Life as a vegan athlete
"So, what makes a plant-based diet any better for athletes than other diets?"
"If we were meant to be vegan, why do vegans need B12 supplements?"
"And isn’t it hard to get enough protein?"
As you can imagine, with a blog (and soon, a book) called No Meat Athlete, I get questions like these a lot.
That catch I mentioned? I don't think there's any single diet we were "meant" to eat.
Instead, what our bodies are meant to be able to do - and by “meant,” I mean “evolved” - is thrive on an astounding variety of diets. It wouldn't be uncommon at all to look at the top three finishers of a marathon or 100-mile ultramarathon and find - in no particular order - a vegan, a Fruitarian, and a Paleo. (Now if we could only get them to walk into a bar, we’d have the start of a good joke.)
My aim with this post isn’t to argue that a plant-based diet is the best one for all athletes. Instead, I simply want to convey that it works for athletes, so that if you're curious, you can give a plant-based diet a try and make your own judgments based on your energy levels and performance. The results will vary across athletes and sports, but you can rest assured that you're not going to collapse at mile 20 of your marathon because you ran out of protein.
And protein, the most commonly perceived hurdle when it comes to being a plant-based athlete, is what I'll focus on in this post.
"Where do you get your protein?"
Without a doubt, this is the big question, the one everyone asks when they find out you're a vegan - especially a vegan ultrarunner.
But believe it or not, getting enough protein on a plant-based diet just isn't that big a deal.
First, we don't need nearly as much protein as many people think. The USDA recommends that people get 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of bodyweight (0.36 grams per pound) each day. A 150-pound person, for example, should shoot for 50 to 60 grams of protein per day.
"But wait a minute ... as athletes, don't we need more protein than sedentary people?"
Sure. But as registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno points out in an article on vegetarian protein, athletes also need more carbohydrate and fat (and hence more total calories) than sedentary people do. So if we're getting a fixed percentage of our calories from protein - 10 to 15 percent is a good range; Chris Carmichael recommends 13 percent in his book Food for Fitness - then as we increase our total calories, our protein intake should increase right along with it.
Ruscigno recommends that his vegan athlete clients get 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram (about 0.45 to 0.55 grams per pound) of protein each day. By this measure, our 150-pound athlete should get 67.5 to 82.5 grams of protein each day - not nearly the amount we tend to assume we need. Back when I used to lift a lot of weights (and long before I was vegan), I would often get that much protein in a single post-workout recovery shake! Little did I know what a waste of effort and money - not to mention how potentially unhealthy - it was to take in so much excess protein.
Once you accept that you don't need massive amounts of protein, it's really not that hard to get what you do need on a plant-based diet. Looking at percentages of calories from protein, even foods that are traditionally thought of as carbohydrate sources, like whole-grain pasta, quinoa, and many green vegetables, have 13 percent or more of their calories coming from protein. But there are plenty of plant foods that are considered protein-rich staples, such as:
- Lentils, beans, and other legumes
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butters
- Minimally processed soy products, like tofu and tempeh
- Seitan, if you don't have a gluten sensitivity
- Plant-based protein powders
My strategy for getting adequate protein is simple: rather than focusing on numbers, I make sure to include at least one good source of protein in every meal or snack I eat throughout the day. This could mean spreading almond butter on a bagel, adding beans to a salad, putting a scoop of hemp/rice/pea protein powder in my morning smoothie, or snacking on vegetables dipped in hummus. And if we're having pasta for dinner, we'll almost always choose a recipe that incorporates beans (which many traditional Italian ones do, actually).
The common thread among all healthy diets
If there's a single guideline to making sure your plant-based diet supports your athletic goals, without making diet the focus of your entire life, it's this: Eat a wide variety of whole foods.
By constantly seeking out variety in your diet, you'll be safeguarding yourself against deficiency in any one nutrient or mineral. And by focusing on whole foods above all else, you'll be sure not to become a "junk food vegan" who eats nothing but processed carbohydrates. That type of nutritionally devoid diet - which unfortunately has become misconceived in much of mainstream culture as the "typical" vegan diet - wouldn't work for any athlete, vegan or not.
The interesting thing is that when you base your diet on whole foods - whether you choose to eat vegan, Paleo, or somewhere in between - your choice to fuel yourself principally with food that doesn't come in a wrapper puts you squarely in a tiny minority of the developed world. So when we talk about diets like vegan and Paleo, although we tend to focus on their differences, we've actually got quite a lot in common in our choice to eat whole foods, in comparison with so much of the Western world who lives on processed foods.
When you look at it this way, seeing athletes with seemingly opposite diets sharing the same podium - while a testament to the remarkable adaptability of human body - isn't so shocking at all.
Matt Frazier is a vegan marathoner and ultrarunner who is currently training for his first 100-miler. Learn more at his vegan running blog, No Meat Athlete, where he offers a free e-course on the plant-based diet for athletes.
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