Are You Getting the Nutrients You Need on a Plant-Based Diet?

Are You Getting the Nutrients You Need on a Plant-Based Diet?

Make sure you’re getting adequate calories, vitamins, and minerals with this plant-based guide.

Plant-based diets have surged in popularity after the release of Netflix’s 2018 documentary The Game Changers, and endurance athletes haven’t been immune to the trend. Plant-based diets may improve performance and recovery due to positive effects on cardiovascular health, blood flow, body composition, antioxidant capacity, systemic inflammation, and glycogen storage. It’s no wonder some endurance athletes are switching to a plant-based diet to gain an extra edge in performance. 

However, despite these benefits, it can be tricky to ensure adequate caloric and macronutrient intake to support training and recovery. This article aims to give you a broad overview of your nutrient needs on a plant-based diet.

Getting Enough Plant-Based Proteins and Amino Acids

Endurance sports break down your muscles and tendons, making protein crucial for recovery and staying injury-free. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends athletes aim to eat 1.2-2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. For a 130 lb athlete, that is between 70-118 grams of protein per day; for a 160 lb athlete, 87-145 g is recommended per day. Some excellent sources of plant-based protein include: 

  • soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame) 
  • beans and lentils
  • quinoa 
  • hemp seeds and chia seeds 
  • buckwheat 
  • spirulina  

Besides protein, you also need to make sure you’re getting enough amino acids — the smaller building blocks of protein. Of the 20 different amino acids in existence, nine are essential, meaning your body doesn’t produce them and therefore needs to get them from food. Plant-based protein sources contain essential amino acids, but rarely have all nine of them. But as long as you are eating a variety of foods to meet your energy demands, you can easily get in all protein and amino acid requirements. 

Ensuring Adequate Vitamin and Mineral Intake

Getting adequate vitamins and minerals is important for both general health and for athletic performance. Eating a variety of healthy foods with different types of legumes, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and grains should cover most of your vitamin requirements. And, if you’re consuming plant-based products like soy or oat milk, they are often enriched with vitamins and minerals. One exception is vitamin B12, since its main sources are animal products like meat, fish, and eggs. Therefore, consider supplementing with a B12 vitamin.

Combatting Iron Deficiency on a Plant-Based Diet

Iron deficiencies are common in female athletes, and you are at a higher risk if you don’t eat animal products. Plant-based foods like whole grains, beans, and nuts all contain iron, but this type is harder to absorb than the iron found in animal products. So, it’s important to keep track of iron levels when following a plant-based diet and to include iron-rich foods regularly. You can also combine foods rich in vitamin C with iron-containing foods for better iron absorption.

Whether you’re already eating plant-based or plan to in the future, be sure to include a variety of foods in your diet to ensure proper nutrient and energy demands. If you’re someone who has trouble keeping weight on during the season, you may need to eat larger volumes, combine food groups each time you eat, and add extra healthy fats — such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds — to your meals and snacks. Always eat enough to support your training and racing, and remember, food is meant to be enjoyed! 

References 

Barnard, N.D. et al. (2019, January 10). Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6356661/ 

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