It’s time to put an end to the idea that eating a vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diet and being a strong, fit athlete are mutually exclusive. I became a much stronger runner almost immediately after switching to a vegetarian diet, and feel even better now that I’ve been vegan for several years. But you don’t have to take my word for it: There are plenty of world-class athletes (and not just endurance runners) that don’t eat meat. Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathoners of all time, is vegan. So is Alex Morgan, co-captain of the US Women’s Soccer team.
Most of the Tennessee Titans linebackers are plant-based, and New England Patriots star quarterback Cam Newton is too. (Is Tom Brady vegan? Not quite, but at 80 percent vegetables, we can definitely call his diet “plant-centered.”)
Then there are the strength and bodybuilding athletes like Rich Roll, Natalie Matthews, and strongman Patrik Baboumian, who not only excel on a plant-based diet, but have been wildly successful in competition. And of course, there’s Robert Cheeke, known by many as the pioneer of vegan bodybuilding, and the co-author of my new book, The Plant-Based Athlete. Athletes are no longer just making a meat-free diet work for their training; they’re thriving because of it.
The Plant-Based Athlete Diet
A plant-based diet plan for endurance athletes is really not all that different from a normal (healthy) diet, with the exception, of course, of the meat and animal products. If you’re switching from eating McDonald’s every day, then sure, it’s going to take some getting used to. But if you eat lots of nutritious, whole foods as it is, there really aren’t all that many adjustments you need to make to go vegetarian, and from there, to go plant-based. You can take it as far as you want, and some vegetarian and vegan athletes tend toward raw and gluten-free diets, citing even greater energy gains. But of course, you don’t have to take it that far to see the benefits. There are differing degrees of health in plant-based diets, and mine includes a lot of delicious cooked foods that people following more traditional diets would eat.
The Plant-Based Diet for Muscle Gain and Strength
The same can be said about going plant-based when your goal is to gain weight, build muscle, become a bodybuilder. But when that’s the goal, there are a few things to consider about your nutrition (exactly like there would be if you were trying to add muscle on a non-vegan diet):
- Macronutrient ratios that fit your specific body and goals.
- Understanding your caloric needs.
- And having a proper workout plan to accompany your nutrition strategy.
That said, what I’ve found to be true for myself and countless people I’ve met along the way is that when it comes to long-term health, simpler is better.
The Philosophy: Healthy but Accessible
There are some fantastic books out there that espouse what I consider to be an “ideal” diet, from the standpoint of athletic performance. Vegan, high-raw, alkaline. (See Brendan Brazier’s Thrive, for example.) Eating that way is great. But it’s tough. Lots of strange ingredients, low-temperature cooking, and very little starchy goodness for the pasta lovers among us. For meat-eaters looking to make a change (without causing their families to rebel), the chasm between this type of diet and their current one is huge.
I’d like to offer an alternative, a diet that is plant-based (or vegetarian if that’s as far as you want to take it), that’s substantial enough to support endurance training, can be adapted for strength training, and that’s delicious and accessible to new vegans.
I’ll be the first to admit you can do better nutritionally, but I believe that it’s more important to have a diet you’ll stick to first. Once you’re used to eating vegetarian or vegan (and training on that diet), that’s when it’s time to consider getting more advanced — whether by ramping up the micronutrient density, experimenting with intermittent fasting, or even trying a vegetarian or vegan paleo diet.
But Where Do You Get Your Protein? The answer is that protein is in all plant foods, just generally in lower quantities. Still, if you’re eating a well-rounded plant-based diet with a healthy mix of beans, nuts, and seeds, you’ll generally have no trouble getting more than enough protein from vegan foods. At first, it may take some conscious effort to make sure you get a healthy amount of protein in every meal, but it’s not that hard. If you’re aggressively trying to build muscle, or if you’re just concerned about your protein levels, there’s always the option for plant-based protein powders, but most people won’t need them.
Having heard that many endurance athletes thrive on diets with lower amounts of protein than is traditionally recommended, I took a chance on it, and I’ve never felt better than I do now. I’ll never go back to those crazy 1-gram-of-protein-per-pound-of-body-weight rules again. If your diet is pizza and potato chips, then you won’t get enough protein. But if you eat a wide variety of foods and make smart choices to include some protein at every meal and ensure that you’re getting a balanced amino acid profile, chances are you’ll feel better than ever.
This list represents some common foods that will help meet the needs of most endurance athletes. Certainly, there are many more foods one could include; the idea here is to list those that can be found in common grocery stores and whose tastes aren’t too foreign.
- All kinds of vegetables, cooked and raw
- Vegetable sprouts
- All kinds of fruits, usually raw
- Beans and other legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Whole-wheat bread, pitas, and bagels
- Other grains and seeds: bulgur wheat, buckwheat, farro, millet, quinoa, flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds
- Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts, almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter
- Agave nectar (as workout fuel, not an all-purpose sweetener)
- Protein powder
- Soy products: tofu, tempeh
- Tea and coffee (limited)
And to simplify it even further, I build my meals around seven plant-based foods I believe are worth eating every day.
I don’t count calories, or even carbohydrate-protein-fat ratios, when I eat. I don’t believe that there’s a need to do this unless your goal is to build muscle or lose weight (in which case calorie density is the key). But in general, especially for endurance athletes, such ratios can be met with a variety of food sources. In other words, take your favorite endurance diet numbers and make them work without meat. Endurance diets tend to be high in carbohydrate anyway, making a vegetarian or vegan approach especially well-suited. Though I don’t count calories closely, I try to eyeball my caloric breakdown and stay fairly close to the proportions laid out by Lance Armstrong’s former coach, Chris Carmichael, in his book Food for Fitness. Carmichael’s recommendations, though varying based on training period, are roughly:
- 65% carbohydrate
- 13% protein
- 22% fat
If you aim to hit these numbers with a plant-based diet, you should be just fine. And you’ll find that it’s not hard to do.
How Much Should You Eat?
About as much as it takes to feel comfortably full, but not stuffed. As athletes, we have the luxury of eating more calories than more sedentary people. We need more calories, in fact. If your goal is weight loss, or if you train more or less than I do, your needs will be different than mine. Figure out what size meals work for you.
Supplements for Plant Based Athletes
Do vegan athletes need supplements?
Just about everyone who eats a 100% plant-based diet (and a lot of people who don’t) should supplement with vitamin B12, which doesn’t occur naturally in plant foods. (It is present in soil, but soil these days is often depleted.) Vitamin D and two omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) are also recommended by many doctors. Both are available from natural sources (the sun, and algae), but many people can benefit from supplementing their diet with more.
Warning: Don’t assume that because you get plenty of omega-3’s (in walnuts, flaxseeds, etc.) that you don’t need DHA and EPA. What they (and most plant-based omega-3 sources) provide is ALA — which some people can convert into DHA and EPA, but not everyone. To be on the safe side, since DHA and EPA are crucial for brain health, my family and I supplement with these.
Finally, I also take iodine, zinc, vitamin K2, and selenium — foods that you can find in several plant foods, just not in abundance, and sometimes with questions about bioavailability. To get all of these from a single source, without having to take a giant multivitamin filled with things I’m already getting from food, I created a vegan supplement (called Complement).