Top 3 Nutrition Mistakes made by Plant-Based Athletes
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
I have a tremendous amount of respect for endurance athletes. You spend hours and hours on the bike, in the pool, running or whatever your discipline is. I’ve been in your shoes; 5+ hour bike rides and puke-your-guts-out intervals make you a better athlete, but damn they hurt. That’s why you want to make sure your time exercising and recovering is well spent. If there was a way to reap greater benefits from your workouts to see a larger return on your time and energy investment, wouldn’t you want to do that?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably an athlete and either plant-based, vegan or contemplating something like this. Because most of us aren’t vegan from the womb, there are certainly some rules of thumb you have to remember when considering a more plant-based diet as an endurance athlete. In my years of being a plant-based endurance cyclist, here are the top 3 mistakes I’ve seen athletes make who are trying to adopt a plant-based diet as an athlete.
1. Not eating enough calories
This is by far the most common problem I see in anyone going plant-based. When you transition to eating more plants, you’re inevitably going to be eating more foods that are nutrient dense but not as calorie dense. What do I mean by this? Beef is around 1000 calories per pound where as potatoes are 350 calories per pound. In this example, beef is more calorie dense because you get more calories per unit weight. When making a comparison, animal-based foods are more calorie dense because of the fat content. With fat being 9 calories per gram and animal foods having significantly more fats, it’s no wonder that you get more calories per unit weight. So, when you eliminate foods like beef, chicken, eggs and dairy that are relatively high in fat and replace them with foods that have more 'bulk' and volume, it may be harder to get in the 3000+ calories some of us may need in a day. But harder does not mean impossible. And ‘harder’ can easily be remedied with a few simple tricks. To get in ample calories eating plants, you want to focus on relatively calorie dense plant-foods. Base your meals on whole grains, complex carbohydrates and starches like potatoes, rices, quinoa, beans or oats. These should be the bulk of your calories in each meal. These are calorie dense sources of plant foods, with rice being about 500 calories per pound and lettuce, as a comparison, being 70 calories per pound. See #3 for a bit more on the topic of calorie density.
2. Not eating enough Iron
Iron deficiency is very common among athletes, regardless of being plant based (12, 44, 33). Not to mention that heme iron, which is mainly found in animal foods, is more bioavailable than non-heme iron, which is mainly found in plant-foods. Bioavailability is the amount of a compound or substance that enters circulation. But just because we absorb less iron from plant sources doesn’t mean we absorb none. We just need to be smart about how much we eat and what we eat with those iron-rich foods to create an environment that is optimal for iron absorption. Plant foods high in iron include green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils, dried apricots, blackstrap molasses and pumpkin seeds. So step 1 is make high iron plant foods regular staples in your daily diets, every day or even every meal! Another way to ensure adequate absorption of non-heme iron is to consume Vitamin C with those iron sources. Vit. C increase the bioavailability of iron by as much as 20-30%. On the flip side, try to avoid consuming iron rich foods with coffee, tea, cocoa or chocolate because these foods in combination with iron decrease absorption.
3. Fearing Fat
As I mentioned above, not only is it more difficult for plant-based endurance athletes to get enough calories, there seems to be this societal and/or engrained fear of fats. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, we should eat some fats and avoid others, but we shouldn't actively avoid them all together. Fats in the form of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and Essential Omega Fatty Acids should make up approximately 10-20% of total calories. This is a relatively wide range because various sources cite different amounts of fat that we should be eating. Dr. Douglas Graham, DC, an athlete and one of the original authors citing the popular 80/10/10 (The 80/10/10 Diet), advises a fruit heavy diet composed of roughly 10% fat. Some literature on the ‘general’ amount of fat that should be consumed by athletes cites 20%**, (48) even as high as 35% (49). But I argue, many of these pieces of literature are ‘general’ recommendations for those eating a 'typical diet'. A plant-based diet is not typical and because certain foods are emphasized or eliminated, it requires a special examination of the macronutrients. When eating plant-based, don’t be afraid of fats coming from nut butters, whole nuts and seeds, avocados, coconut or olives. Included in this list are oils, but also require a caveat. Oils, unlike whole foods, are 100% fat and most of the nutritional value is no longer present, as it once was with the whole foods. Oils can be used, but sparingly. Don’t lean on oils and concentrated plant-fats to meet your daily caloric needs.
Ian Cramer is an endurance cyclist, Certified Athletic Trainer and plant-based educator. He is also host of the Ian Cramer Podcast which seeks to interview doctors and scholars of plant-based nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine. Read more about him and his story HERE.
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