I am often asked what my diet and workout regime is and although I am happy to share this information, it should not be assumed what is optimum for me and my lifestyle, would necessarily be optimum for everyone. We are after all individuals with different genetics, levels of fitness, backgrounds, lifestyles and of course goals.
My aim in this article is to give both an overview and tips to those who are concerned that a vegan diet may prohibit them from doing exercise and even affect their athletic performance. I am not focused on any particular sport as of course the needs of an endurance athlete will be different to that of a power lifter.
Similarly, I am not talking about elite level athletes although these tips should enable you to thrive and with slight adaptations for specific needs achieve optimum performance. What I aim to show is that vegan nutrition for athletes can indeed be optimum nutrition.
My vegan challenge
As many of you know I have been vegan now for almost 10 years but what you may not know is that I have spent most of my life being passionate about health and fitness and in particular physical fitness.
I have been involved with athletics, boxing and kickboxing and spent most of my adult life in and around gyms.
I am a level 3 qualified personal trainer have a diploma in diet and nutrition and have worked with a diverse range of clients from those just looking to lose a bit of weight to others who have specific competitive goals.
My biggest challenge when becoming vegan was to unlearn many of the things I had been conditioned to believe over the previous 30 years. Now at 52 and after 9 years as a vegan I am the same weight that I was at 19 when I was kickboxing (72kg).
I have renewed energy, have less joint pain, have retained my strength and more importantly for me am never ill. So do I follow a particular vegan diet plan, well no first and foremost I’m not an athlete just a healthy vegan 52 year old that loves to be active and keep fit.
Don’t obsess the macros
Ok what I’m about to say next may sound controversial, but my first tip is don’t obsess about macros. Yes, I know we are constantly bombarded with statistics about the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat that we need but the fact is that obsessing and tracking your macros and calories just isn’t natural and in the long term isn’t ideal for health.
I never weigh food or count calories I simply don’t believe it is needed. There are many reasons for this, for a start it’s often inaccurate. Unless you are able to weigh every gram of food that you eat with a calibrated food scale and that includes every teaspoon of oil you cook with well then, your quantities are likely to be off.
Tracking can lead to an obsession and can actually limit your diet if you feel you are not matching your requirements. If you’re tracking your macros with the intention of limiting or increasing one of them you are less likely to listen to how your body feels.
And when does this stop, do you continue tracking your macros for the rest of your life? Or do you learn how to listen to your body and take a more natural approach to fitness.
A natural approach – eat what you like!
What do I mean by a natural approach, well instead of fixating on macros or calories you listen to your body, it is what is sometimes known as mindful eating and it is understanding when you feel hunger and when you feel full. This approach gives you the freedom to choose whatever foods you fancy in whatever portion size your body is hungry for.
The more you become accustomed to listening to your body the more your will crave nutrient-dense foods and more importantly in the quantities you require. This is the approach I take to eating and is the method I use with clients so that they are able to learn sustainable habits for long-term health.
The caveat to this is of course it should be well-balanced, nutrition rich, wholefood plant based diet
Meet your needs by eating!
So as we have said a well-balanced vegan diet that includes a mix of foods including grains, nuts, fruits, seeds, vegetables and legumes can meet all the nutritional needs of even the hardest training athlete. The foods that have a higher protein content such as quinoa, beans, lentils, peas, edamame, soy, and rice will easily ensure that we meet any protein requirement that we may have.
Even when bodybuilding needs can be met through diet although there is no harm in having a protein shake if you limited for time. The beauty is of course that plant-based protein does not put the same load on the liver as animal protein.
Other excellent nutrient rich foods include leafy greens like spinach or kale, fruit is great for glycogen store replacement and raw nuts make a great snack for additional calories, should they be required.
Despite all the mega hype we have in the media these days with low carb high fat and keto diets don’t forget that actually carbs are your friend! Yes that right they are and they should be the main source of fuel for our bodies. Of course what is essential here is that they should all be natural unprocessed ideally coming from starches grains and fruits.
Professional plant built athletes
Ok so I have told you that actually I do nothing special with my meal plan apart from make sure that it is diverse. I eat when I’m hungry and maybe adapt my diet if I am doing a certain type of training or training for something specific. I do the same with clients and make slight adaptions depending on their needs, but what about the pros?
There are now more elite athletes than ever who are at the absolute top of their profession and who are vegan. They include footballers, boxers, mma fighters, bodybuilders, athletes and many more. This is a topic explored by James Cameron in his new documentary the game changers and is a movie that we recommend any athlete, vegan or otherwise watch.
Athletes who have transitioned to a vegan diet have experienced numerous health and training benefits. These have included aiding muscle metabolism and strength. Reduced muscle soreness, fatigue and recovery time. Also a decreased rate of inflammation and injury occurrence much of this after just a few months of dietary change
So why is this? Well basically it is due to the nutritional density and diversity of a vegan diet. A wholefood plant-based diet means a larger number of antioxidants, complementary proteins, as well as essential vitamins and minerals that help the body’s process of muscle synthesis and shorten recovery times.
If we compare a vegan bodybuilding diet to that of a traditional bodybuilder’s diet, which is dense in pro-inflammatory meat and dairy products, as well as cholesterol and saturated fats we can see why that even they are starting to take note. As even Arnold Schwarzenegger says in the Game Changers, if someone tells you that you need to eat meat to be strong they are lying.
Going back to the macros!
Ok so I have said not to fixate on the macros and it is something I am adamant about. Yes at an elite level of course we may need to adapt them slightly by I just wanted to reiterate two important macro nutrients facts.
Carbohydrates; our body is a carbohydrate burning machine. We are designed to eat carbs and plenty of them, we just have to make sure that they are whole unprocessed carbs rather than processed junk.
Good quality carbs will not make you fat and is one of the biggest myths we are sold today. It takes a lot of energy for the body to store carbohydrate as fat. If you don’t believe me listen do a range of doctors and nutritionist explain more.
Protein; If I had a pound for everyone who said that I’d be protein deficient not eating meat I’d be rich, well less poor! But seriously I’m pretty sure that “Where do you get your protein from?” is the most asked question to vegans. If you want an in-depth answer you can read our article Protein The Myths – Do Vegans Get Enough. But for today just let me just say this again! Proteins are made up of basic building-blocks called amino acids.
Every vegetable, nut, seed, grain fruit and legume contains amino acids. Our bodies only need between 5-10% of daily calories from protein to thrive and excess animal protein is actually bad for you. Protein sources are extremely varied and rich and by simply eating a varied vegan diet throughout the day you are guaranteed to meet the body’s daily needs for every amino acid. But don’t take it from listen to what the doctors have to say below:
What else you need to know
Ok so we have ascertained that you can indeed be an athlete of any level on a vegan diet and that vegan nutrition for athletes should actually be easier to manage than non vegans. So let’s just take a minute to discuss a few other things you may need to consider.
I take a natural approach to fitness and do the same with my clients however I do have over 30 years’ experience and even then, I have certain clients which I will refer to a specialist if I feel I can’t help them.
I recently had a client who was an experienced marathon running and was changing his diet from vegetarian to vegan but really want to work on reducing his times. Endurance sport is not one of my specialism so I referred him to a colleague.
If you are a vegan athlete with specific goals then I always recommend you consult a personal trainer and or nutritionist with experience in your area to help construct an appropriate training plan and make any adaptations to your diet.
For the vast majority of us though I recommend eating a mix of vegan unprocessed wholefoods and listening to your body, eat when you’re hungry and what you fancy. Find something physical you like to do and you are more likely to stick at it. If you can find someone to do it with you even better.
Don’t fixate on calories and macros if you really want to move to the next level learn how the human body really works in terms of nutrient absorption and digestion, and how this affects us.
Even if you find an exercise or sport you enjoy try to mix the training and respond to what your body tells you. This is particularly true of gym work. Realise that we are all individuals and do not compare yourself to others. Don’t obsess over your shape or size of particular body parts it really isn’t worth it.
Much better to learn about your body and focus on optimum performance. There is no point looking super fit and strong on the outside at the expense of overall health and performance.
And finally the last two super important things to remember when training, regardless whether you are vegan or not, are… make sure your stretch well and get plenty of rest. Both things that get neglected in today’s hectic world but are both so important to help avoid injuries and aid recovery.
A vegan diet is wholly appropriate for any level of athlete. Eat a nutrient dense and varied mix. Eat what you fancy and listen to your body.
For general fitness find an activity you love and try to find someone to do it with you. If needed seek professional specialised advice for training plans and any diet adaptions.
Don’t fixate on macros or calories and don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on your internal health and the rest will follow.
Most of all enjoy the food that you eat and the exercise that you do!