Although clever marketing has pushed “protein” as the most important nutrient for athletes, science has proven that there are other nutrients that contribute more directly to endurance, strength, and recovery.
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Protein is important for muscle development, but it’s really not something we need to worry about on a plant-based athlete diet (or a vegan diet in general) despite the common concern. “Getting your protein” comes just as naturally as any other nutrient. As long as you’re eating enough nutrient-dense whole plant-based food, you are in no danger of being deficient. On average, Even vegans get 70% more protein than they need (without supplementation).
That said, if it'll give you peace of mind to learn more about plant-based protein, we've got your bag. Your best bet is to go with WHOLE foods (ditch those expensive processed powders) when it comes to vegan protein. Try this super simple plant-based protein smoothie recipe...it's got 35g of protein per serving: And yes, it does taste like dessert but I promise it's healthy!
Whew! Now that we don’t have to worry about protein anymore, we can let some other nutrients shine in the spotlight for a change. Like carbs!
Carbs get a bad rap, especially in diet culture. But you may want to think twice before you cut carbs, especially if you're an athlete.
Why are carbs an important piece of a plant-based athlete diet? Your muscles use glucose from carbohydrates as fuel to energize your workout. Your body stores this as glycogen. As your glycogen stores deplete, the intensity at which you can perform decreases. So if you are planning to push yourself to the limit, you’ll need carbohydrates to get you there, otherwise your game or workout could suffer.
For those of you thinking carbs cause weight gain, spike blood sugar, and should be avoided for optimal health...you're probably thinking of refined carbs. It's a common mistake so don't worry, we're going to clear it up now.
The main difference here is that the best carbs to eat come in their natural form, which includes fiber. When the fiber or other important nutrients or minerals are stripped from a food it becomes “refined.” Brown rice is a great way to fuel your workout, but white rice (that has been stripped of vital nutrients including fiber) could spike and crash your blood sugar.
The fiber in whole carbs helps the glucose to slowly release into your bloodstream which gives you a steady stream of energy.
Want to carb load? It's best to stick to whole plant-based carbs like potatoes, beans, whole-grains, and fruit.
Raisins work as well as sports gels and drinks and are rated more palatable. Studies found that these shriveled treats are perfect for slow release energy during a workout, and have just enough natural sugar to keep you fueled up without triggering your body to store it as fat. So snack on!
Sweet potatoes make up 60% of the diet of one of the longest living population on the planet, which is no surprise really when you consider how many nutrients and antioxidants these tubers contain. Antioxidants prevents oxidative stress caused by free radicals, and when you eat foods high in antioxidants your muscles can repair and recover faster (AKA less inflammation), so you can get back to training.
When choosing sweet potatoes, try to pick the brightest ones you can find, because their nutrient density is directly related to their color. Make sure to gobble up that skin too. The sweet potato skin has 10X the antioxidant power as the flesh.
These bad boys are beneficial for your body in almost every capacity. Cancer prevention? Beans. Fiber deficiency? Beans. Type 2 diabetes? Beans. Heart disease? Beans. Boost your athletic performance? You guessed it: beans.
Why are legumes so good for you? Beans and lentils are high in protein, fiber, iron, potassium, and whole carbohydrates. (And yes, this includes tofu and other whole soybean foods, too.)
Don't believe the negative hoopla about grains. Yes, white flour and processed breads won’t get you far, but whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa and barley are great fuel for the athlete, or anyone. High in fiber, these slow burners will help to keep you full and energized, and make a great breakfast before the big event.
These portable snacks have over 14 grams of natural sugar, but the good news is they are also packed with fiber to help with that slow release of energy and deter fat storage. Like sweet potatoes, they also contain potassium to help with muscle cramping and promote recovery.
Want an easy vegan breakfast that'll fill you up and fuel your workout? Make sweet potato toast for a whole-food carbohydrates kickstart to your day. Click here to learn how to make sweet potato toast, 3 ways!
By Caroline DiNicola Fawley
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies