Plant-based eating, to me, doesn’t mean strict vegan or vegetarian. There are many athletes who choose to follow a more “flexitarian” style of eating, where they eat plant-based sometimes and more omnivorously at other times.
Regardless of which category you fall under, if you’re eating more of a plant-based diet there are some special considerations you must think about to sustain health, body composition and performance.
I will always advocate for adding more plants, especially plant-based sources of protein, to your diet but I want to be clear here and say that every person responds differently to various foods and patterns of eating.
You won’t know how a 100% plant-based diet will influence your health, body composition or performance unless you experiment. What appears to work for one athlete, won’t necessarily work for you. Don’t follow anyone else’s rules for eating – trust the evidence from your body, experience and results.
I also want to point out that going vegan or vegetarian doesn’t give you an automatic clean bill of health. In fact, many plant-based athletes I see consume processed and refined foods and eat just as little or less vegetables than the average person. Just because French fries, cheese pizza, soy “meat”, vegan cookies, and white pasta and tomato sauce are vegetarian, doesn’t make them good for you.
Whatever your reasons for your food choices, I want to help you cover your nutritional bases as a plant-based eater.
Start with Improving the Quality of your Food Choices
As I mentioned above, just because something is plant-based, doesn’t mean it’s a high-quality food choice. Add more whole foods, more variety, enough protein and enough healthy fats to your diet.
For exclusively plant-based eaters, include beans and legumes for protein. Keep in mind you may need to start with small amounts at first, to allow your gastrointestinal tract to adapt. Include higher-protein whole grains such as quinoa, sorghum and brown rice.
Food combining is an important part of plant-based eating. Since most plant-based foods are incomplete proteins, you need to combine different protein sources to ensure you get an ample supply of all the amino acids.
When eating animal proteins, you don’t have to worry about this since animal proteins all contain every one of the essential amino acids. Plant proteins, on the other hand, all have different amino acid profiles and every plant-based food is low in one or more essential amino acids that your body needs.
Grains are a great source of tryptophan, methionine and cystine but they are extremely low in lysine. On the flip side, legumes (peas, beans, lentils) contain a lot of lysine but are low in tryptophan, methionine and cystine. When combined, grains and legumes provide all the essential amino acids. For this reason, they are called complimentary proteins.
Nuts and seeds are also considered complimentary proteins to legumes, because they contain tryptophan, methionine and cystine.
While you don’t have to combine complimentary proteins with every meal, it’s a good habit to practice at most meals.
I’d like to add here that soy is a plant-based protein that does contain all the essential amino acids BUT there is a huge difference between processed soy products (soy cheese, soy meats) and fermented soy products (natto, tofu, tempeh).
Although some studies show limited or conflicting results, when viewed in its entirety, the current literature supports the safety of phytoestrogens as typically consumed in diets that include small amounts of whole soy foods.
It seems best to avoid consuming isolated and highly refined forms of soy (such as soy isolates, soy concentrates, textured soy protein, etc.) on a regular basis. Whole soybeans, soy milks, tofu, tempeh, and miso, on the other hand, are better options.
In terms of total intake, we’d say 1-2 servings (a serving is 1 cup of soy milk and 4 ounces of tofu/tempeh/soybeans) of soy per day seems to be a safe and potentially healthy intake, but exceeding 3 servings per day on a regular basis may not be a good idea.
We don’t think soy is anything special in terms of disease prevention. Nor do we think it’s extremely harmful in your quest for optimal health, body comp, or performance. With that said, we do caution against excessive soy intake. – Precision Nutrition, https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-soy
Supplementing a Plant-Based Diet
I always recommend nutritional testing to see whether you have deficiencies, so you can supplement accordingly, however, there are a few supplements I recommend athletes keep on hand.
Start with a basic multivitamin / multimineral supplement and an algae-based omega-3 fatty acid supplement. I would also recommend adding a plant-based protein powder, such as Iron Vegan, to help you meet protein needs as an OCR athlete.
For plant-based eaters not eating any animal products, you will need to supplement with vitamin B12. Vitamins A, K2 and D, along with many minerals are common deficiencies as well.
For the strength aspect of OCR, you may want to consider supplementing with 3-5 g of creatine daily. For performance, taurine and beta-alanine might be useful supplements for 100% plant-based athletes.
Watch for Symptoms of Hormonal Disruption or Issues with Energy Balance
Eating a lot of processed soy can affect your thyroid and sex hormones. The same is true of eating excess cruciferous vegetables (such as if you’re consuming a lot of pressed juices).
A diet high in fibrous plant material can also affect hormonal health and nutrient status since fibre binds to fat-bases substances (such as steroid hormones) and removes them from the body.
Since whole, high-fibre foods are so filling, you may be inadvertently eating too little. On the other hand, if your diet is full of high processed foods or you use nuts and nut butters as primary protein sources, you may be over-eating.
If you are a plant-based OCR athlete, or want to experiment with adding more plant-based foods to your diet, please aim for whole foods and variety and move away from consuming the highly processed soy products that are catered to plant-based eaters.
It’s always a good idea to consult with your primary care doctor before undertaking any significant dietary changes and I would add that it’s a great idea to also consult with a Nutritionist who can educate and inform where needed.
Ready to Recover Faster and Perform Better?
The OCR Peak Performance Program was designed to help OCR athletes recover faster and perform better so they can improve their race times, whether they are beginners, weekend warriors, competitive or elite athletes.
No matter what level of OCR athlete you are right now, you can improve your results by improving your body composition, health and performance. The OCR Peak Performance Program will help you build foundational skills that you can sustain for life for ongoing success in OCR and optimized health.