Plant-powered and Run

Can vegetarian and vegan runners thrive on a plant-based diet?

MICHELLE LAU BY | UPDATED 1 WEEK AGO

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Nutrition is crucial for runners, and having a healthy diet can be the difference between smashing your PB or bonking at half mark in your next marathon. There is no perfect runner’s diet as diet should be individualized to be tailored to the training and recovery for each individual. More and more runners, whether it’s for health, ethical, environmental, or performance reasons, are transitioning to a plant-based diet, whether it be vegetarian or vegan. But with the change in diet comes unique challenges, like figuring out how to choose the right foods to sustain energy and satisfy hunger. Although plant-based foods don’t always have the same amount of calories and nutrients as their meat counterparts, rest assured that going meatless can and should be as energizing, filling, and nutritious as an omnivorous diet, if done properly.

First thing firsts, what's a plant based diet?
Plant-based diets encompass a number of different patterns of eating, including:

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: eat dairy and eggs but not meat or fish.
Lacto Vegetarian: Eat dairy but not eggs, meat or fish
Vegan: Don’t eat any foods of animal origin at all, including honey
Flexitarian: Eat dairy, meat, poultry, or fish occasionally
Pescatarian: Eat fish

Recent research shows that plant-based diets can help athletes improve their performance by decreasing weight, promoting leaner bodies, and improving stamina. While better performance is not dependent on completely plant-based diet and can also be achieved by an omnivorous diet, runners who require weight restrictions, speed, and endurance for competitive reasons can consider the benefits of plant-based diets. 

Even if research supports the benefits of plant-based diets, some runners may still be concerned that they won't get enough nutrition to fuel their performance with a plant-based diet, especially a vegan one. While it may require some additional planning, runners can address these concerns and find an eating pattern and plan that work for them.

Protein

Runners require additional protein to support physical demands and repair muscle protein breakdown caused by intense training as insufficient protein consumption can lead to negative nitrogen balance and poor muscle recovery. Many atheletes worry they won't get enough protein on a plant-based diet but it is possible for individuals to consume enough protein when eating a plant-based diet of any kind, including vegan. The challenge is that plant-based foods have less protein than animal-based foods and they are higher in fiber so it can be more challenging to get the appropriate quantities. For example, 1 ½ cups of beans would give you the same amount of protein (21 grams) as a palmful (3oz) chicken breast or fish.

Choose the below plant-powered protein to support an active lifestyle:

  • Dairy products (milk, yogurt, and cheese) 
  • Eggs
  • Grains (oats, quinoa, kamut)
  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, pistachios)
  • Seeds (pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds)
  • Beans (black beans, soy beans, kidney beans)
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Tofu

Energy

Vegetarian and vegan diets are typically lower in calories. But runners have increased calorie needs depending on frequency, duration and intensity of the physical activity. Since a vegan diet, due to the high consumption of fruits, vegetables, and grain products, which are often way higher in fiber compared to animal products and thus promotes the feeling of satiety, this can be at the expense of energy supply. As a result, a runner might run the risk of not consuming sufficient energy, especially in training phases with a high energy requirement. It might be helpful, depending on needs, to switch to lower-fiber carbohydrate sources, such as millet or buckwheat instead of oats or whole grain wheat products, breads and rolls with a lower whole grain content or removing the skin from root vegetables and tubers to make more room for other healthy choices of plant foods to meet caloric requirement for exercises and performance.

Key nutrition concerns for plant-powered runners
Like vegetarians but to a greater extent, the main nutrients that may be a concern for vegan runners are omega 3s, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iron, and it might be good idea for vegan runners to have annual bloodwork done to ensure they are not deficient in any of these micronutrients.

Vitamin B12, in particular, is a concern because it is only found in animal sources. Vitamin B12 is needed for healthy nerve function and blood cell production. As such, it's recommended that most vegan runners to consult a family physician or nutritionist about including a B12 supplement in their diet.

For calcium, which is required for bone formation, muscle contraction, and other essential functions. Vegans can obtained in their diet by eating calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, pulses, sesame seeds, and calcium-fortified foods such as plant milks, dairy-free yogurts or calcium added cereals.

A vegan diet might be lacking in omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) that the body needs for a healthy heart and eyes and brain function. Vegetarians can obtain this nutrients through eggs and dairy products, but not vegans as they do not consume all animal products. Eating foods such as walnuts, soy, pumpkin, flax, or chia seeds, will help vegan/vegetarians intake of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid(ALA), which the body converts to the other two forms (EPA and DHA), though the conversion is very low. Thus, plant-powered runners can consider supplementing with a product such as a micro algae supplement.

A vegan diet can also be low in vitamin D as this nutrient is presented primarily in animal foods like oily fish, liver, and egg yolks. Good vegan sources of vitamin D include mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light, fortified plant milks.

Plant-powered runners are at greater risk of anemia due to reduced intake of animal products containing iron (and B12). There are two different forms of dietary iron.

Heme iron, the more readily absorbed form of iron, is found in animal meats such as liver, lamb, beef; non-heme iron is derived from plant sources such as legumes, dried fruits, nuts and leafy green vegetables. Hence vegetarian and vegan runner need to be mindful to consume adequate amounts of non-heme iron along with foods that enhance iron absorption (ie. Vitamin C rich foods).

If you are considering plant-based diet or are just looking to switch up your routine, these 5 plant-foods will keep you energized and nourished for your next run:

1. Oats

A half cup of oats has 15 percent the daily value of fiber, plus 5 grams of plant-based protein. It is an excellent source of carbohydrate to fuel your runs, and the soluble fiber can help you feel full and satisfied. Not to mention, oats contain a special fiber called beta-glucan, which has been shown to have positive effects on satiety plus lowering blood cholesterol.

Try: overnight oats for busy mornings with soy or almond milk and extra seeds and nuts for a protein boost.

2. Chickpeas

This legume packs a nutrition punch; a half cup of canned chickpeas has 22 percent of the daily value of fiber and 6 grams of protein. Not only are they delicious, but they contain a mix of good carbs and protein.

Try: roasted crunchy chickpeas with a tiny bit of salt (to help replace sodium lost through sweat during your run) as a quick and nutritious post-run snack.

3. Walnuts

Walnuts are a convenient plant-based food with 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and plenty of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Try: walnut crumbles - simply put them in the food processor and pulse, then substitute walnut “meat” into any recipe that calls for ground meat.

4. Brussels Sprouts

This cruciferous veggie is having a moment, and rightfully so. Just one cup of Brussels sprouts has 100 percent of your daily vitamin C (which helps with iron absorption), 4 grams of plant protein, and 16 percent of your daily fiber.

Try: eat them raw in a salad or roast them in the oven with a dash of olive oil and salt.

5. Avocados

This superfood has 20 vitamins and minerals, including healthy monounsaturated fats and 11 percent of your daily fiber. For runners who have high mileage in their training plan, an avocado can fill the stomach and nutrition gap.

Try: avocado toast, need I say more?

Regardless, the science is emerging for a plant-based diet being good for your heart, not to mention the added benefits it might have on your performance. But if cutting out animal foods isn’t for you or you’ve been advised by a healthcare professional not to, then don’t. In the end, a diet needs to work for you and your lifestyle.



MICHELLE LAU

Michelle is the founder of Nutrilicious, a Hong Kong based nutrition consultancy company. An avid runner and foodie chef, she appreciates balance in life. Follow her on Instagram/Facebook at @nutriliciousss.

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