Plant based eating for athletes

Many athletes and enthusiastic exercisers choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet or avoid certain animal based foods. This may be for ethical, environmental or health reasons. These diets are often referred to as plant based diets or a plant based eating pattern, as they have became more popular with the increase in awareness of sustainability. 

What is a plant based diet? 

A plant-based diet is centred around consuming foods and drinks which mainly come from plant sources, and limit animal products. These foods include fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds. While there is a large spectrum of diets that fall within this, from vegan all the way to flexitarian, it is often thought a plant-based diet cannot fulfil athletes nutritional requirements. However there is no evidence to support this, and athletes needs can be met through a plant based diet, even individuals following a vegan diet. 

A side from the environmental and ethical implications of following a plant-based diet, there are also some health benefits associated with consuming more plants. These benefits include prevention of certain diseases including heart disease, bowel cancer and type-2 diabetes. Higher intakes of fibre and polyphenols found in plant foods also help to increase the diversity of the gut microbiome. 

But what about sporting performance? 

The American College of Sports Medicine and Dietitians of Canada state,  ‘a well-planned vegetarian diet appears to effectively support parameters that influence athletic performance’ and can support optimal sports performance. Studies which have compared the performance of athletes following a plant-based diet to individuals that consume a meat-based diet have concluded that a planned and varied plant-based diet neither hinders nor improves athletic performance.

However, a plant-based diet itself is not associated with improved performance. Many studies suggest no significant differences in performance, physical fitness, and strength between individuals following a vegetarian and non-vegetarian diet. An athlete can follow a plant-based diet and sufficiently fuel their training and performance, to the same level as an individual’s following a non-plant-based diet. Neither diet is supported by evidence to be superior, there are no improvements seen when comparing the two dietsPlant-based diets come under such a large spectrum of eating patterns that researching this is also quite tricky! 

What about protein? 

One of the main reasons individuals think a plant-based diet cannot suffice an athletes needs is due to protein requirements. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are great sources of protein. So limiting these can often be seen to raise concern. However, there are multiple plant based sources of protein which are sufficient, when consumed in correct quantities, to meet individual needs. Contrary to popular belief, even strength athletes can obtain enough protein from a plant based diet.  

Vegetarians, individuals that limit meat and fish intake can get protein from milk and other dairy products and eggs. Vegans can get protein from a range of sources including beans, pulses, legumes, soya products such as tofu, tempeh, milk and yogurt alternatives and mycoprotein products. 

While it is possible for vegans and vegetarians to meet their protein needs, combining protein sources is also beneficial to ensure all nine essential amino acids are being consumed in sufficient quantities. Swipe for some great protein combinations. 

These could include: 

  • Bean burrito 
  • Bean and vegetable hot pot with rice 
  • Lentil Dahl with rice 
  • Falafel wrap 
  • Lentil soup with bread roll
  • Quorn Curry with Chapatti 
  • Stir-fried tofu and vegetables with rice 
  • Hummus and pitta bread 
  • Peanut butter on toast 

Protein supplements are only beneficial if protein requirements are not being met by wholefoods in the diet. Requirements of protein vary from 1.2 – 2.0g/kg body weight for athletes, based on exercise type, duration, and intensity. If you find it difficult to meet your protein needs from food, a protein supplement can be a convenient and simple way to increase protein. 

An easy menu planner 

Planning a plant based diet around these 5 food groups can help to ensure you get the right balance of amino acids and other nutrients. 

  1. Fruit and vegetables 

As we all know, 5 or more servings per day is the aim! 

2. Pulses and protein-rich foods 

Foods including beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, soya milk, soya mince, Quorn, Tofu and tempeh 

If you’re not vegan, eggs are a great source of protein too. Try including 2-4 of these per day or 4-5 if you don’t consume dairy. 

3. Cereals and starchy vegetables 

Aiming for 4-6 portions of these per day will help to keep you fuelled, this depends on activity duration and intensity

Foods such as rice, potatoes, bread, pasta and breakfast cereals. Aiming for wholegrain also helps your fibre intake. 

4. Milk and dairy products 

Milk, yogurt and cheese. 2-4 portions of these per day will ensure you are meeting not only your protein needs but calcium too. 

5. Healthy fats and oils 

Aim for 2-4 portions per day. These include all vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and avocados 

There is no evidence to suggest adopting a plant-based diet will directly improve athletic performance and it is not essential to cut all animal products from your diet unless you have reason to want to. Please consultant your GP a registered dietitian or nutritionist if you are concerned about nutrients, for example protein in your diet. 

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