Gone are the days an animal protein-rich diet seemed almost a prerequisite for weight lifters, endurance runners, and soccer players. Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Robert Parish and tennis champion Martina Navratilova are among the star athletes who showed the world you could eschew animal foods and consistently give a stellar performance. Don’t misunderstand…I am still a firm believer in eating animal based protein…I’ve come to realize that many are not going to join me so I’ll ‘meat’ you in the middle!
The truth? I think it is harder to be a vegan athlete. Vegan and vegetarian athletes must address unique challenges including immune health, ensuring optimal nutrient intake, and meeting their protein quota. Simply put, athletic vegans and vegetarians must be vigilant about what they eat and incorporate a few key nutrients often missing in plant-based diets.
A little creativity and know-how can simplify things so you can focus on peak performance rather than obsessively monitor everything you eat. Whether you’re flirting with vegetarianism or maintained a strict vegan diet for decades, these 8 strategies can take your game to a whole new level without going near a chicken breast:
- Shake your breakfast routine. Protein plays numerous roles for peak performance, including muscle synthesis and recovery. Clients simply feel better when they get adequate protein, and that translates into a better game. Cereals and other carb-heavy breakfasts crash and burn your energy levels. For steady energy all morning, choose a protein shake. Skip the soy (more on that in a minute) and opt for pea/rice powder (I use PreVail Vegan see my website), which provides an excellent amino acid profile for vegan protein. Blend with unsweetened coconut or almond milk, frozen berries, and maybe some leafy greens if you’re adventurous, for a fabulous vegan-friendly breakfast or after noon protein snack that’s fast and filling.
- Timing is everything. Ever notice how when you miss a meal you become lightheaded, grumpy, and your performance nosedives? Steady energy and optimal recovery demand the right fuel. Space your meals 4 – 6 hours apart and make sure they include clean lean protein, high-fiber foods (legumes and veggies are tops!), and good fats like avocado and olive oil. Don’t be afraid to snack, especially on game days when you’re burning calories like crazy. I love a healthy trail mix with dark chocolate, slivered almonds, shredded coconut, and organic raisins. Yum!
- Combine smartly. Meeting your protein quota as a vegan or vegetarian athlete takes a little more work. If you eat eggs, incorporate them every few days. (Too often and you risk food intolerances.) Most plant foods are low in certain amino acids, so combining them can help you get complete protein. Beans and brown rice is the classic go-to pair. Combining needn’t be complicated: load your plate with 2 – 3 high-protein foods include quinoa, legumes, non-gluten grains and oats, as well as raw nuts and seeds. Don’t be afraid to use pea/ rice powder at your meals to hit your protein goals.
- Watch the processed stuff. With animal protein out of the picture, many vegans and vegetarians gravitate to easy, high-carb processed foods. These options become especially tempting after a long day on the field when you’re tired and just want something delicious to eat, but short-term gratification can lead to energy crashes and weight gain. Bypass the vegan mac and “cheese” and other Frankenfoods for protein-rich meals. If you don’t have time to cook, hit the Whole Foods hot bar or combine low-sodium canned beans with quick-cook quinoa and frozen veggies.
- Nix the gluten. Dana Vollmer made news in the 2012 London Olympics when she set a new world record for the 100-meter butterfly, but also because she ate a gluten-free diet. According to Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, gluten, a protein in wheat, triggers gut issues, exacerbates inflammation, and crashes your immune system (since about 2/3 of your immunity resides in your gut). Gluten can also inhibit important nutrients and create thyroid imbalances. Focus on gluten-free grains for peak performance. Swap wheat wraps for no-gluten rice wraps and toss the pasta noodles for spaghetti squash or quinoa pasta.
- No joy in soy. Non-meat eaters over-rely on soy, which provides protein but according to Dr. Kaayla Daniel, author of The Whole Soy Story, can inhibit nutrient absorption and impair thyroid function. Soy burgers, soy dogs, and other fake-food concoctions usually contain cheap soy protein isolate, a lousy source of protein. The occasional tempeh, miso soup, or even tofu stir-fry is okay if organic, but when every meal becomes a soy bonanza, food intolerances and other problems (like lowered testosterone!) could result.
- Chill out. You’ve probably overdone it at the gym or field and suffered the achy miserable consequences. Recovery is crucial, and over-training can trigger adrenal fatigue, immune suppression, muscle loss, and seriously stall your game. Aim for 8 hours of quality sleep every night, take a day off between rigorous workouts or game days, and give your body the right foods and nutrients to recover.
- Get the right nutrients. Vegetarians and especially vegan athletes frequently test deficient in nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, CoQ10, and L-carnitine, all of which are prevalent in meat but not so much in plant foods. Nutrient testing can reveal which vitamins, minerals, and conditionally essential nutrients you’re missing, and a sports nutritionist can help design a supplement protocol. I’ve seen impressive gains with DaxibeQOL®, a great-tasting scientifically validated blend of branched-chain (BCAAs) and essential amino acids from Thorne Research that helps increase performance, lean muscle mass, and muscle strength. BCAAs, most prevalent in animal foods, comprise about 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein, and top athletes swear by supplementing them for peak performance. You can grab Daxibe and the other top products I use with my Pros at www.JillLane.com/store ; click on the Thorne Performance banner and get 10% off your first order.
“Wondering how much protein you need a day? Get the formula I use with my Pro-Athlete clients along with other insider tips by grabbing my 3 FREE training videos here www.JillLane.com.
“Watch Jill’s interview by Erin Sharoni (co-host with Jim Rome on Showtime) on if going Vegan is sustainable and the importance of supplementation here…