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The power of plants: should athletes consider a plant-based diet?

Plant based eating

Post by: Annie Weiss, Swiftwick ambassador, ultra-runner & dietitian. 

Plant-based eating is on the move! I would venture to guess many of you have heard of it and further never probably tried it. I’m certainly not here to preach what you should or should not eat, but what I am going to tell you are the benefits of this lifestyle and how they have affected me personally.

Do you have that one friend or family member that pokes fun at you for simply exercising (being an ultra-distance runner, I cant tell you how many times I hear the “I can’t even drive that far” comment!)? Or pokes fun at a meal because you don’t opt to eat the meat? Or eat something totally normal to you but foreign to them? Maybe that’s not the case for you, but  for me, there are so many people that judge my plate not based on color anymore but by animal. “Where’s the MEAT?!”

I grew up a meat eater and became a dietitian with the notion that we all should be eating meat as the base of our protein source because rarely does anyone do vegetarianism right. I’ll be honest- that’s so old-school. We don’t need animals to function, and in most cases, without it, we function better. And its not just our health that is affected. It affects the environment (positively!) when we follow a plant-based diet. I’m not going to get on a soap box about all this, but I will get on the health train and tell you all about the positive aspects on a plant-based diet!

Protein please!

Let’s start with the obvious question, “So how am I supposed to get protein without eating meat?” Ironically, plant-based proteins have a better protein package. Not only do they supply the amino acids needed for maintaining muscle and bone mass, but they also provide fiber, heart healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Meat provides amino acids as well, but in the quantity we consume, generally that protein turns to fat. Remember, protein digests slowly, which means large portions of protein is never good for your body – it can’t handle or properly use it.

If you are consuming meat in the right portions, you are probably getting in enough iron. When you are eating a plant-based diet, its important to get enough iron from other sources. Studies have shown, more recently, that vegetarians and vegans do have adequate iron stores. Sources for iron include grains, legumes, leafy greens, tofu and cereals. But food for thought: calcium rich foods, tea, and coffee can inhibit iron absorption!


Typically, the next question I get is “How do you get in enough B12?’” Vegetarians certainly have more opportunity to get in B12 through dairy and eggs, but for vegans, it’s important to get B12 from plant-based milks, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeasts.


With that in mind, calcium pops up as a concern for those following plant-based diets. But luckily, they make it ridiculously easy to get calcium these days! Plant-based milks, orange juice, tofu, leafy greens, broccoli, butternut squash, beans, almonds and oranges are all excellent additions to a plant-based diet.

Vitamin D

Along with calcium, vitamin D is important to consume for all peoples. Those who consume meat generally have higher vitamin D levels compared to vegans, but again, the earth can provide us with exactly what we need. Vitamin D is found in mushrooms, plant-based milks, cereals, orange juice and of course, standing in the sunlight for a few minutes each day will increase vitamin D.

Some people might not be convinced quite yet just hearing about the health benefits and availability of nutrients within plant-based food, and that’s okay. But what about the different cycles of life? To make a few long studies short, children and adolescents following a plant-based diet are growing and developing appropriately. During adulthood, typically those following a plant-based diet will be at a healthful weight and reduce chronic disease. The key during any stage of life- balance! Including a mix of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds is essential. Shortfalls to plant-based eating occurs with purposely restriction of foods as well as eating processed plant foods.

What about being an athlete?

I switched over to a plant-based diet maybe six months ago. I have never been a big meat eater to begin with and never felt like I was missing out on anything. I will admit when I’m consumed with work and training and just want a pizza, it’s so hard to not order one!

It takes time and effort to plan and prep for meals, but once you get a rotation of items, it’s so easy. Always have on hand a variety of grains, plant proteins, veggies, fruits and healthy fats. Our pantry is a mix of brown rice, whole wheat pastas, lentil pastas, lentils, farro, barley; and always in the refrigerator is tempeh, tofu, edamame, soy protein, plant-based burgers for easy grabs and soy/tofu substituted items.

Whether you choose vegetarianism or veganism, both are exceptional for athletics. Certainly, demands for certain nutrients are higher, but plant-based athletes generally have more day to day energy (like at work or school), better availability of nutrients/energy during training, and longer lasting energy. That doesn’t mean that eating meat will not allow you to have energy. The point really here is that plant-based eating is a valuable option for athletes to potentially optimize their training efforts. It works. Plant-based eating for anyone forces us to get in what our body needs, which is the best part – we become well-nourished.

I can really only speak for myself and the patients/clients I have worked with that have seen the benefits of following a plant-based diet. It doesn’t take long either to feel and see these benefits by simply consuming a diet rich in plants. It’s worth a shot! What I will leave you with is what I tell my patients everyday about food: There are no bad foods that come from the Earth; those are the foods we are meant to eat everyday.

What are your thoughts on a plant-based diet? Have you ever tried it?

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