5 Must-dos for Plant-based eaters
Updated: Mar 20
If you’re an endurance athlete who is eating a plant based diet - whether that’s reducing your meat intake, eating vegetarian, or follow a vegan diet - there are some handy things to think about when it comes to eating, choosing foods and considering supplements.
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If you’re a coach, parent or part of the support team for an athlete, feel free to share my tips too.
With all the plant-based athletes I work with, I go through the following list with them so we can optimise their health, wellbeing, recovery, adaptations and performance.
MY 5 KEY TIPS:
1. Get regular protein in:
Aim to eat protein every 2-3 hours (for a most athletes). This is useful to do in order to maximise how much protein you’re getting in across the day. and to get enough to your muscles to recover and adapt. Eating enough protein, particularly around training and to start your day, will help with energy levels across the day and manage cravings too.
Go for snacks between meals like:
Nuts / nut bars/ trail mix
Milky drinks (soy or cow’s milk have the highest protein for milks)
Baked beans and other legumes
Yoghurt and cheese if you eat these
Energy balls made with nuts and seeds
Protein powder - in smoothie or mixed with milk or water
It also helps with the next point - variety.
Eating a variety of foods, and particularly protein and iron foods, is important for optimising how much your body absorbs, and supporting your overall health with a range of additional nutrients. Different groups of plant based proteins contain different essential amino acids (and not all of them like animal proteins). So, by eating a variety of legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, fortified milks, and eggs and dairy (if you eat these), you’ll be able to get all the essential amino acids needed for good health and performance.
Go for proteins such as:
Beans - kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, baked beans and more
Chickpeas and lentils
Quinoa (a complete source)
Tofu, tempeh, edamame
Soy milk or cow’s milk
Rice, grainy breads, rolled oats
Nuts and seeds
Eggs if you eat them
Yoghurt and cheese if you eat them
3. Take key supplements:
Get regular blood tests done to monitor nutrient deficiencies and consult your GP or Dietitian about what supplements you should be taking. Some key nutrients that are harder to get on a plant based diet (and then also while doing lots of endurance training) are: omega 3s, B12, potentially iron and calcium-vitamin .
OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS: There are three types of Omega 3 fatty acids - ALA, EPA, and DHA. EPA and DHA are only found in seafood or fish oils, so if you’re not eating oily fish 1-2 times a week, it’s a good idea to take either a fish oil or an omega-3 supplement made from algae. This will help reduce inflammation, support brain health and good heart health.
VITAMIN B12: Mainly found in organ meats, seafood, beef, eggs, cheese, cow’s milk. But, you can also get it from fortified cereals, vegemite or marmite spread, fortified milks and nutritional yeast. If you don’t eat these foods though, consider taking a supplement or getting B12 injections as it’s a key nutrient for supporting energy levels and iron.
IRON: Similar to B12, iron rich foods include meats, eggs, seafood; but also some legumes and nuts are rich in iron. For some athletes, they can meet their needs by eating plenty of iron rich foods each day… but, if you’re a runner or triathlete, or do lots of plyometric work, your requirements can increase with more foot striking breaking down red blood cells. So it’s a good idea to get blood iron levels checked regularly (every 6 months) to monitor.
CALCIUM & VITAMIN D: These are both key for healthy bones, growth and hormones. If you drink calcium fortified plant milk (which most are these days) and eat foods like calcium set tofu (look for Calcium sulphate on the ingredient list), tempeh, almonds, broccoli, dried figs and okra, then you could be getting close to your needs. Vitamin D is also hard to get enough of if you don’t eat dairy foods, eggs or seafood. So, it’s a good idea to take a calcium-vitamin D complex supplement to help meet your daily needs of both calcium and vitamin D - particularly if you have a family history of osteoporosis, have low energy availability, or are post menopausal.
4. Find a protein powder you like:
Adding protein powder to your day around training can be an easy and helpful way to meet your needs - especially if they’re high, or your low on time to get food in. If you don’t eat dairy, go for a Pea or Rice based protein; with minimal ingredients and pick one with at last 2g leucine per serve. The leucine is an important amino acid for muscle building and recovery.
5. Consider taking creatine supplement to support muscles and performance.
Creatine is mostly stored in our muscles and plays a role in energy metabolism, so, it makes sense that it could help with performance - whether that’s in training and recovery, or competition. Our body can make a little, but we mostly get it from meat. So, for plant based athletes, especially those who do high intensity training, repeated sprints, or need to build power, taking a supplement could be useful. There’s not a lot of good research done in endurance sports to tell us how much, when and the exact benefit; but from an overall health and recovery aspect, it could prove helpful.
If you don’t eat creatine rich foods, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll become deficient in it, however, if you’re wanting to optimise energy metabolism, recovery and performance, then supplementing could be for you. Look for creatine monohydrate powders and take 3-5g per day, at any time of the day or soon after training. Research suggests that muscle creatine could be increased when taking creatine with, or soon after, a meal as insulin helps uptake.
This is the maintenance dose, or slow loading phase of creatine supplementation. If you’re looking to saturate your muscle stores faster (maybe you’re getting ready for a faster race or doing lots of high intensity, repeat effort work), then you can do the fast loading dosing:
20-25g per day of creatine monohydrate for 1 week. Break this up into 5g doses 4-5 times/day to avoid GI upsets
After 5-7 days of loading, drop to 3-5g per day to maintain total muscle creatine saturation
Be mindful that this can cause a little bit of water retention, so if you’re monitoring body composition changes, this could influence it.
You can read more here at AIS Factsheet: https://www.ais.gov.au/nutrition/supplements/group_a#creatine