One of the groups that might hesitate to go plant-based or vegan, due to their usual training routines, are hard-core athletes. Yet with a little knowledge, it turns out that what they thinkwill be the most significant challengeswhen they start following a vegan or plant-based diet are actually notobstacles at all. (One such perceived challenge is where do you get your protein, or how do you eat enough calcium, minerals and healthy calories to sustain an athlete's workout schedule?) These so-called challenges are easily met, with planning.
Athletes, as it turns out, tend to be great at planning, and are often obsessive about their training regimens. Any athlete, whether a marathoner, a yoga devotee or an exercise-class junkie, knows that an important component of reachingone's physical goalsis sticking toa clean, nutrient-dense diet plan.
So if youve been thinking about your nutritional needs with respect to your training for the past few months or years, and you want to bring your fitness and health to the next level, you could be ready to take the leap to a vegan diet. It just takes some strategic planning.
So many athletes have watched The Game Changers, the documentary about pro and elite athletes who are plant-based, from Novak Djokovic to Olympians, Strongman Champions and Venus Williams, all of whom attest to the fact that plant-based eating helps them recover faster and play at the top of their game.
Sports dietitian Torey Armul, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has counseled pro athletes, weekend warriors, and marathoners on how to reach their goals with the help of sound sports nutrition. I've always been very interested in the performance side of nutrition, as an athlete in college and later as a marathoner, she says. She has found that plant-based eating and training, go hand in hand.
I think people who are vegetarianor vegan tend to be somewhat more health-conscious and they've done some researchso they often have a leg up on understanding nutrition, Armul says. For vegan athletes, [training hard and eating healthfuly] can certainly be accomplished but the program has to be done well, to optimize performance and keep that person healthy as an athlete and an individual.
Here are the so-called challenges that vegan athletes face, and the tools to overcome them
Were not going to sugar coat this for you: Being a vegan athlete is challenging at first, and it does take some discipline and planning to get used to eating a new way. Armul recommends working with a registered dietician, especially at the beginning of your program, just to get yourself set up properly. Youll have to focus on your diet as an important part of the training, she says. But once you get the hang of it, eating legumes, grains, vegetables and nuts and seeds and getting your protein from tofu, tempeh, soybeans and other plant-based sources, becomes as natural as lacing up your sneakers in the morning.
In addition to training meals, youll need to plan out your pre-race nutrition and post-race meals, especially during events that offer fuel you have never tried before. You won't want to just grab any old electrolyte gel or sportsbeans mid-run to replace your electrolytes and energy. Check the labels to make sure they're vegan and dont contain gelatin or honey. When you're exercising, you want a simple carb because that's what your muscles are utilizing, says Armul. Make sure you have that readily available throughoutyour training. Stick with your own plant-based snacks like fruit, pretzels, crackers, and even almond butterand carry your own fuelthe race so you can eat what you're familiar with throughout the event.
A vegetarian athlete can take in dairy products and eggs as sources of protein to fuel their workouts. Vegans need to pick plant-based sources like beans, legumes and nut butter. Look to grains, says Armul. People are surprised that rice, grains, and flour have protein. You can also rely on nuts, peas, amaranth, quinoa, seeds, and soy products for protein. And while you can supplement with plant-based protein powders, which contain vitamins and minerals, keep in mind when it comes to food versus supplementation, food is always better, says Armul. Dont let supplementation be your crutch for when you dont feel like making healthy vegan meals.
This important vitamin is often found in meat and animal products and is also added to many foods that we may not be eating, so its one supplement that vegan athletes need toconsider adding to their diet. Vitamin B12 is vital in making red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body, as well as DNA synthesis and helping with neurological functions.
It's very important for runners especially, (who are more likely to have borderline anemia) to have enough vitamin B12 in their system in order to help replenish their cellular health, says Armul. You can find vitamin B12 supplements in foods like soymilk, grains, and some cereals. If you're not seeing supplementation in your foods, then Id recommend a vitamin B12 supplement to help reach the recommended daily allowance of 2.4mcg, Armul says.
Youve probably heard of vitamin D referred to as the sunshine vitamin, as we synthesize vitamin D after exposure to sunlight. But vitamin D is also found in animal products and fortified foods. Its an important vitamin for calcium absorption in the body and bone health. Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that vitamin D combined with vitamin K may help exercisers with recovery. Vegans can find vitamin D in fortified cereals and orange juice. If youre concerned that youre not getting enough D in your diet, consider adding a daily supplement. Its recommended adults get 600 IU vitamin D daily.
Creatine is an amino acid found in foods such as meat, fish, and poultry. Your body converts this amino acid into something called phosphocreatine, which is stored in the muscles and used for energy, Amul explains.
It's clear in research that people who eat vegan and vegetarian diets tend to be low in creatine, says Armul. We also know that creatine has performance-enhancing benefits. It can help with short-term, high-intensity exercise, with strength, and it helps with muscle rebuilding and repair. So if you have performance goals as a vegan athlete, it may make sense to look into creatine supplementation.
If you're a serious athlete, you're working hard, and you're an otherwise healthy vegan, it doesn't hurt to add a supplement to make sure you have that safety net available since creatine is so important for exercise, says Armul. Creatine supplements can be taken as pills or powders, just read the label carefully to make sure its a vegan creatine source.
When it comes to fueling up before, during and after their training, vegan athletes can never just assume it'll work out with respect to finding quality food options.Just as they never train without thinking ahead, Armul says, they need to think about their diet as well. Being a vegan athlete requires preparation and planning ahead, but it is doable. And we would add, worth it.
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