Alright, it’s time to dive deep into one of our favorite subjects all categories: plant based eating combined with being an athlete. Whether you’re already a plant based or vegan athlete yourself, you’d like to transition towards becoming one or just watched Game Changers and are curious about the subject, we hope you’ll enjoy this piece.
I (Sophia) became a lacto-ovo vegetarian (meaning no animal products with the exception of dairy and eggs) at the age of 12, and have thus lived the majority of my life – and my entire athletic life – on a mostly plant based diet. I started slowly transitioning away from dairy and eggs a couple of years ago, but still eat such products on occasion. With my history of anorexia, I purposely stay away from too strict of a set of dietary rules (read more about that chapter of my life here: Decompression). This works great for me, and I would say about 98-99% of my energy intake is plant based. Mike ate a traditional, animal protein centered diet when we met nearly 8 years ago, but quickly got into vegetarian food as we moved in together and wanted to eat the same food for dinner. Soon, he started going for vegetarian lunches as well, and today, we eat exactly the same way – with two exceptions. Mike doesn’t label himself a vegetarian, vegan or anything of that sort, and will, a couple of times a year, have a piece of meat or fish. This works great for him, and we’ve thus found the way we like to eat – and train. We are dedicated trail and ultra runners, and we spend somewhere around 10-15 hrs per week training.
The subject of eating plant based and being an athlete is still one to raise eyebrows and bring about many questions, beliefs and misconceptions. Many wonder how you get enough protein. If you’ll become malnourished. If you can perform as well. If you’re hungry all the time. If it’s difficult or even possible. The stigma around it is clear, but as untrue as we think it is you’ll become malnourished the second you go plant based, as untrue is it that just because you eat meat, all your nutritional needs will be met automatically. Right? While your protein intake will be more than sufficient if all your meals contain meat of some sorts, what’s guaranteeing you that you’ll get enough carbohydrates, good fats and micro nutrients? All vital parts of being a successful athlete (as well as any normally functioning human being), in the end. When reading the book “Finding Ultra” by Rich Roll, this particular passage certainly resonated with us: “But not a day goes by without the undisputed king of all questions: where the hell do you get your protein!? Ironically, when I was feasting on a steady diet of fast food cheeseburgers, fries, and pizza, not a single person ever questioned my habits. Almost overnight, my friends had become professional nutritionists, gravely concerned about my well-being.”
In other words, there are good and bad food choices regardless of the type of diet you’re following. And with that in mind, let’s begin! This blog post aims to explain what a plant based diet is and can consist of, outline the challenges you might face as a plant based athlete and what you can do to deal with those, and also kill off some myths related to nutritional deficiencies in general and protein deficiency in particular.
What is a plant based diet?
Veganism, vegetarianism, plant based… what’s up with all the labels and what do they all mean? If you’re a vegan, the textbook definition reads that you live your life entirely free of products from the animal kingdom – meaning in addition to eating plants only, you also don’t use for example wool, leather or down. The everyday usage of the term, however, often skips that last part and only focuses on the eating aspect. A vegetarian is, per definition, also only eating plants – but this term has, over the years, more commonly become associated with someone eating plants, dairy products and eggs. The correct label for this type of diet – however long and complicated it may seem – is lacto-ovo vegetarian. “Eating plant based” has become a popular term in the past 10 years or so, and that’s simply a very literal description of a diet where you eat plants only. Veganism is a term that some might find a little radical, and technically, it does incorporate more than just what we eat, as previously pointed out, but it’s used synonymously. Vegetarianism is, in a way, closest to a plant based diet, but because there are many generally accepted forms of it, it’s sometimes a little confusing (lacto, ovo, lacto-ovo etc). Also, when you speak of eating plant based, it feels a little less rigid. You can for example eat a diet that is based on plants, but every so often features something from the animal kingdom. We like to say that we eat “mostly plants”, and feel very good about that.
“But what do you eat? Pasta?“
Someone once said to us: “but what do you eat? Pasta?” and we thought it was equally funny and sad. Yep, we eat pasta. And about a thousand other things. A plant based diet includes all sorts of grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits, making the most delicious and complex meals in the world accessible to anyone willing to cook them, and doesn’t feel one bit restricting. We promise.
You might, however, still feel like you don’t quite know what someone eating plant based.. eats. What you mean, whole grains and legumes? Where am I adding the seeds you keep talking about? And how am I supposed to create meals without meat on my plate? We have included plenty of meal ideas in a section further down, and believe this blog post on Cooking From the Pantry could be helpful as well, in terms of items to keep at home.
Some thoughts on macro nutrients
Macro nutrients refer to carbohydrates, protein and fat – the three sources we get energy (calories) from, and what we need large quantities of. Micro nutrients, on the other hand, refer to vitamins and minerals – equally important, of course, but needed in much smaller quantities. Protein and carbohydrates provide us with about 4 kcal per gram, while fat provides us with 9 kcal per gram. Fat is our primary fuel during rest and low intense activities, while carbohydrates come in to play more and more the higher the intensity climbs. As the body requires more oxygen to turn fat into energy than carbohydrates do, you’ll need to lower the intensity once the carbohydrates in your system are depleted. Training with fully charged carbohydrate stores and supplementing with e.g. sports beverage during longer sessions are thus keys to being able to perform your best. Protein plays an important part primarily immediately following a training session, as it aids in the recovery and build up phase in the body.
“As long as you eat varied and enough, your nutritional needs will be met – no matter if you eat meat or not.”
Energy wise, everyone’s needs are different. On a population level, we tend to eat more than we need to, but in the athletic world, we often see the reverse phenomenon. Generally, you could say that as long as you eat varied and enough, your nutritional needs will be met – no matter if you eat meat or not. The demand for nutrients – macro as well as micro – increases with activity, but as you also need to increase the amount of food you eat to meet the higher energy needs, these demands are typically met. Sweet, right?
The protein obsession
The protein obsession we’re seeing is widespread and exaggerated – with protein shakes left, right and center, it’s easy to get tricked into thinking you need to slurp on one too, or else all that training will be lost. In reality, protein deficiency is extremely rare in the developed world. Out of the dietary challenges that could come with a plant based diet, getting enough protein is probably the easiest one to solve. This is much thanks to protein being available in plenty of foods, and the fact that we don’t need the enormous amounts the current media climate portrays we do.
Legumes are a key part of a plant based diet to meet your protein needs. Photo by Tijana Drndarski.
So how much do we really need? A non-athlete is looking at a protein need of 0.8 g per kilogram body weight and day. An athlete, on the other hand, needs around 1.2-2 g per kilogram body weight and day, the lowest for those working out a few times a week at a medium intensity and the highest for those engaging in training almost daily and at a higher effort level. Generally, strength training also calls for more protein than endurance – and no matter what you hear and read, going beyond the 2 g per kilogram bodyweight and day will not make you gain muscle mass. The body will eventually rid itself of the excess protein with the help of the excretory system, which actually means an exaggerated intake hurts the environment in two ways: first by the unnecessary increase in food demand (producing animal protein in particular costs plenty of resources), and second by putting significant pressure on our sewage treatment plants. Regardless of how hard these work to clean our water, there will be excess nutrition leaking into lakes and oceans, which causes eutrophication (also known as over-fertilization). While the havoc-wrecking of our waters is a different story, it’s a valid point to make. Protein is important, but hey – everything in moderation. Also, overdoing the protein shakes will eventually put huge stress on your kidneys – your body’s own filtration plant – and we know of several athletes out there who have ended up with kidney failure as a result.
“Protein is important, but hey – everything in moderation.”
Now, you could look at those numbers mentioned above – the 1.2-2 g per kilogram bodyweight and day – add them up in your head and go “oh my, I need to eat more protein” and we’re sure that’s what a lot of athletes do – but stop right there. Instead – take a look at what you’re already eating! We wouldn’t be all that surprised if you already eat a good chunk of protein, simply because protein sources exist in abundance, provided your diet is somewhat balanced and varied. Even foods traditionally viewed as carbohydrate sources – such as pasta, rice, oats and flour – score pretty high when it comes to protein content. For 20 g protein (a benchmark amount per meal, when discussing sports nutrition), you could have 120 g (cooked) chickpeas + 50 g (uncooked) pasta, or 115 g (cooked) kidney beans + 220 g (uncooked) potatoes, for example, or simply a standard serving of oatmeal with some dried fruits and a generous helping of nuts. Heck, even just a few slices of whole grain bread with hummus will get you there – and we’re not sure where your thoughts are right now, but 50 g of pasta and 120 g of chickpeas? That sounds more like a snack than anything else, when the training load is high and our appetites seemingly never-ending.
Digest the above for a little bit. Doesn’t seem quite clear that supplementing with protein shakes isn’t exactly necessary and that the question of “but how do you get enough protein” isn’t too relevant, after all, but that a varied diet enough in calories will do the trick?
But aren’t there any challenges? Yes, there are. Plant based foods are rich in all kinds of good stuff, but there are a few micro nutrients that we should be aware of can be a little difficult to get enough of. There’s also the fact that plant based foods typically (but not always) have a lower energy density than animal based products, meaning you’ll need to make sure you eat enough to cover you energy demands. As vegetables, legumes and whole grains often contain more fiber and water, the volume of food needed to get enough calories in your system will be greater. In other words, don’t fear your overloaded plate of food, but enjoy it! If you feel as if you can’t quite handle the quantities and/or that your gut is struggling with the amount of fiber, consider opting for regular pasta as opposed to whole wheat, for example. If eating a varied, wholesome plant based diet, you need not to worry about getting enough dietary fiber. Drinking your calories is another tip – a smoothie is much easier to get down, compared to the same number of fruit and veggies in their raw, unblended state.
Another challenge comes as a result of plant based foods generally being lower in fat (and thereby energy). There’s an easy solution to cover this – you make sure to add in plenty of nuts, seeds and oils – but it’s an important thing to remember. Fat, as we learned up top, adds more energy per gram than carbohydrates and protein, meaning it plays a vital part in covering your overall energy needs.
Also, as soon as you omit eggs (that is, after you’ve omitted meat), you need to take a vitamin B12 supplement. While some plant based products have been fortified, in theory, B12 is only available in animal products. Hence, we pop a B12 pill daily.
Besides that, a varied diet should provide you with enough vitamins and minerals – but let’s take a closer look at where some of them will need to come from, when you reduce or cut your intake of animal products entirely.
Calcium – crucial for maintaining bone health – is primarily found in ample numbers in dairy products. It does, however, exist in e.g. tofu, almonds, beans, tofu and dark leafy greens as well, but you’ll have to eat quite large (albeit not impossible) quantities to cover your needs, such as 350 g spinach or 100 g almonds for 1/3 of your RDI (to be compared to, for example, 4 slices of cow’s milk cheese). Making sure your plant based “milk” is fortified is an excellent way of making sure your calcium requirements will be met on a day-to-day basis.
Vitamin D – needed to, for example, regulate calcium levels in the blood and for a well-functioning immune system – is hard to get from food in general. The sun kissing our exposed skin is our biggest source of vitamin D, but during times with less sun, we need to either take a supplement or make sure our food contains enough of it. The easiest source is, again, fortified “milk” products.
Iron – required to form the oxygen-transporting protein hemoglobin – can be found in an abundance of plants, but the numbers are sometimes on the lower end of the spectrum. Also, as a fertile woman pursuing endurance sports, your iron needs will be significantly higher than those of the general population. To begin with, a menstruating woman needs 67% more iron per day than a man, and studies point to endurance athletes needing about 70% more iron than the average person. Add those two up, and you quickly realize you need to stay on top of your iron intake! Making sure you eat adequate amounts of legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grain products will get you on the right path pretty easily though, and supplementing shouldn’t generally be needed. 130 g of cooked lentils (which isn’t all that much, said the hungry runner) will get the fertile woman 25% of the RDI of iron, and 25 g of pumpkin seeds another 25%, for example. Dried apricots is another great snack – ~60 g will get you yet another 25%. (And the best part might be that 25 g dark chocolate would complete the circle, with the last 25%.) Other tricks to boost your iron intake is to cook in a cast iron pan and eat your iron rich foods with something else high in vitamin C to increase the uptake.
Zinc – needed primarily for different types of wound healing in the body – is also found in lower numbers in plants than animal products. Good sources here include soy, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and these are actually not to be frowned upon. 200 g of cooked lentils gets you about 30% of your RDI, 100 g peanuts about 30% and 100 g pumpkin seeds about 75%, for example (hint: always top your oatmeal with pumpkin seeds and peanut butter).
How to go plant based?
A varied diet, featuring a mix of legumes, grains, nuts and seeds together with plenty of nutritious vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, root vegetables etc) and fruit, and you’re practically good to go. You might have heard of essential amino acids and how most plant based protein sources are so-called incomplete proteins, though? Well, fear not. First of all, we do need a sufficient intake of the essential amino acids over time, but it’s not needed for each meal to contain all of them in ample numbers – think instead over the course of a day or perhaps even a few. But also, know that most meals will be complete regardless, as we usually mix our beans or lentils with for example a grain (rice and beans is a classic example). We normally don’t dig into a bowl of just beans, but instead a mix of foods – and there you go, these will most likely create a complete protein together. Grains only contain very low amounts of the essential amino acid lysine, which, fortunately, legumes instead have plenty of – and the essential amino acid methionine, which legumes generally lack, exists in good amounts in grains. In other words, that sandwich with hummus mentioned previously is always a good idea.
“A varied diet, featuring a mix of legumes, grains, nuts and seeds together with plenty of nutritious vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, root vegetables etc) and fruit, and you’re practically good to go.”
And it’s easy to get stuck at the few challenges and forget about the plethora of vitamins and minerals plant based foods do contain – because in reality, those far outnumber the ones listed above! Vitamin C is a no-brainer, but plants are often real superstars when it comes to vitamins A, E and K as well, in addition to folate (or folic acid/vitamin B9), magnesium and potassium, to name a few.
Sourdough bread and hummus is a go-to snack for us. Photo by Nicholas Barbaros.
What does a plant based athlete eat?
What could a normal day look like? This would be a fall edition – because we eat seasonally – of a regular day in our household:
Breakfast: oatmeal, with a generous serving of raisins and fresh apple, nuts and peanut butter on top. Oat milk (fortified) to go with it.
Lunch: veggie and lentil soup, with sourdough bread and hummus on the side
Mid-afternoon snack: crisp bread with peanut butter and carrot sticks
Dinner: ratatouille with chickpeas, served over pearled wheat
Evening snack: apple slices or perhaps a black bean brownie
A few handy tips
- Finding a good quality, organic canola oil is a great investment for your plant based kitchen. Canola oil is very high in omega-3, otherwise more commonly found in e.g. oily fish, and is therefore a great choice for your go-to cooking fat. Flax oil is also an excellent source of omega-3, but has a more distinct flavor and is therefore better suited for dressings (but for the sake of honesty – we don’t keep flax oil around).
- Always having peanut butter around the house. Just 1 tbsp of peanut butter provides you with a whopping 4 g of protein and plenty of energy, making it a great snack for athletes. A go-to snack for us is crisp bread slathered with peanut butter, and then raisins and a pinch of salt sprinkled on top. It might sound weird at first, but it’s amazing!
- Eating more sourdough bread. Whole grain products contain phytic acid, a substance that decreases iron and zinc uptake. However, this acid is broken down in the rising process in sourdough breads – as opposed to breads made with yeast, baking powder or baking soda – which means the body can absorb more of said minerals. Hey, we’ll take an excuse to bake and eat more sourdough!
- Giving yourself (or really, your gut) time to transition, if you currently aren’t eating lots of legumes. You can end up feeling quite bloated if you’re not used to the fiber content and composition of peas, beans and lentils, but these problems typically subside over time.
- Making it a habit to plan your meals for the week – especially if you’re new to plant based cooking and/or feel like you’re not getting it right.
Winter Minestrone (left) and Creamy Lentils with Roasted Root Vegetables (right).
Vegan recipes for the plant based athlete
Below, we’ve listed some our favorite recipes for anyone looking to eat plant based and lead an active life at the same time. They pack lots of energy and plenty of nutrients, and are all simple to make. The yellow pea patties make an excellent substitution for any meat or fish on your plate – an easy swap, where you keep the sides as you already like them. The rest of the recipes in the left hand column are complete meals, and thus need nothing but what’s included.
Spaghetti Lentil Bolognese
Crunchy Broccoli Bowl
Zucchini Chickpea Curry
Creamy Lentils with Roasted Root Vegetables
Vegan Pad Thai
Yellow Pea Patties with Parsley
Herb Rice with Spinach and Chickpeas
30 Minute Green Curry Stir Fry
Baked Pasta with Dino Kale and Tomatoes
Roasted Root Vegetables with Dill, White Beans and Kale
- Stick to a varied diet rich in legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
- Make sure you eat enough calories.
- Eat your protein, but don’t obsess over it.
- Keep an eye on your micronutrients, especially B12, calcium, iron, vitamin D and zinc.
Lemon Blondie Bars (left) and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Energy Bars (right).
Eating plant based and being an athlete might present a few challenges – but in reality, so could a bunch of diets combined with athleticism (or athleticism just in itself – or diets in themselves). We wish everyone would be told about the benefits of eating legumes, whole grains and a range of vegetables, regardless if they’re opting out on meat – and that we would start to realize a meat-inclusive diet doesn’t mean nutritional perfection per definition. And any athlete should pay attention to what they fuel themselves with – not just those wanting to eat more green.
We hope this piece has left you feeling a little more confident what being a plant based athlete entails and how to navigate the challenges you might face, and that you feel confident you can continue to perform well – or even start performing better – if you’d begin transitioning towards a more plant based diet. We’d like to emphasis the “more” here, as we think it’s important to highlight how a 100% commitment to a certain diet isn’t always necessary. You’d do this planet – and your health – a big service just by switching out some meals here and there, and slowly discover the plant based galore of foods available.
And if you ever doubt sports success combined with eating plant based, we’d urge you to check out for example Swedish super twins Sanna and Lina El Kott Helander (winners of TransRockies and TransAlpine stage races, among many others), Australian ultra running ace Lucy Bartholomew (3rd at Western States 100 mi and winner of Ultra-Trail Austraila 100 km) and ultra running icon Scott Jurek (winner of Western States 100 mi 7 years in a row) – because besides being ridiculously talented and successful athletes, these are all devoted plant based eaters. Just sayin’.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate reaching out! We’d love to provide further guidance and motivate you to give a green switch a go. Until then: eat green and run mean, as Sanna and Lina El Kott Helander would say.
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– Sophia & Michael