What is a plant-based diet?
A plant based diet is one that generally minimizes or excludes animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. A plant based diet is generally flexible and focuses on the consumption of plant based foods, though some may choose to include some animal products as well. A plant based diet is different from a vegetarian or vegan diet because it is more flexible. A vegetarian diet eliminates all animal based meat products while a vegan diet strictly avoids all animal products. Foods that are typically consumed from a plant based diet include legumes, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. A plant based diet has been shown to have benefits in increasing our fiber intake, reducing inflammation and may even benefit our athletic performance.
How can I eat enough on a plant-based diet while maintaining energy for running?
Energy needs for active individuals vary based on body size, body composition, gender, and training. Not consuming enough calories could compromise training and performance results. When switching to a more plant based diet from a diet with animal proteins, the biggest thing to consider is caloric intake. When cutting out animal proteins, the idea is to not cut them out and replace those calories with vegetables. You must incorporate some sort of plant based protein source, to add calories and protein to your diet, to make sure you are being supported nutritionally. Switching out 6 oz of chicken for 6 oz of vegetables does not equate to each other calorically.
If we are making these swaps without having a game plan of how we are going to support ourselves with food as energy, we run the risk of under-fueling our bodies which could impair our performance, immune system, and bone health. To support our energy needs from running, it will be important to prioritize calories from carbohydrates, protein and fat. Incorporating high calorie and energy dense foods such as nut butters, walnuts, pecans, seeds, flax, and avocado will help add in healthy fat sources to your diet as well as calories.
How can I be sure I am getting enough protein?
It can be suggested that plant based diets may need up to 10% more protein than omnivores to account for the lower digestibility of plant proteins compared to animal proteins. Some protein-like products that are marketed as plant based protein sources may not have enough protein to support your activity level. For example, plant based milks and some veggie burgers do not have the same amount of protein as their counterparts of cow’s milk and animal based burgers. Swapping in plant based foods can be great alternatives for you, but make sure you are adding in extra protein sources to your meals to keep you full, and to support your recovery from exercise. If you are looking for a plant based burger, look for one made out of beans or lentils as these are great protein sources.
Plant based protein options typically do not contain all of the essential amino acids in one product like animal products do. They are generally missing 1 or 2 amino acids which makes them an incomplete protein. But, pairing plant based protein options together will allow the meal to make a complete protein source. For example, pairing vegetables, legumes and grains provides a complete protein. A plant based diet can be successful in meeting their protein needs by focusing on including a variety of foods such as legumes, soy, nuts, seeds and grains into their diet. For optimal building muscle on a plant based diet, studies have found that pea protein is a great option. Pea protein contains all three branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) which makes it a good substitute for animal based protein sources such as whey.
What are a few examples of plant-based meals that I can eat to keep my energy up for running?
Focus on paring protein and carbohydrate sources for a balanced meal! For example, you could add lentils to a spaghetti sauce, tofu to stir fry, or garbanzo beans to a salad. Some other options could be adding soy milk to your cereal in the morning instead of almond milk which will provide more calories and protein. If you choose to keep eggs or dairy products in your diet, incorporate milk, yogurt and eggs daily for increased protein consumption, calories and essential nutrients that plants may not offer.
Is there a certain timing for eating around runs?
It is important to consume a pre-exercise meal or snack that is high in carbohydrates to top off your muscle glycogen stores. Typically an intake of a high carbohydrate meal or snack of 1-4 grams per kilogram of body weight approximately 1-4 hours before a run has shown to improve performance. (example: An 150 pound runner would want to consume a meal with 136 grams of carbohydrates 2 hours before a long endurance run). People who primarily eat plant based and have built a tolerance to high fiber foods without gastrointestinal distress may be accustomed to eating foods such as legumes before a workout. Runners who have stomach distress may want to stick to starchy foods that are low in fiber such as white rice, bread, pasta, corn and potatoes.
What else should I be aware of before committing to a plant-based diet?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for fiber for Men is 30-38 g/day and for Women it is 21-29 g/day. Eating a more plant based diet results in a higher fiber intake. While there are many benefits to a high fiber diet, we must slowly add fiber into our diet instead of all at once to avoid gastrointestinal distress. In addition, avoiding high fiber foods before, during and after exercise may be necessary due to the slow digestion of fiber. Ideally we want fast absorbed carbohydrates to travel to our muscles quickly for energy.
Depending on the foods you choose to include into your plant based diet, be aware that some plant foods cannot provide certain nutrients that animal products can. Specifically, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, iodine and b12 are nutrients of concern and may take special attention to achieve an optimal amount of each nutrient in your diet. Choosing a variety of foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds can help your body receive all of the nutrients it needs. Speak to a dietitian to assess your nutrient intake and if it is optimal!
If you are concerned about any deficiencies in your diet, or want to find better ways to fuel your run, you can talk to a Health Loft dietitian in Chicago, IL (virtually via our telehealth platform or in person) by calling us at (312) 374-5399 or by scheduling an appointment online. Remember to also check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages for more fun facts and articles on nutrition, physical therapy, and exercise!
Written By Laura Asburry MS, RD, LD, CSCS
Edited by Alexander Franz
Reviewed by Morgan Murdock, RD.
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Karpinski, C. and Rosenbloom, C., 2017. Sport Nutrition: A Handbook For Professionals. 6th ed. Pp.329-346
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Scientific report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. US Department of Agriculture, 2015. www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/