Whether you’ve followed a plant-strong vegan diet for a while and recently decided to get more active, or you’ve been athletic for some time and are thinking of switching to veganism, you’re likely to have some questions and concerns about how to do it right. Today’s post is going to cover 10 most commonly asked questions by newly vegan athletes.
First of all, let me bring on some good news: you’ve got nothing to fear on your plant-strong athletic journey! Luckily, people all over the world have been reaching amazing athletic achievements while eating the vegan way. There are a number of successful professional athletes who follow a vegan diet. Like Scott Jurek, the pro endurance runner who held the American record for the longest distance run in 24 hours (165.7 mi), and who won Western States 100 Mile Ultramarathon seven times in a row (Scott talks about his transition to veganism here). Or Patrik Baboumian – a vegan since 2011 – who has recently carried a yoke loaded with more than 550 kilograms (1212 pounds) for 10 meters, thus setting a record for the most weight ever carried (read more about it in this article). A number of professional NFL and NBA players have been vocal about switching to veganism, among them Tony Gonzalez from Atlanta Falcons, Arian Foster from Houston Texans, James Jones from Miami Heat, Glen Davis from Orlando Magic. If these bad boys can do it just fine, then we all can do it too!
So what concerns athletic people switching to a vegan diet? Here’s a list of 10 questions that are asked the most often.
Vegan Athletes’ Top 10 List of Questions and Concerns (Questions 1 to 5)
1. Am I going to need more protein in my diet?
The answer is, no, but you might need more overall calories. We’ve been told for the longest time about the importance of loading up on protein if we are physically active, but the latest research shows that the recommended amounts may be jacked up way out of proportion. Citing the latest research in this video, Dr. Michael Greger suggests a formula of 0.5 grams of protein per every pound of your body weight.
According to the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, it’s true that there are 9 essential amino acids that our bodies don’t produce, so we need to get them from food. Consuming a variety of vegetables, legumes and grains can provide us with all of these vital amino acids. Latest research shows that there is no need for the so-called protein complementing, or eating foods that contain different amino acids at the same time: our body pulls the amino acids it needs from all the foods we eat during the day, even when they are not consumed at the same meal.
There has been scientific evidence that linked excessive protein consumption to impaired kidney function. Harvard University’s ongoing Nurses’ Health Study has shown that high-protein diets can cause a decline in kidney function over time as well as be one of the causes of kidney stone formation. Luckily for the plant-based folk, this only applies to animal protein, so we can keep munching on our beans.
Usually the reason for protein concerns in vegan people comes from the fear of getting weak as a result of strenuous physical activity. If this is what worries you, it’s most likely that you need more overall calories! The key to success as a plant-based athlete is as simple as eat more, perform better, feel great!
2. What plant-based foods are the best for me as an athlete?
The bigger the variety of foods we consume, the more we benefit – this is true not just for athletically inclined people. To provide your body with lots of calories, macro- and micronutrients, aim for including starchy vegetables, grains, legumes, leafy greens and fruit in your everyday diet. Beans are high in protein, as well as seeds, nuts, and some grains. Grains are also a good source of carbohydrates that help us maintain high energy levels. Whole, unrefined grains are better because most of the fiber remains intact in them. Fiber provides a slow release of carbohydrates into our bloodstream, thus protecting us from sugar spikes followed by an imminent crash that we get from consuming refined carbs like white bread and regular pasta. If you choose to have refined carbs every now and then (say, before a race when too much fiber can be excessive), go for white rice: it doesn’t have a long list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients like other packaged foods.
If you are involved into high-intensity or endurance exercise, you’ll benefit even more from consuming lots of plants. Strenuous exercise produces free radicals in our bodies that can wreak havoc on our health and wellbeing, from causing exercise-induced oxidative stress in our tissues to promoting disease formation and aging. To counter free radicals and oxidation, we need lots of antioxidants. Here’s where eating plants comes handy: the stream of vitamins and antioxidants that we get with plant-based foods has shown to reduce oxidative stress and even DNA damage! Whole foods do a much better job than supplements (more on this in Question 5 below). Plants on average have 64 times the amount of antioxidants than meat, eggs, dairy and fish. In fact, regular plant eaters may have a better defense mechanism that protects them from DNA damage from free radicals.
3. What is my typical menu for a day?
If you exercise first thing in the morning, start your day with a mini-breakfast that’s high on easily absorbed carbs, like half a banana or a few figs. After your workout, have a nutrient- and calorie-rich second breakfast in the form of a smoothie or some oatmeal. For lunch, get a big salad with beans and/or grains and a couple slices of whole-grain bread (read the ingredients list!) or a baked potato; a good veggie wrap with hummus also does the job. Snack on some sliced fruit, nut and dried berry mix, or some healthy vegan pastry (great if you baked it yourself; if not, ask the seller for a list of ingredients). Dinner options are abundant, so the choice is yours: go for healthy carbs (grains, pasta, potatoes) with fresh or minimally processed vegetables and some protein-rich food (beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan, etc.).
If you exercise in the afternoon or in the evening, you can still follow the scenario above with a few tweaks: have your big breakfast as soon as you get up, go on with lunch and snacks, but try not to eat too much at least 1.5-2 hours before a scheduled workout (especially fiber-rich foods). Usually a banana works well an hour before exercise. You may need to tweak a few things according to how your body reacts to certain foods, so feel free to experiment! And make sure not to skip your dinner!
4. What should I eat the night before a long run/race?
This is a common question for folks who consume a lot of fiber with their plant-based diet. The main concern is that fiber-rich foods may upset their stomachs during a race. Good news: as plant eaters, we have way fewer temptations (or options) to have a heavy meal for dinner any night, including a pre-race night. It’s still a good idea to consume a little less fiber than you usually would by making simple substitutions (go for white rice instead of brown; regular pasta in place of whole grain), but some vegetables mixed in shouldn’t hurt. If possible, have your dinner a little earlier in the evening to give it some extra time to digest.
It’s always a good idea to rehearse your meal strategy for the pre-race evening and the race day during your training. The night before a long run, eat whatever dish you intend to eat for dinner before your race (say, pasta with marinara sauce); the same is true about your breakfast. If you have some gastrointestinal distress during your training run, experiment with other dinner/breakfast options.
5. Should I take any supplements?
This one is near and dear to my heart: up until a few months ago, I was a huge proponent of supplements. It was common to me to take big handfuls of vitamins, plant derivatives and fish oil every day. I even tried to convince family and friends to follow my step. Then I got around a lot of information on nutrition, and I was forever convinced that plant-based diet is the healthiest diet out there. A few months into my vegan journey, I’m the healthiest and fittest I’ve ever been as I’m training for a marathon, and my energy levels are through the roof. All of this after months of taking no supplements whatsoever (except for B12)!
I came across a lot of scientific evidence suggesting that vitamins and minerals in pill form don’t get absorbed in the body nearly as well as the ones in whole, plant foods. In some cases vitamin pills may do more harm than good: according to NutritionFacts.org, multivitamins may increase breast and prostate cancer risk and may be downright toxic. In his book Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, T. Colin Campbell explains that the combination of known and not yet known to us vitamins and phytochemicals in whole, plant foods works much more efficiently inside our bodies than any isolated nutrient in pill form. You can check out more evidence from Dr. Michael Greger’s site here.
The only two exceptions for vegan people are vitamins D and B12. The lack of the latter in some vegans’ bodies may make them feel tired, and in some extreme cases even cause paralysis, myelopathy, or psychosis. Vitamin D can be generated in our bodies from exposure to natural light, and B12 can be taken in a pill form (luckily, it’s not toxic to humans when ingested as a pill), or obtained from B12-enriched foods like non-dairy milk, nutritional yeast, etc.
In my next post, I’ll continue with another 5 questions that plant-based/vegan runners and athletes tend to ask the most. Meanwhile, I would be glad to hear your thoughts on the subject!
Please remember: since I don’t specialize professionally in nutrition or exercise, I suggest that you do additional research on all subjects I cover on my blog, and it’s always worth contacting your doctor about making any changes to your dietary or exercise lifestyle.