A whole food plant-based diet for athletes has significant health benefits. It has been shown that vegans and vegetarians, whose diet consists primarily of plants, tend to have lower risks of certain health conditions such as ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and obesity. There is evidence that high plant food consumption reduces the risk of several health concerns.
Recently, plant-based diets for athletes have become very popular, as many elite athletes have adopted a plant-based lifestyle. There have been studies suggesting this way of eating may benefit athletes’ performance. The antioxidant (polyphenols), micronutrient, and carbohydrate-rich foods typical of plant-based diets may assist an athlete’s training and enhance recovery. During aerobic exercise, a plant-based diet tends to contain high-carbohydrate foods like whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables.
Health professionals play an important role here when working with athletes. Creating a healthier and more efficient way of eating will require clear guidance and education. The following three tips will help you create a plant-based whole food diet for athletes:
Don’t Push An All-or-Nothing Regimen
Many athletes believe they have to completely give up animal products to consume a plant-based diet, a belief incorrectly interpreted as strict elimination. It can be overwhelming and unrealistic to eliminate animal products at once, leading some athletes to avoid plant-based diets.
Research suggests that eating a high-quality plant-based diet may provide many of the potential health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet. In the literature, it is an increase in plant products that’s responsible for the health benefits, not complete abstinence from meat.
Encourage athletes to transition to a plant-based diet without giving up eggs or meat. Education about simple substitutions can encourage the athlete to consume more vegetables, nuts, and legumes.
Suggest Small, Realistic Changes
Making small adjustments to an athlete’s current meals can simplify their transition to a plant-based diet. It’s also a great time to explain that just because something is vegan, it doesn’t mean it’s a nutritious plant-based option – for example, soda or potato chips. However, there are better options available for optimal health and performance that do not contain animals.
A few examples
- Replace American cheese with avocado on their sandwiches
- Eat fresh fruit and mixed nuts between meals instead of cheese crackers or potato chips
- To start, add one to two servings of vegetables to their total intake per day
- Teach them how to prepare one new plant food each week that they haven’t tried before.
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.
You should recommend high protein plant foods to a plant-based athlete such as soy products (tempeh, tofu, edamame), beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and quinoa. Supplemental protein in the form of peas or rice may also be helpful in consuming more protein post-workout.