Ten tips for being a meatless athlete

The thought of being a high-performance athlete who doesn’t eat meat is much more mainstream than it used to be. Even a sport such as bodybuilding, about as “meat-headed” of a sport as there is, has seen vegans rise to its top ranks. In 2014, vegan Barney du Plessis was named “Mr. Universe,” the highest honor possible for a bodybuilder. Will you become the next Mr. Universe by switching to a vegan diet? Probably not, but there is no reason to believe that giving up meat will hurt your athletic endeavors.

The most common misconception about meatless athletes is that they are unable to get enough protein without meat. Although no foods pack the protein density of meat and fish, there are many other ways for vegetarians to get the protein they need:

Tip #1: Obtain protein from whole foods

There are many excellent whole food, vegan sources of protein including lentils (18g per ½ cup), garbanzo beans (roughly 18g per ½ cup), quinoa (12g per ½ cup), black/pinto beans (7g per ½ cup), and peanuts (7g per oz.). A fantastic vegan bowl packed with protein can be made with quinoa, black beans, roasted sweet potato, diced avocado, and a salsa of your choosing!

Tip #2: Add vegan protein powders to smoothies

If you’re vegan or going vegan, there will undoubtedly be a plethora of smoothies in your future. They’re delicious, convenient, easily digestible, and refreshing after a workout. Adding a vegan protein powder to your smoothie is a fantastic way to easily add protein to your established smoothie routine. Other common supplements that address deficiencies for vegan athletes include magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, and taurine.

Tip #3: Be sure to vary your diet

In addition to getting enough protein, it’s important that vegan athletes eat a varied diet to ensure a healthy balance of other vitamins and minerals. Eat as many different colored fruits and vegetables as possible. As much as we hear about getting enough greens, eating red peppers, carrots, berries, and other non-green fruits and veggies ensure that a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants make it into your system. “Eating the rainbow” helps speed up recovery time, lessens fatigue, and fights disease.

Tip #4: Pay close attention to inflammatory v. anti-inflammatory foods

As an athlete who trains regularly, inflammation in muscles and joints will occur, often. Processed foods, despite being vegan or vegetarian, will still contain many ingredients that lead to inflammation. Avoiding gluten, dairy, refined sugars, wheat flour, and trans fats such as vegetable oil will be essential to maintaining health as a meatless athlete. Adding anti-inflammatory foods such as ginger or turmeric to your diet is another great way to help recovery times, reduce inflammation, and promote overall health. Turmeric has been vital to eastern medicine for hundreds of years and it is rapidly gaining popularity in the rest of the world too. There are many powders and supplements containing circumin (the anti-inflammatory in turmeric) that can be added to smoothies, dressings, and sauces.

Tip #5: Eat! Then eat some more!

Foods containing animal proteins often score highly on satiety, or the sensation of being full after eating. Without eating meat, it is important for vegans to eat enough to feel full and to be prepared for the times when a snack becomes necessary. Sometimes vegans and vegetarians struggle to get enough calories. Vegetables are not calorie-dense and can leave athletes without energy if not enough other foods are part of their diet. Be sure to add enough nuts, seeds, and whole grains to a vegetable-heavy diet in order to consume enough calories and maintain the energy needed for intense training sessions.

Tip #6: Always have whole food vegan snacks on hand

It’s so easy to eat poorly when we’re hungry and craving. By always having snacks on hand you can fight cravings and eat healthy simultaneously. Nut butters, almonds, vegan protein bars, raw veggies dipped in hummus, and trail mix all make for great options. Have enough on-hand for a friend too!

Tip #7: Track what you eat and how you feel

In any endeavor, tracking what works, what doesn’t, and adjusting accordingly becomes vital to continued success. Keep notes on recipes, nutrition facts from your diet, training techniques, recovery times, and how you feel both pre- and post-workout. Having data to analyze will help you find which recipes and foods work the best for certain types of workouts. An intense workout day may require more protein in the morning than a lighter day of training. Everyone’s body responds differently so only you can decide which foods work the best for you!

Tip #8: Talk about it!

The more we ask for help and support, the greater the chance of success. Vegan or vegetarian athletes will encounter social/societal pressures and will find difficulties in maintaining their healthy diet day-in day-out. Therefore it will be important to talk about it with other meatless athletes either in person or online, and have a solid friend and family support group that encourages your efforts.

Tip #9: Stay hydrated

Hydration is important to everyone, especially athletes, whether they eat meat or not. We’ve all felt lethargic, unfocused, and unmotivated due to lack of hydration at some point. If you don’t feel well, you probably won’t feel like exercising or training! In addition to good ol’ water, coconut water, green tea, flavored carbonated water, and vegetable juice are great to drink throughout the day. Drinks with both carbs and sodium are great for recovering after a workout, but you want to be careful about consuming too much sugar (e.g. sports drinks and fruit juices).

Tip #10: Consider the Post-Workout Meal the most Important of the Day

You’ll want to consume fluids, carbs, and some protein after working out. Start experimenting with the ratio of carbs to protein at 3:1 and adjust depending on how you feel. For some people the ideal ratio can be 4:1 and others 2:1 but most experts agree that somewhere within this range is ideal for most people. Excellent post-workout foods include lentils, sweet potatoes, black beans, quinoa, edamame, chia seeds, and smoothies/shakes packed with veggies and a little extra protein powder.

Incorporating some or all of these tips will have you on your way to becoming a successful athlete who does not have to eat meat. Good luck and let us know if we’ve missed anything!

Sources: Business Insider, Running on Real Food, and The Fun Times Guide