In the past two years on my own plant based eating journey I have really had the chance to understand how the plant based diet affects your fitness work-outs, and the huge difference it makes to your overall fitness and health in general. In this post I aim to give you all the critical information I have gleaned from my own experiences on a plant based fitness and eating plan, and to also give you a complete guide to the macronutrients you should be eating when you change to this lifestyle in order to stay in tip top health.
What I Learned
Having studied and practiced sports nutritional therapy means I already had an understanding of the nutrition required for those in training; be it muscle building, endurance training, or any other kind of sport. Therefore, I had a good platform of knowledge to work from when I decided to try eating plant based for myself. But, even armed with this knowledge I still made a few mistakes along the way simply because I didn’t have the actual first hand experience of getting all my nutrients from plant foods, and it’s this first hand experience makes all the difference.
Everything I had learned and knew previously had revolved around the recommended food pyramid, and I was a bit of a rookie to say the least when it came down to getting everything I needed from plant foods alone. It occurred to me that if somebody like me could come across these problems whilst eating a plant based diet AND training hard, then anybody could.
So if you’re thinking of changing to (or are already on) a plant based or vegan diet; and especially if you’re a regular exerciser, then you should learn from my mistakes and read this article as you may find it of benefit. The fact is, yes, it is totally possible to get everything you need from plants – totally possible -amino acids and all, but you WILL need to be extra vigilant about your macronutrient intake when you’re putting intense stress on your body through exercise. Much more vigilant than a plant based eater who does nothing, that’s for sure.
What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are nutrients required in large amounts in your diet and they are made up of protein, carbohydrate and fats. When you are plant based (or vegan) you will need to make sure you are obtaining correct amounts of these from your plant foods alone.
Usually your carbohydrate and fat requirements will be just as easily met on a whole foods plant based diet than any other diet, but the truth is, when it comes to protein some may struggle to get enough through plants alone. Protein is abundant in animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and all dairy products. Take these abundant sources away and you need to find adequate replacements such as the ones outlined in this post.
My own Experience of becoming Plant Based
I have always eaten healthily and exercised ALOT – ever since I can remember. It’s like breathing to me I have done it so long, and it’s got to the point where I simply don’t know how to be any other way – which is a good thing of course. Becoming fully plant based two years ago was just another inevitable step on my health ladder, but I definitely hit some bumps in the road and it wasn’t all plain sailing that’s for sure, but I guess nothing in life worth doing actually is.
I’m by no means obsessed by healthy eating as I believe a little of what you fancy does you good, and I always advocate a lifestyle that promotes all round happiness and health. This of course means treating yourself to the things that you really love every now and again (I eat my own homemade dark chocolate every day which means I never feel I’m missing out on anything), but I would like to show you how I solved some of the problems I ran into whilst I was still learning.
How to make sure you are eating enough plant proteins
When I started out on this exiting journey over two years ago (and yes, it is a journey) I merrily carried on doing my usual workouts believing at the time that I was eating super healthily. But after a couple of months I started to actually lose muscle mass – only slightly, but I was unused to this so I instinctively knew something wasn’t quite right. In hindsight, I can see that even though I was eating lots of nuts, seeds and legumes I just wasn’t getting enough protein from these foods for somebody who does a lot of exercise and burns up lots of amino acids in the process.
When I actually did the calculations properly, I could see that compared to the amount of protein I was used getting as a meat eater my intake had probably halved on the plant based diet. This may not be a problem to a non-exerciser, as most meat eaters get too much protein anyway, but to a very active plant based eater it just wasn’t working.
With closer scrutinisation of my diet, I realised that many plant based dairy replacements such as nut milks (including almond, cashew, coconut, oat, and hemp) didn’t contain much protein (if any) at all. In fact, some contained as little as 1/8th of the protein of cows milk, and the same with the non-dairy cheeses and yogurts (unless you count the soy based products, but I tend to steer clear of too much soy as it is estrogenic). The protein issue, I believe now, to be one of the issues that most newbies to this diet don’t consider.
Adapting to a Plant Based Diet
I have a sneaky feeling (though I’ve no evidence for this, and it’s purely my opinion) that being so new to this way of eating, and being as it was just such a huge change for my system to cope with, my body just wasn’t used to recycling amino acids from plant sources. This, coupled with the fact that some plant aminos are actually harder to absorb than animal proteins, is the reason I believe I was not recieving adequate amounts of full spectrum amino acids.
The body needs time to adapt to sudden and big dietary changes, and it took more time and another overhaul of my diet to finally get to a place where my body became used to obtaining its energy and nutrients from a different source than it had been used to its whole life. This is something that most people do not get told (or even understand) when they make such drastic changes to their diet overnight like I did. Yes, it’s very healthy and I feel absolutely awesome now, and of course I would never go back, but there definitely was that period of my actual body and mind getting used to this new way of living.
And let’s not forget to mention the relearning of nutrition, understanding and putting together complete nutritional profile meals, plus coming up with new and interesting dishes instead of eating repetitive meals every day in the absence of knowing what else to cook. My advice is preparation is key – get yourself prepared first and you will smash it.
Budget Plant Based Foods
Eating plant based is cheaper than not, and another great thing about it is we are now living in the middle of a plant based and vegan explosion, and you can mostly get everything you need from your local super market quite easily and affordably. In fact, there are whole aisles and fridge sections dedicated JUST to plant based foods so there really couldn’t be a better or easier time to make this change if you are going to.
What I Changed
When I realised that my body just wasn’t getting what it needed for my exercise levels on the plant based diet, I was forced to make some simple changes that made all the difference in the world to my muscle mass, energy levels, immunity and general health. These are errors that I don’t want you tot to make, so be sure to incorporate these things into your daily routine if you want to be firing on all cylinders.
I have included a free 1 week plant based meal plan at the bottom of this post (similar to that which I myself follow now) which will help get you started on your journey and will also show you how to put meals together to make sure you get all your nutrients.
Eat more quinoa!
I could literally write a book on the benefits of this tasty and totally perfect seed. Yes, it’s a seed (though most people presume it’s a grain), so it is naturally gluten free and high in protein and healthy fats. In fact, quinoa is pretty much the perfect superfood for a plant based diet as it contains ALL the macronutrients needed for health. It is also is one of the few known plants to not only contain a complete amino acid profile, but also fats and carbohydrates in the perfect ratios to make it a complete food on its own.
So, I’m not kidding – EAT MORE QUINOA! Make this versatile seed a big part of your plant based life and incorporate it into your meals as often as possible, which is pretty easy to do as the great thing about this seed is you can literally eat it at any meal. For instance, you can make quinoa porridge for breakfast, use it cold in a salad for lunch, or as a side dish with any meal to replace rice, grains, pasta or potatoes. It’s also great stirred into soups and stews for added protein, bulk and texture.
PROTEIN POWDERS WITH COMPLETE AMINO ACID PROFILES
If you are in training and on a plant based diet (or even if you’re not, but are just not eating an adequate diet) then you may need a protein powder for extra reassurance that you’re getting the full spectrum of amino acids you require to build and repair muscle.
Some plant protein powders can fall short on certain amino acids (unlike their dairy based counterparts), but fortunately we live in a time where it seems almost everything is having its protein extracted and made into a powder which gives you an abundance of different protein sources to choose from. These include hemp, quinoa, pumpkin, brown rice, potato, sunflower, almond, pea and probably by the time you’ve read this many more.
Most manufacturers are putting together blends of the above mentioned foods to ensure a complete amino acid profile, therefore you shouldn’t ever have a problem with getting all that you need in one product. This is why I recommend you either buy a good quality blend, or buy a couple of different types and mix them up yourself. Check out these favorites.
Again, you may find it hard to get all the nutrients you need when eating plant based (especially whilst in training). That’s why there are some supplements that I find really useful for filling in any nutritional gaps; plus they also make up for the fact that your body is burning up nutrients at a much faster rate when you are physically active. These include the following:-
- Omega 3’s – (you can buy vegan omega 3; or you can use omega 3 fish oil if you don’t mind some fish products).
- Vitamin D3 – in the winter months especially.
- Magnesium – to ease muscle aches and pains from exercise.
- B- vitamin complex.
- If you are doing heavy weights, or are actively trying to build muscle, then you may also require a branch chain amino acid supplement. This is another area you should look more in depth into if you feel you may need it. I have sourced some trusted information about this for you here.
GREEN SUPERFOOD POWDERS
Another truly awesome and very easy way to ensure you are getting top quality food derived nutrients is through green superfood powders. I don’t know how I ever lived without these before I discovered them as they just make so much of a difference to my health and vitality that I feel I need to drive home their importance.
Here’s why you may find them of benefit too:-
- Stronger immunity.
- Ridiculously glowy skin.
- Energy boosting – so great before a workout.
- Anti inflammatory to help ease muscle aches and pains.
- Super high in nutrition.
- High in chlorophyl.
- They help lower blood sugar.
- Helps with insomnia.
- Good for weight loss.
You can buy many different types of superfood powder, but you must buy quality and organic if you would like the above benefits. They can come in many forms such as wheat grass, barley grass, spirulina, moringa, chlorella and blue-green algaes to name the most popular, and they all contain their own unique nutritional profile. As with the protein powders it is always best to buy a blend to be sure you get the best of everything. Read my top reviewed green superfoods for the best products available on the market right now.
Your 3 Macronutrients
Here is a full list of all 3 macronutrient food groups that you should be putting together to make a complete meal on a plant based diet, along with what is considered to be a portion size. To make things a little confusing many plant foods contain 2 or even 3 macronutrients all in the same food, therefore I will put them into the groups that they predominantly fall into to make it easier to understand (you will see that some of them are predominant in more than one group, and therefore can be used either way).
You can do quick and easy portioning for your dinner plate by using the size of your hand. The bigger you are, the more food you will need, but the bigger your hands will naturally be so it usually works out well. Note that this is for your main meal dinner plate, and other meals and snacks will be less.
- Palm of hand = 1 portion of protein.
- Balled fist = 1 portion of carbohydrates
- Size of thumb = roughly 1 portion of fats.
- 2x balled fist = 1 portion of vegetables.
- Soy meats
- Soy milk
- Pulses such as lentils, beans, legumes of all kinds
- Whole grain bread
- Sourdough bread
- Pearl barley
- Root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets)
- High sugar fruits (bananas, pineapple, mango, papaya, grapes)
- Dries fruits
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- vegetable oils
- Peanut oil
- Sesame oil
- Canola oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Grape seed oil
These are your 3 macronutrient groups and the main foods that each group contains. Other fruits and vegetables that are lower in starches and sugar can be eaten unlimited (but in moderation if you need to keep your weight in check).
HEALTHY SWEETENERS: (to be eaten in moderation only)
- Maple syrup
- Raw honey
- Brown rice syrup
- Date syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Agave nectar
Oh, and here’s the link to the week of meal plans I promised –>1 Week Plant Based Food Plan<–. Please check it out, follow the diet, and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments box below. All comments are welcome; or if you need additional advice please feel free to drop me a line too.
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