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Health and Wellness

Plant-Based Diet for Athletes: Staying Active and Healthy on a Plant-Based Diet   

You don’t have to choose between a plant-based diet and athletic performance.
Written by the Theralogix team of Registered Dietitians
A plant-based diet is a win for your health, the environment, your budget, and your athletic performance.

Plant-based diets are on the rise – and for good reason. They’re tied to heart health, immune health, gut health, and more. Plus, they help protect the planet and benefit your grocery budget.  

But if you’re an athlete, are plants enough to properly fuel your body?  

You don’t have to choose between a plant-based diet and athletic performance. Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees that athletes can follow a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet without sacrificing their sport.  

Read on for five tips to help you stay active and healthy on a plant-based diet.  

1. Include plenty of plant-based proteins 

Perhaps the biggest misconception about plant-based diets is that you can’t get enough protein from plants alone. And because athletes typically have higher protein needs than the general population, a plant-based diet seems even more impractical. After all, protein is essential to help build, repair, and maintain healthy muscles.  

But you can absolutely meet your protein needs on a plant-based diet. Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, seitan – all of these options are packed with plant-based protein to help you reach your athletic goals and achieve peak performance.  

Plant-based proteins are often referred to as “incomplete proteins.” But don’t worry – it’s no cause for concern.  

Here’s why:  

There are 20 amino acids that your body uses to build proteins. Nine of them are considered essential, which means your body can’t produce them on its own – you have to rely on food sources instead. While animal proteins have all nine essential amino acids in sufficient amounts, plant-based proteins are typically low in at least one essential amino acid. Researchers used to believe that you needed to combine specific plant foods together at each meal to compose the perfect amino acid profile. But the consensus has changed – as long as you eat a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day, your essential amino acid needs should be covered.  

2. Pump up your iron intake 

Iron is a component of red blood cells, and it helps your body transport oxygen from your lungs to all your tissues. Even though it’s a micronutrient required by your body in small amounts, iron status significantly impacts athletic performance, so it’s important to get enough of this micronutrient.  

There are two forms of iron: 

Heme iron: This form of iron comes from animal sources, like meat and seafood.  

Non-heme iron: This form of iron comes from plant foods, like beans, lentils, potatoes, and dark green leafy vegetables.  

Which form is better? Well, heme iron is easier for your body to absorb. But if you’re committed to a plant-based diet, you can still meet your iron needs with plant foods. You just may have to work a little harder.  

The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for iron for vegetarians and vegans is 1.8 times higher than for people who eat meat. If that seems overwhelming, talk with your healthcare provider about adding a high-quality iron supplement to your daily routine.  

But don’t forget about your secret weapon: vitamin C. Vitamin C helps enhance non-heme iron absorption, so be sure to combine vitamin C-rich foods, like citrus, bell pepper, or strawberries, with your iron foods.  

3. Focus on whole foods 

You could eat boxed vegan macaroni and cheese, potato chips, and processed meat substitutes every day and still technically consider it a plant-based diet. It’s absolutely fine to enjoy processed foods you love at times, but they’re typically higher in saturated fat and sodium, and low in important vitamins and minerals that help your body thrive.  

Focus on whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes instead to get the nutrients your body needs to succeed in your sport.  

4. Opt for plant-based omega-3s  

Omega-3 fatty acids help support heart, eye, immune, and joint health, and research suggests that they may even help promote athletic recovery. There are three main omega-3 fatty acids to keep on your radar: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).  

ALA is the only omega-3 fatty acid that’s considered essential because your body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA. The good news? Plant foods like flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, and plant oils are rich sources of ALA.  

The bad news? Your body isn’t actually very good at converting ALA to DHA and EPA – and that’s a problem. Although ALA is the only “essential” omega-3 fatty acid, research suggests that the benefits of DHA and EPA outshine ALA.  

DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood, which is great if you follow a pescatarian diet. But if you don’t eat fish, don’t worry just yet. Algae produce EPA and DHA, so look for an algae-based omega-3 supplement to add to your daily routine.  

5. Eat enough 

Research shows that those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet tend to have lower calorie intakes than omnivores (people who eat both meat and plants). As an athlete, it’s important to fuel your body for your level of activity. Everyone has different calorie needs, but if you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in, it may be difficult to achieve your full athletic potential. 

If you’re curious about your calorie needs or struggling to properly fuel your body on a plant-based diet, consult with a sports dietitian in your area. They can help make sure you get the calories and nutrients you need to succeed on a plant-based diet.  

Rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients, a plant-based diet is a win – for your health, the environment, your budget, and your athletic performance. If you’re concerned about meeting your specific nutrient needs, talk with a registered dietitian that specializes in sports nutrition and consider adding a high-quality multivitamin to your daily routine to give you peace of mind as a plant-eater. 

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