Food can be your best ally or your biggest enemy – in life and particularly in sports! No Wonder so many people are shifting to plant-based nutrition So what should you know about foods, nutrients, and your Athletic performance? What quantities do you need and how to put it all together?
By now you probably know why plant-based diets are the top choice when it comes to your health and Athletic performance so it’s time to look at the specifics of what to eat.
The simple key to a health and performance-boosting diet are these food groups: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes/pulses, nuts, and seeds (see the table at the end for more details). It may sound humble but includes thousands of nourishing and delicious foods.
Doubts? It’s natural. Plant-based diets go against what we’ve been taught when we were little, contradict omnipresent messages about what foods are desirable and challenge masculine stereotypes. Against the odds, plant-based diets are now emerging as the best tool in Athletic training, health-protection, and mental wellbeing, too. Professional Athletes are changing the way they eat and reaping the benefits – for example at least 15 of the Tennessee Titans (training for strength and endurance) eat a plant-based diet (1), so does the UFC fighter Nate Diaz (2), and Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris (3). See what one of the Titans, Derrick Morgan, has to say about approaching the subject of plant-based eating in this super-short video. And what do plant-powered bodybuilders eat in a day? Here’s a show and tell from some of the top professionals.
Marathon and ultra runners are also switching to plants. Studies show their diets are better quality than those of their meat-eating counterparts which is the reason behind their excellent health and stamina (4, 5).
On top of that, plant-based athletes have a bigger aerobic capacity leading to greater time to exhaustion and performance improvement (6) – which is helpful for both strength and endurance training!
We’ve gotten used to calling foods by one of their main nutrients – protein, carbs or fats. Yet most foods – unless they are an extract such as oil or protein powder – contain many nutrients and labeling them as just one may be counterproductive.
As an Athlete, you might want to track your nutrient intake and it’s certainly ok to say you need a protein snack or replenish carbs but it’s good to be aware of the other nutrients in foods you eat. Why? For example, if you label beans as carbs and nuts as fat but forget that both are also high in protein, you may be complicating your life, searching for ever more protein and eating the wrong ratios.
With that being said, what are the must-knows about macronutrients?
As Carbs are digested, they release glucose into the bloodstream providing energy to your body. Glucose is our main fuel that every single cell in your body needs so carbs are the most important form of fuel for exercise and sports activities.
In an eight-week resistance training study, Athletes ate diets equal in calories and protein but with different percentages of carbs. In the end, those eating a normal amount of carbs gained 1.3 kg of lean muscle mass but those in the low-carb, ketogenic group gained none (7). The reason? Carbs enable your body to perform at its best and allow protein to be efficiently used for muscle repair and growth. Low-carb diets force the body to get its energy from fat and protein which is less efficient, so there’s less left for actual muscle maintenance.
Not all carbs are the same – refined ‘white’ carbohydrates (sugar, white flour, processed snacks, and cakes) have had most of the nutrients stripped off and can lead to weight gain and huge energy ups and downs. On the other hand, unrefined carbohydrates from wholefoods (wholewheat bread, oats, brown rice, fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes) come in a great package together with fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It means they provide you with long-lasting energy and performance-boosting nutrients. Diets based on unrefined carbohydrates also help you keep your body fat down whilst improving blood sugar control (8).
The body stores carbs in the muscles and liver as glycogen – a ready-to-use form of energy for the brain and muscles. That is why you start to feel tired after 1.5-2 hours of exercise, depending on intensity, when these stores get depleted. If you don’t have enough carbs in your diet, your glycogen stores are lower so you experience fatigue earlier on and it also hinders your recovery (9). So carb up well!
How many carbs do you need? Depending on your training regime, you need 2.3-5.4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight daily (or 5-12 g per kg) daily (10). So if you weigh 176 lb/80 kg, you need 400-960 g (the upper limit is for professional athletes).
Protein is a vital part of every single one of our cells, which means it’s needed for growth, maintenance, and repair of the muscles but it’s also essential for thousands of everyday reactions in the body.
Think protein means meat? Think again – a major study spanning 170 countries found that meat intake can be as bad for us as sugar when it comes to obesity (11). And animal protein, in general, has been associated with higher risks of heart disease, kidney disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer (12).
So is plant protein better? And is it adequate? Yes and yes! There are many plant foods that contain all the essential amino acids (protein building blocks) including soy, black beans, garbanzo/chickpeas, buckwheat, quinoa, cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and pistachios. Other plants may be lower in one or two amino acids but modern nutrition science considers this irrelevant because if your diet includes a variety of plant foods and you eat enough in a day, you are automatically getting all the amino acids you need! And as for the risk of all those nasty diseases mentioned above? Plant protein lowers it! (13)
Thanks to relentless marketing of companies trying to hook you on their latest products, one could easily believe it’s hard to get enough protein. The truth is, it’s not only easy but most of us get too much already! (14) A regular, moderately active person doesn’t ever need to worry about the protein content of foods – that’s how easy it is. Literally, all plant foods contain some protein. Only when you start training more seriously or want to gain muscle, you may want to increase your intake from foods like beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, meat alternatives, whole grains, protein powders. Protein shakes and powders may be a great solution if you’re busy or prefer liquid meals. Blends of different plant proteins tend to be better than single-ingredient ones but everyone has different preferences so experiment a little!
Still not sure you can get enough on a plant-based diet? Maybe the strongest man in the world can give you some advice.
How about BCAAs – branch chained amino acid supplements? The claims surrounding them include the potential to prevent muscle damage, reduced or delayed soreness after resistance training, better gains, and faster muscle repair. It seems the only claim that has a leg to stand on is the one about reduced muscle soreness (15, 16). However, higher intakes of BCAAs have been linked to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (17, 18). A diet supplying all the protein you need may just be the best solution.
How much protein do you need? An average person needs 0.36 g of protein per pound of body weight (or 0.8 g per kg). The more you train, the more you need, up to 1 g per pound (or 2 g per kg). So if you weigh 176 lbs (80 kg), you need 60-150 g of protein (the upper limit is for bodybuilders or professional athletes).
We need fat for energy, as a component of many molecules in the body, to utilize some vitamins and for various reactions in the body. Some fat is healthy and we should consume it – polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6) fats from plants. And other fat is unhealthy and unnecessary – saturated fats from animal foods, coconut and palm oil.
Saturated fat is bad news – According to the American Heart Association, a review of scientific data on fat intake showed how it increased your risk of heart disease. The less of it we eat, the better for our hearts, blood vessels and circulation (19).
When it comes to the healthy and essential omega-3 and omega-6 fats, plant foods contain plenty – in particular, nuts, seeds, and legumes/pulses. It’s easy to get all the necessary omega-6 fats from plants, so our attention should fall more on omega-3s. Rich sources are flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds, and walnuts – and oils made from them (used cold to preserve nutritional value). Best oils to use for cooking are cold-pressed canola/rapeseed as it’s high in omega-3s and olive oil.
Omega-3s from plants come in the form of ALA which our bodies convert to EPA and DHA (for explanations please see this page). Fish oils contain ready-made EPA and DHA which is why some people think they are better but fish are so contaminated with mercury and pesticide residues that fish oil is not a smart choice. If you’d rather take a supplement than rely on foods alone, go for algal omega-3s – marine algae manufacture EPA and DHA (that’s where fish get theirs from) and supplements made from them are a super-healthy choice.
How much fat do you need? The healthy fat intake range is 0.2-0.7 g per pound of body weight daily (or 0.5-1.5 g per kg). If you’re trying to reduce body fat, aim for the lower side of the range. So if you weigh 176 lb/80 kg, you need 40-120 g of fat.
“I felt more energetic, especially in the mornings. I didn’t have to consume as much coffee to get me going. I felt I was recovering a little bit better after weight sessions. You feel the same after a game, in general, because it’s such a taxing high-collision sport, but in terms of soft tissue things, I’ve been feeling great.”The Toronto Wolfpack’s, Anthony Mullally – a 6’5, 110kg professional rugby player – on how he felt after going plant-based:
What to eat before, during and after exercise or a yoga session
Before – focus on carbs:
Carb-rich meal (breakfast or lunch) 2-3 hours before exercise and an optional small snack (fruit, energy bar) 30 mins before an intense workout. It is true that your body needs the energy to fuel your performance. However, too much food cannot be digested fast enough and can make you feel sick and sluggish, or can make yoga twists and inversions downright unpleasant.
During – focus on hydration and electrolytes:
Water is your best workout friend during 60min workouts. If training continues for 1+ hour, have an isotonic drink (a drink that contains some sugars and mineral salts to replenish energy and minerals lost through sweating). You can easily make your own – combine 300ml water with 200ml fresh/cold-pressed fruit juice, and a small pinch of salt (optional: ginger, mint leaves, lemon juice, a teaspoon of brown sugar).
After – focus on protein and carbs:
Something you digest fast is best to get the nutrients to your muscles quickly – protein for muscle repair and carbs to replenish glycogen stores. Smoothies/shakes or power bars are best for this – you need about 1g of carbs/kg of body weight (if you weigh 75kg, that’s 75g of carbs) and 20-40g of protein. Throw in some protein powder, nut butter or chia seeds and you have home-made smoothie! Or the old peanut butter and jelly on wholemeal or rye bread is also a great option, as is a pack of nuts and dates.
Make it work for you
Whether you should eat large meals and nothing in between, main meals and snacks throughout the day or split your day into eating and fasting periods is entirely up to you – your metabolism, schedule, and preferences – as long as you manage to eat enough in a day!
If you’re not quite ready to go plant-based, you can still improve your diet by making these changes:
- Swap white bread, pasta, and rice for their wholegrain versions
- Replace dairy products with plant-based alternatives
- Have some fresh fruit or vegetables with every meal
- Dedicate some days of the week to meat-free meals
- Take a pack of mixed nuts and dried fruit with you so you always have a healthy snack handy
PS If you want to track your nutrient intake, check out Cronometer.
Skill Yoga Supercharged Ten – ten foods to eat daily for peak form, performance and health