Optimising a plant based diet
First of all, let us just clarify what we mean by ‘plant based’. Any diet that places an emphasis on vegetables, fruits and wholegrains is plant based. So, it is possible to eat meat and still consider your diet to be plant based. In fact, if you follow the advice usually given out by Awesome Supplements then an ideal diet will be about 70-80% plant based anyway.
However, the popular concept of plant based dieting means vegetarian. A vegetarian diet is one that is almost exclusively based around eating plant foods with a handful of exceptions. Here are the types of vegetarian diets:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian, the most common form where both dairy and eggs are still consumed
- Lacto-vegetarian, where dairy but not eggs are consumed
- Ovo-vegetarian, where eggs are consumed but not dairy
- Vegan, no animal or animal bi-products are consumed
- Pescatarian, this diet includes fish and technically isn’t vegetarian but many consider it a form of vegetarianism
There is also the junk food vegetarian, you know the type; they eat hardly any vegetables or fruit and seem to live off of pizza and cheese pastries. They’re also really likely to have a sedentary lifestyle, preferring a Netflix binge to a lifting session at the gym.
The reason most people choose to follow a vegetarian diet is due to concerns about animal welfare, which is a sound and ethical reason for choosing to avoid meat and, with such a powerful motivation this should ensure that you remain plant based your whole life. Some people choose plant based diets for health reasons, although this may be a little overzealous. While processed meats have been implicated causally in increased incidences of cancer, there is no current evidence that suggests we need to avoid unprocessed meat for health purposes (1,2). Then, of course, animal products are not uniquely fattening so can be consumed during the process of fat loss. Calorie balance is key here.
According to the HRC, 1 in 5 vegetarians fail to adhere to a fully plant based way of eating while 84% go back to eating meat, with family relationships being a major factor in this (3). So, if you enjoy your meat and wouldn’t want to give it up, but are thinking of going vegetarian to lose weight you don’t have to, there’s a lot of changes you can make to your diet before taking such a step. However, there is a concern among many meat eaters, including some coaches, who believe vegetarianism can lead to malnutrition. This is nonsense, but it definitely is the case that a diet which restricts food choices in the manner that vegan diets do, is more likely to lead to nutrient deficiencies if proper planning is not in place (4).
Common nutrient deficiencies in plant based lifestyles include B-12, Iron and Omega 3. Many vegans take a B-12 supplement at the least, either as a tablet or in brewer’s yeast. Omega 3 is a tricky one if you are a vegan because, of course you can’t have any fish based food products, EPA and DHA aren’t available in plant based sources of omega 3. ALA is the plant version, some of which does convert into DHA, but not a lot. Some sea vegetables contain small amounts of EPA and DHA but these are hard to source. However, anecdotally, this doesn’t appear to be a problem for many vegans who may see an up-regulation of ALA to DHA, or maybe the nutrient dense nature of the diet just means that it’s not as important, who knows? If this is a concern for you, there are many vegan Omega 3 supplement options available to you.
Once you have defined what kind of vegetarian you are and why this is important to you you’ll need to improve the balance of your diet. If you are currently transitioning from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian diet and have a basic understanding of nutrition none of that will change. There is no metabolic advantage to eating a plant based diet, calories still count, 24-hour energy balance doesn’t become obsolete just because you no longer eat animals.
If you are conscious about body composition or sporting performance you still need to optimise your macronutrient intake too. Protein, fats and carbohydrate requirements don’t change for an athlete.
- Protein: Aim for around 1.6 - 2.2g per kg
- Fats: Aim for around 0.5 – 1.5 g per kg
- Carbs: Eat according to personal preference and exercise mode
For many plant based lifestylers (we’re not calling it a diet, it’s a lifestyle) especially those who are new to vegetarianism or those lifelong plant basers (is that a word?) who are starting to take their diet more seriously getting adequate protein can be hard. Many plant based sources of protein have a comparatively low protein density or an incomplete amino acid profile.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein with leucine being the most important for muscle growth. Most plant based protein are low in leucine and the other essential amino acids. For this reason, it’s necessary to combine protein sources throughout the day. No, you don’t have to combine them in every meal, so long as you get a good mix of pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds you should be covered.
A note for vegans who are aiming to get really jacked; there is an argument that plant based proteins are simply less effective and that aiming for a slight increase above recommended levels of around 10-20% might be favourable. Experiment and see what works best for you.
But, this makes it a little harder to hit your macros, why?
Vegetarian protein sources
If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian you can have eggs and dairy which makes it easier to get your leucine in. Here’s the amount of protein per typical serving of lacto-ovo foods.
- Eggs (about 5-8 g per egg depending on the size)
- Cheese (about 20-30g per 100g but also high in fat and calories)
- Yoghurt (about 5-10g per 100g with true Greek or Nordic yoghurts having the highest protein content)
- Milk (about 5g per 100ml)
There are meat substitutes available, these aren’t to the liking of every vegetarian, especially if you are vegan because if you refuse to eat meat then eating fake meat makes little sense. However, these will definitely add variety and essential complete protein to your diet.
- Tofu (about 8g per 100g)
- Quorn (about 15g per 100g) - Quorn may not be suitable for vegans so read the label
- Tempeh (about 19g per 100g)
- Soy meat (around 26g per 50g serving) this makes a great alternative to mincemeat in dishes like spaghetti bolognaise or chilli con ‘carne’
If processed fake meats aren’t to your liking and you don’t eat eggs or dairy all is not lost because you have plenty of natural plant foods available. But, it’s really important to know the nutrient profiles of these foods, especially if you are concerned about energy balance. Nuts and seeds usually have decent protein but high fats:
- Hemp seeds* (about 30g protein and 45g fats per 100g)
- Chia seeds* (about 17g protein and 31g fats per 100g)
- Flax seeds (about 18g protein and 42g fats per 100g)
- Sunflower seeds (about 21g protein and 52g fat per 100g)
- Peanuts (about 26g protein 42g fats per 100g)
- Almonds (about 21g protein and 49g fats per 100g)
- Cashews (about 18g protein and 44g fats per 100g)
- Walnuts (about 18g protein and 65g fats per 100g)
Pulses and legumes are usually about 60% carbohydrate:
- Lentils (about 9g protein and 20g carbohydrate per 100g)
- Chickpeas (about 9g protein and 26g carbohydrate per 100g)
- Black beans (about 8g protein and 24g carbohydrate per 100g)
- Adzuki beans (about 8g protein and 26g carbohydrate per 100g)
- Edamame beans* (about 11g protein and 10g carbohydrate per 100g)
- Baked beans (about 6g protein and 22g carbohydrate per 100g)
While wholegrains are mostly sources of carbohydrates and fibre (as well as some important micronutrients) but they do contain small amounts of protein to help you top up. Some have a complete amino acid profile but many grains also contain gluten so if you are unfortunate enough to have a clinical intolerance to gluten be aware of which grains contain gluten.
- Wheat* flour (about 10g protein and 76g carbohydrates per 100g)
- Buckwheat flour** (about 11g protein and 75g carbohydrate per serving)
- Cooked quinoa** (about 4g protein and 21g carbs per 100g)
- Whole wheat bread* (about 10g protein and 49g carbohydrate per 100g)
- Rye bread* (about 9g protein and 48g carbohydrate per 100g)
- Oats (about 17g protein and 66g carbohydrate per 100g)
* Denotes complete amino acid profile.
** Denotes gluten content.
A word on fibre
Fibre is obviously important for your digestive health and a number of other functions in the body. Following a plant based way of eating means that, with all those veggies, fruits, pulses, wholegrains and seeds in your gut you will be getting a lot of fibre. 25-35g of fibre per day is optimal for most people, many vegans will struggle to stay below 50g but that’s not a problem and, if you can handle it without too much discomfort there is no defined upper limit for fibre intake. Just be aware, if you are newly transitioning to a plant based diet you might want to keep an eye on this and bring it up over a few weeks rather than jumping up from 25 to 50g per day.
What about protein powders?
Not everyone likes using protein powder but they are a must have addition to your pantry if you are serious about performance nutrition. Ove-lacto and lacto vegetarians can use whey assuming that you have no issues with digesting dairy. Lactose intolerance varies depending on historical diets, for example only 5% of northern Europeans are lactose intolerant, while some African communities have seen incidences as high as 90%. If you have an inability to digest dairy you’ll likely know by now.
There are good vegan alternatives to whey protein which contain very similar amino acid profiles but are often grainy and don’t mix well. They often taste bad as well. Plain pea or rice protein (or a combination of both) are decent but taste awful on their own so mix them with other flavours, like chocolate almond milk, or save them for baking.
Flavoured vegan protein powders are usually sweetened with stevia which adds a mild aniseed flavour that isn’t to everyone’s liking. We think that we have found a smooth blend that tastes great. The reason it took us so long to launch our vegan blend was that we wanted the texture a flavour to be the best it possibly could and we think we’ve cracked it.
Like we say, protein powders aren’t a must but they allow larger athletes with a high protein need to hit their targets and, yes you can get ripped as a vegan but you might have to include a couple of shakes or add protein powders to your soups, sauces, granola, cakes, etc. to be able to hit those levels.
You absolutely can eat a balanced and healthy plant based diet and still hit your performance nutrition goals. It might be that you find that you need to go a little higher on either fats or carbs and a little lower on protein but, with a little practice, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting the balance right.
All the same rules regarding thermodynamics and energy balance apply. Set your macronutrients (if you are following a macro diet) using the same grams per kg recommendations.
Protein can be a bit tricky and powders may become an essential ingredient in your kitchen but we have you covered there.
One thing is for sure, you will have no issues getting more than adequate amounts of fibre in your diet and this can only be a good thing for the integrity of your gut microbiome and overall wellbeing.
Awesome Supplements vegan protein is available here: https://store.awesomesupplements.co.uk/products/vegan-protein
- Binnie et al. Red Meats: Time for a paradigm shift in dietary advice. Meat Science 98(2014) 445-451
- Position statement – Meat and cancer prevention – Cancer.org