Whether you’re a high performance athlete, a weekend warrior, or someone who’s just getting back in the game, it’s important to fuel your body with the right foods in order to get the most out of your training. Did you know that what you eat directly correlates with your recovery times, your endurance, muscle repair, and how dilated your arteries are? Plant-based foods, in particular, can enhance your performance to the point where you can actually push yourself harder during a workout (hence why a plant-based diet for athletes is trending big time!). Need help getting started? We've got a beginner's grocery list to help you on your way, plus we're sharing the foods to avoid for your best workout yet.
Before We Begin: Food for Athletes, BY Athletes
Did you know MamaSezz has actually curated a “Peak Performance Bundle” that was specifically designed for athletes? Yep! We joined forces with cardiologist and endurance athelte Dr. Jami Dulaney to make your transition to plant-based superstar sooo much easier. Get started here.
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First, let’s answer all of your burning questions about a plant-based diet for athletes...specifically...
Can I Get Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet?
Want to eat the "Game Changers diet" but still not convinced you'll get the protein you need? A valid concern since protein is vital for building, preserving, and repairing the tissue and muscle in our bodies. The good news is: you can absolutely get all the protein you need with plant-based foods.
Actually, Americans are generally eating way too much protein, which can have adverse effects on our health, leading to kidney disease, kidney stones, cancer, and osteoporosis.
That said, yes you can get plenty of high quality protein on a plant-based diet, and along the way you'll be eating a whole lot of nutrient-dense foods that boost your energy, stamina, recovery time, and strength.
We asked Addie Dulaney Majnaric, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Licensed Dietitian, to share her favorite healthy sources of plant-based protein.
Here’s a quick rundown on just some of her recommended protein-rich plants for your plat-based diet for athletes
1 cup of black beans = 14.2 g protein
1 cup of chickpeas = 11.6 g protein
½ cup tofu = 10 g protein
½ cup oatmeal = 6 g protein
1 baked potato = 5 g protein
1 cup of broccoli = 2 g protein
1 Tbsp of chia seeds = 3 g protein
1 cup of blackberries = 1.4 g protein
OK, so now that we are feeling better about that whole protein thing, let’s focus on those superpower fruits, veggies, nuts, and legumes that can help you reach your peak performance (or just feel better after a little chair yoga!).
Our Top Picks (Keep Reading to Find Out WHY These Make the List!)
- Nutritional Yeast
- Chia Seeds
- Sweet Potatoes
- Hemp Seeds
- Tart Cherry Juice
Other Important Plant-Based Foods to Grab:
- Brown Rice
- Lentils (and lentil pasta!)
Yep, Popeye was right: eat your spinach, my friends.
Ecdysterone, which naturally occurs in spinach, is a steroid hormone. Ecdysterone actually increases muscle growth and speeds up recovery (and was even under consideration for being banned from use in competitive sports!).
Just how powerful is spinach?
In one study, test subjects were given one-fourth a bunch of spinach once a day for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks they were asked to run a half marathon. The spinach consumption had “alleviating effects on known manners of oxidative stress and muscle damage” especially during and after high stress exercise. The study found that participants experienced less muscle damage, and quicker recovery due in part by the spinach’s anti-inflammatory properties. This means you can get back to training faster, and harder than ever!
Get more oxygen for less effort. When you train your body, you make it easier for your muscles to get oxygen. Stronger lungs make for bigger breaths. A stronger heart increases oxygen-rich blood flow. Stronger red blood cell development means the cells can carry more oxygen. Bigger muscles can take in more oxygen.
That’s all great! However, the effort it takes to get energy from that oxygen remains the same.
But not when you eat beets.
Beets have dietary nitrates in them that become nitric oxide when you eat them. Nitric oxide helps your body draw more oxygen into your muscles without working any harder.
When you eat beets, you exert less energy. A 2012 study “gave physically fit men and women a cup and a half of baked beets, which is equal to about a can of beets, 75 minutes before running a 5K.”
At the end of the race, the beet group was running faster, but without heart rates. They reported less exertion. Beets don’t just make your oxygen-to-muscle pathway more efficient. They make it easier.
(This is exactly why we made MamaSezz Strong Heart Beets!)
See faster muscle recovery with beets. Beets are packed with betacyanins which gives the veggie its bright color. But they are far more powerful than pigment. Betacyanins contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce muscle soreness. In practical terms, this may help return vegan athletes to a peak performance state more quickly.
Eat beets to reduce inflammation: Beets may be particularly helpful for athletes coping with chronic inflammation. With chronic inflammation, white blood cells attack healthy tissue. This can impact performance, and lead to serious chronic health problems like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and more.
But you can reduce chronic inflammation by adding anti-inflammatory foods to your plant-based diet. And, yes, beets are one of the best foods for your whole food plant-based diet, thanks to their anti-inflammatory betalains and polyphenols.
3. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is packed with B vitamins (linked with lower stroke risk and boosted brain health), selenium (great for healthy hair and skin), zinc (boosts immunity and libido), folate, and plant-based protein.
It’s also known as a rare vegan food source of B-12, though this is only true in fortified nutritional yeast brands so be sure to read your food labels before purchasing if this is what you’re after. (Get more information on vegans and B-12 supplementation here!)
Nutritional yeast benefits don’t stop there. This flavor booster may also help prevent cancer and improve heart health thanks to its beta glucan fiber content. This particular type of soluble fiber is also linked with boosting immunity, particularly in athletes!
New to this ingredient? Here's how to use nutritional yeast at home.
4. Chia Seeds
Let us count the ways the humble chia seed powers your plant-based life, shall we?
Chia seeds are packed with:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Fiber (10 grams per ounce, or 2 tablespoons!)
- Protein (4 grams per ounce!)
- Minerals including zinc, magnesium, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, and iron
- Vitamin B3 (niacin), potassium, vitamin B1 (thiamine) and vitamin B2.
Some new research suggests that eating chia seeds might also help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides.
Chia seeds are typically grown organically (see ya, pesticides!). They are non-GMO and naturally gluten-free. This is why they make for a fantastic food for plant-based athletes - or athletes simply trying to incorporate MORE plants into their diets!
Chia seeds absorb thirty times their weight in water, so soaking them and then drinking them is a great way to stay hydrated. In fact, here's a quick fun histroy fact: Mayan and Aztec warriors used them to sustain their endurance as early as 3,000 BC. The Tarahumara Indians introduced the use of chia seeds for long distance running, which is a practice that has spread to all corners of the world.
5. Sweet Potatoes
Like basic variety white potatoes, sweet potatoes are loaded with potassium, vitamin C, B vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and fiber. But sweet potatoes are ALSO a great source of manganese, vitamin A, copper, and phosphorus.
Beta-carotene has been strongly associated with the prevention and reversal of some major debilitating diseases (such as cancer), the promotion of eye health, and anti-aging… and you guessed it: sweet potatoes are absolutely loaded with it!
The longest living population of women in the world resides in Okinawa, Japan and eats a diet heavy in sweet potatoes. Because of their high vitamin and mineral content including potassium (which is great way to reduce muscle cramping), these nutrient loaded roots are definitely a must for any vegan athlete meal plan.
6. Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds, also referred to as hemp hearts, are actually not seeds at all. They are nuts...and we’re nuts for them!
Why? Well, these little nuts are high in protein and contain important fatty acids like Omega-3s. Hemp seeds also contain a great deal of of vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, and zinc. These minerals help to prevent cramping, aid in oxygen distribution, and boost immunity, all of which are important benefits for an athlete of any level.
7. Tart Cherry Juice
This sweet, tangy juice is not only delicious, but has been proven to reduce muscle soreness and recovery times thanks to their high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Beans are a true superfood. They're loaded with iron, antioxidants, protein, and fiber. These important nutrients help increase your regularity, slow the aging process, rebuild muscle, keep nerve function working properly, and help with oxygen distribution.
So eat up!
The quantity of beans you consume can affect your longevity. In other words: the more beans you eat, the longer you will live, statistically speaking! This means unlimited benefits for a person who is pushing their body to extremes, which is why they're often a staple for plant-based athletes.
Dark berries are some of the highest antioxidant containing foods, which can reduce inflammation, as well as joint and muscle pain. They also contain fiber and natural sugars, two essential pieces of any vegan athlete diet, as they'll help energize your workout.
The following foods may promote spiking and crashing energy, restricted blood vessels, and slower muscle repair:
- Refined sugars
- Fatty meats
- Dairy products like milk and cheese
- Refined grains like white flour
- Casein and Whey based protein powders
- Pre workout and post workout processed shakes and juices
- Fried foods or other fatty foods
- Energy drinks
Want to eat like a plant-based athlete? Boost your workout with real food, no processed protein powders required. Add this whole food plant-based protein shake to your vegan athlete meal plan. This easy recipe contains 35 whopping grams of vegan protein per serving. Best of all? No casein, no whey, no toxins. Drink up!
Oil-free, nut-free, egg-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, gluten-free.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Servings: 1 serving
- 1 ½ frozen ripe bananas (peel, chop, and freeze after buying)
- 3 Tablespoons of all natural peanut butter
- 3 Tablespoons of hemp seeds
- 1 teaspoon of flaxseed
- 1 ½ cups of unsweetened soy milk
- 2 dates (pitted, soak for a smoother texture)
- 1 cup of raw spinach (or more!)
- Blend ingredients until smooth. Blend an additional 30 seconds.
Excellent Source of Dietary Fiber, Excellent Source of Protein, Excellent Source of Vitamin A, Excellent Source of Vitamin C, Excellent Source of Calcium, Excellent Source of Iron
- Diet plays an important role in boosting your athletic performance. Whether you go "all in" or simply want to eat more plants, we could all benefit from eating more like the top plant-based athletes.
- Add these grocery staples foods for the plant based athlete help with a faster recovery, less inflammation, more energy, and sustained endurance: Spinach, beets, nutritional yeast, chia seeds, sweet potatoes, hemp seeds, tart cherry juice, beans, berries.
- Avoid highly processed foods, sugars, foods with cholesterol, and energy drinks.
- When it comes to vegan protein shakes, skip the powdered stuff and make this real food protein shake instead.
- Want to boost your athletic performance but no time to meal prep? Get the MamaSezz Peak Performance Bundle delivered to your door for vegan athlete diet meals, ready to heat.
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.