the primary sources of energy used during aerobic physical activity.

While there is no strict definition of a ‘plant based’ diet, it is typically described as making nutrient-rich plant foods the foundation of your diet while limiting your intake of highly processed foods and animal products. Athletes who maintain a plant based diet may identify as vegan, meaning they do not consume any animal products. Veganism is a lifestyle, as many people who follow a vegan diet do not use products containing parts of an animal (i.e., leather, wool) and do not use products tested on animals. But not all plant based diets for athletes are vegan, as some athletes still consume small amounts of meat, fish, dairy, or eggs on occasion. For individuals considering a plant based diet, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the largest barrier to success was a lack of information. This is where you, as a health professional, play a vital role when working with athletes. You will need to provide clear guidance and education on how to properly execute this way of eating while ensuring optimal health and performance. Here are five tips for creating a plant based diet for athletes:

1. Don’t Push an All-Or-Nothing Regimen

Often misinterpreted as strict elimination of all animal products, athletes may feel they have to be entirely vegan to consume a more plant based diet. Eliminating meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy at once can feel overwhelming and unrealistic, prompting some athletes to turn away from plant based diets. However, it’s important to inform athletes the focus should not necessarily be to demonize all meat and fish, but rather to put an even larger emphasis on consuming more plants (i.e. vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds). Athletes may eat a primarily plant based diet, while also incorporating fish, eggs, and poultry on occasion. Research suggests many of the potential benefits that come from consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet may be achieved by eating more high quality plant foods with less of an emphasis on meat. According to the literature, it is the increased quantity of plant products that bring you health benefits, not the complete elimination of meat. Encourage athletes that transitioning to a plant based diet doesn’t mean they can never eat eggs or meat again. Help the athlete work towards increasing their consumption of vegetables, nuts, or legumes by educating them on simple substitutions they can make. A plant based diet is not an all-or-nothing regimen regime, but rather a way of eating that is tailored to each individual.

2. Suggest Small, Realistic Changes

The first step in simplifying an athlete’s transition to a plant based diet is by making small modifications to the meals they already enjoy. Athletes will have a higher chance to succeed long-term, rather than being tasked with making vegan queso from scratch on day one. By first learning more about what they’re already eating, you can find simple ways for them to boost their intake of plant foods. It’s also a great opportunity to explain that just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s a nutritious plant based option – for example, soda or potato chips. While technically not containing any animal products, there are better options for optimal health and performance.

A few examples:

  • Suggest they add avocado to their sandwiches in place of American cheese
  • Encourage them to snack on fresh fruit and mixed nuts between meals, instead of cheese crackers or potato chips
  • Tally how many total servings of vegetables they eat per day, and increase it by 1–2 to start
  • If they lack variety in their diet, have them try one new plant food each week that they either have never tried before or aren’t very familiar with (ex: lentils, tofu, eggplant) and walk them through the basics on how to prepare it.

3. Advise Adequate Protein from Plants

Athletes require more protein than non-athletic populations, with a recommended range of 1.4–2.0 g/kg/day. Animal proteins contain a greater biological value than plant sources, containing all the essential amino acids. However, protein from a variety of plant foods consumed throughout the day provides enough of all essential amino acids when calorie needs are met. To ensure a plant based athlete is meeting protein needs, recommend high protein plant foods such as soy products (tempeh, tofu, edamame), beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and quinoa. Supplemental protein powder in the form of peas and rice may also be a way to consume more protein quickly and efficiently post-workout.

4. Educate on Micronutrients in Whole Food Sources

As stated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, appropriately planned plant based diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate. They may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. When proper nutrition education and guidance are provided, vegan or vegetarian diets can absolutely still meet the dietary needs of athletes. Educating the athlete on vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) that they should be aware of in whole food sources will help to ensure they meet their needs; of most concern include vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D. Begin by first analyzing their current nutrition and dietary restrictions to see where they may be able to make improvements, or where they may be falling short. This analysis will help determine which nutrients need the most attention. For example, if the athlete does not consume any dairy, eggs, or fish, recommend they take a daily vitamin B12 supplement and possibly a vitamin D supplement as well. If they are not consuming adequate iron daily, suggest they increase their intake of plant sources such as legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, fortified foods, and green vegetables. Non-haem iron is the primary source of iron in the vegan diet, which is less bioavailable than haem iron found in animal products. However, the bioavailability of non-haem iron can be enhanced by consuming ascorbic acid (vitamin C) during a meal containing iron. Some examples containing vitamin C include citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries or kiwifruit. If the athlete does not consume dairy products, plant sources containing calcium include tofu, fortified plant milks and juice, broccoli, and leafy greens such as kale. Plant sources containing zinc include beans, nuts, seeds, oats, and wheat germ.

Along with the mentioned vitamins and minerals, another nutrition consideration when creating a plant based diet for athletes is omega-3 fatty acids. Intakes of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are lower in vegetarians and not at all present in vegans. If the athlete chooses not to eat any animal sources of omega-3s, such as fatty fish, be sure to educate them on plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that will be converted in the body to EPA and DHA. Plant sources of ALA include flax, chia, hemp, walnuts, and their oils.

5. Ensure Energy Needs Are Met

A negative energy balance occurs when an athlete’s caloric intake is lower than their energy expenditure. This may result in weight loss in the form of both fat and lean muscle mass, or in case of low energy availability, may increase the athlete’s risk of serious long-term consequences such as low bone mineral density and an increased risk of injury and illness. These concerns are especially common in endurance athletes and athletes in aesthetic sports (ex: dance, figure skating, gymnastics). Athletes with high volumes of training may find it challenging to consume the calories they need to ensure energy balance, and data indicates vegans, in particular, consume fewer calories than omnivores, especially from protein and fat. Another concern is that vegan and vegetarian diets are typically high in fiber. While fiber provides many health benefits, it also promotes early satiety, which can make it difficult for athletes to maintain a high-calorie diet or gain weight. A few solutions to lessen these concerns are to analyze the athlete’s daily energy intake and compare to their overall energy needs based on their personal goals and training load. If they are in a negative energy balance, work together to find ways to ensure energy needs are met. This may be accomplished by increasing the number of times they eat per day, increasing the consumption of calorie-dense foods such as nuts, seeds, and oils or by increasing portion sizes at each meal.

Encourage the athletes you work with to make small positive changes with their nutrition. Work together with them on creating simple solutions that will help increase their intake of plant foods each day. As mentioned, research shows the most significant barrier to individuals trying to adhere to a plant based diet was a lack of information. That’s where you, as a professional in the health industry, play a huge role. Always be sure to recognize when athletes need more individualized and specific advice from a trained registered dietitian (RD) or board-certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD).

Take your knowledge of health and wellness to the next level by earning an online exercise science master’s degree from Concordia University, St. Paul. Utilizing a combination of theoretical inquiry and practical application, you’ll gain insight into exercise testing and prescription within diverse populations. And because of its convenient online format, you can earn your degree on a schedule that fits into your busy life.  Take a look at CSP’s new sports nutrition playbook for trainers for more about improving athletic performance.

Angie Asche is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD) and a certified exercise physiologist (ACSM-CEP). You can follow her on her blog and Instagram @eleatnutrition

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