Can athletes go vegan? A nutritionist weighs in with plant based recommendations for athletes, including snack and protein guidelines.
A nutritionist's advice for vegan athletes
A few weeks ago, we received this letter:
Hi Becky and David,
What advice do you have for athletes, especially young athletes, who are interested in a vegan lifestyle? What is the best way to gain and maintain muscle mass on a plant-based diet?
Thank you for the letter, Chris!
We talked briefly about vegan protein on that episode, but I also said I'd get a nutritionist on to answer the letter properly. And this was that episode!
Mary Ellen Valverde is a Licensed Nutritionist who empowers vegans to feel confident creating healthy habits that align with their values and health goals. She was kind enough to be a guest on today's episode to answer Chris's question!
Mary Ellen says to make sure that you're incorporating a lot of plant based whole foods into your diet. Protein is important, she said, but you shouldn't need to stress about it.
She broke her advice down into two parts, and then she talked about protein specifically. Let's get into it!
Pre- and post-workout snacks
Fueling your body before exercising and to help with recovery afterwards is important, Mary Ellen says.
Before a workout, she suggests lower-glycemic carbs that are easy to digest. Not too much fiber, because that can make it hard to digest. She suggests fresh fruit or a fruit smoothie or bar, since fructose digests so easily.
Post-workout, she recommends a snack that contains both protein and carbs within an hour of finishing. Sooner is fine, but some people have a hard time eating immediately after strenuous exercise, which is why she offers a time range.
"Carbs replace the glycogen that you used up while you were working out," she explains, "and then protein helps us repair our muscles."
Her ideas for post-workout were:
- smoothies with plant based protein powder
- protein bar
- soy yogurt
- peanut butter on whole grain bread
Later on in the day, she says it's important to have a balanced meal with all of your macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat. She loves bowls for that:
- a whole grain
- bean or tofu
- avocado for fat
- colorful veggies for vitamins and nutrients.
Gaining and maintaining muscle mass on a plant based diet
"Make sure that you're getting enough calories and nutrients," Mary Ellen says, "Especially when you're younger, because you're still growing and developing."
When she works with her clients, she calculates her basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body needs to do basic, day-to-day functions, including your activity level.
For kids, she recommends this BMR calculator.
That calculator will give you your calorie needs to maintain your weight. If you want to gain, you'll need to add more calories to your diet.
Where do you get your protein?
While you don't need to worry too much about getting enough protein on a plant based diet, it is worth talking about.
She says that current research recommends 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for athletes.
"Protein isn't hard to get as a vegan," she explains. She recommends getting your protein from:
- beans and legumes
- nuts and seeds
- grains, especially quinoa
- plant based protein powders
- vegan meats
- certain vegetables
The other interesting thing she mentioned was that a serving of food changes as you grow up. A kid-size serving is smaller than an adult-sized serving.
For nuts and seeds, Mary Ellen recommends "a handful" of nuts or seeds for snacking, because as you grow, your handful size grows with you.
Friend of the show Cadry Nelson also came up in this conversation! She shared a Facebook post showing how you can use a pistachio shell as a "key" to open other stubborn pistachios from the bag. Gamechanger.
Where to listen
Thank you so much for listening (or reading!). We record these episodes for you, and we'd love to hear from you.
Got a favorite vegan treat that you think we should cover on the podcast? Send your suggestions to [email protected]!
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