Plant-based diets have taken off lately, and for good reason. Not only are they better for the environment, they are also incredibly diverse, healthy, and delicious. Athletes in particular can benefit from eating plant-based.
Although many people think plant-based athletes don’t get enough protein or energy to support their lifestyle, the truth is just the opposite. There are plenty of ways to create a plant-based diet that sustains weight loss, increased strength, and leaves you with a healthier mind, body, and spirit.
Here are all the best tips from interviews with Brenda Davis, RD. Brenda is an award-winning plant-based dietitian and author of 12+ books.
The Perfect Plant-Based Meal
The best meals are those that are well-rounded. Picture this: you’re sitting down for dinner and you’re having a big bowl of leafy greens. Mixed in are your protein sources like tofu or beans. You’ve got some whole grains as well in the form of quinoa. Finally, you’ve got an olive oil-based dressing for your fats. In just one bowl, you have every important macronutrient: fat, carbohydrates, and protein.
The best part about plant-based diets is this formula can result in hundreds of different recipes. Each will taste completely different but will still yield all the nutrients needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle conducive to your fitness goals, whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or just get more active.
The Verdict on Grains
Diets like paleo and keto cut out grains entirely. Although these diets are extreme, if your goal is to lose weight, you’ll want to limit the quantity of grains in your diet, especially in the form of wheat.
Processed grains contain more carbohydrates and concentrated calories. Whole grains like oats or quinoa, on the other hand, are much more filling. In small portions, they can help you feel more full. The process of eating whole grains involves more chewing, which takes time. The slower you eat, the less likely you are to overeat. When it comes to meals, three-fourths of your plate should be vegetables, and the last quarter can be a whole grain.
What About Rice?
Rice is considered a whole grain as well, unless it’s white. White rice has gone through processing and isn’t close to its natural state. Brown, red, or black rice is a better alternative to get the benefits of whole grains. Colored rice has more minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. Many cultures include rice as a staple, and it can be a great way to incorporate more carbohydrates into your diet. The one potential concern with rice is its arsenic content. Based on where it was grown, rice can accumulate high levels of arsenic that can be unhealthy or dangerous. Do your research to find brands of rice with lower arsenic levels.
Not all grains have gluten. For plant-based athletes who may be sensitive to gluten, there are plenty of other ways to include whole grains in your diet. Quinoa, buckwheat, and oats are readily available and versatile to use in cooking.
Plant-Based Eating for Weight Loss
If your main goal is to lose weight, you can make small changes in your plant-based diet to get the desired results. Primarily, you’ll want to focus on limiting your intake of starchy vegetables, fats, and processed grains. Go easy on the avocado, potatoes, oil-based dressing, and carb-loaded foods like bread and pasta. Pair those kinds of meals with a strong workout regimen that burns calories and you’ll find it easier than ever to lose weight.
Plant-Based Eating for Muscle and Strength
The only difference for plant-based athletes who are trying to bulk up is they can be a little more generous with portions. Add in some starchy vegetables or half an avocado. It is especially important to eat enough protein to sustain muscle growth. Chickpeas, lentils, and beans are dense and nutritious, with a high level of protein. Add some to the top of any meal for an extra boost.
Soy as a Protein Source For Plant-Based Athletes
Soy has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer. You should still avoid more processed forms of soy and stick to foods like tofu, tempe, and edamame. Soy does contain phytoestrogens, but instead of increasing chances of breast cancer, studies show that it actually protects the body against breast cancer.
Getting More Protein in Your Diet
Fiber is the main thing that can limit protein absorption from plant-based sources like soy. Tofu doesn’t have much fiber, so you’ll get much more absorption when compared to, say, beans, which are particularly high in fiber.
Incorporate a protein source into every meal and snack. The easiest way to do this is with seeds, which have a higher protein composition than nuts. Hemp or pumpkin seeds will add a solid dose of protein to a breakfast bowl or afternoon snack.
Plant-Based Eating for Recovery and Inflammation
Training hard can cause inflammation in your body. This can be further exacerbated by injury. The best way to recover after training is green juice, with leafy greens, beets, and ginger. The benefit of juice is it separates the nutrients from the fiber, which means your body can absorb it rapidly.
Lots of spices are also inflammatory, like turmeric, ginger, rosemary, basil, oregano, cloves and sage. Include spices regularly in your meals. Not only will they taste fantastic, you’ll benefit from the myriad of protective properties they have.
Getting Vitamins and Minerals in a Plant-Based Diet
Plants have no shortage of nutrients that will help keep your body functioning smoothly. However, certain deficiencies can occur if you aren’t careful with your intake of certain foods.
Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that benefits red blood cells and helps prevent weakness and fatigue. In general, plants aren’t great sources for B12. You’ll need to add supplements or fortified foods into your diet to ensure your intake is at the right level. In fact, according to the Institute of Medicine who develops all of our recommended dietary allowances, everyone over the age of 50 needs to get B12 from fortified food or supplements.
Unlike popular belief, people who eat plant-based actually aren’t more likely to be iron deficient than omnivores. There are two kinds of iron- heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from blood, which is about 40% of the iron found in meat. It is absorbed very quickly into the body. Non-heme iron, on the other hand, is the vast majority of iron found in plants, and is absorbed slowly. Heme iron can actually increase oxidative damage in your body when you absorb too much of it. Your digestive tract does a better job regulating non-heme iron, so you’ll only absorb what you need.
Thus, plant-based iron sources are actually healthier for you. If you are iron deficient, consider adding legumes to your diet. Nuts and seeds also contribute to daily iron intake. You’ll also want to increase your intake of vitamins that aid in iron absorption, like vitamin C.
Keep in mind that certain foods can also reduce iron absorption. A good example is dairy and wheat bran. If you add bran to your breakfast bowl, it can reduce your iron absorption by 90%.
If you are new to plant-based eating, try joining our community to help you get started. You can also follow along on Instagram for more meal inspiration. If you want a plant-based cookbook for athletes that’s simple and easy, I have my own that you can get here!
For more from Brenda Davis on Plant-Based Nutrition, check out our podcast episodes: