Becoming A Plant-Based Powerhouse!
Society is becoming more and more health conscious with each passing day and love to share their experience! If you were to take a moment and search IG for trainers, nutritionists or lifestyle coaches your feed would be overwhelmed in short order. Thanks to technology, the ability to communicate new ideas has seen an explosion of people experimenting looking to improve how they feel and grow their athleticism. It is no wonder, given it is only natural to want to enjoy our “best life”; seeing the success of others can be motivating and make us try new things that we might never have before.
One area that has grown considerably is plant-based eating. For many years, many considered vegetarian diets “difficult” with the assumption individuals who pursued this dietary path were “weaker”, could not build or maintain muscle and were susceptible to all manner of nutrient deficiencies. The thinking was that anyone who was ‘serious’ about a sport or strength training would never consider eating this way. While those who pioneered this lifestyle know this to be incorrect, it can take time to break a stereotype!
Plant-based or otherwise, when eating to perform proper nutrition needs to address 3 fundamentals:
- Consuming adequate Calories to fuel training demands
- Sustaining physical and mental performance during activity
- Recover optimally for the next training session
If you read my bio, you should know which side of the fence I fall on when it comes to this topic! You can follow a plant-based lifestyle and accomplish these 3 nutrition “musts”, allowing you to succeed in whatever athletic setting you perform. That said, there is a little bit more that needs to be done to embrace this lifestyle and we will start with defining different plant-based diets before digging into the science on their ability to provide the basis of what an athlete requires to truly thrive.
Plant-Based Diets – There is More Than One!??
This fact is a bit surprising to some! Outside of the generic “Vegan” and “Vegetarian” terms commonly used, plant-based eating refers to a dietary pattern emphasizing higher intakes of plant foods and the subsequent reduction, partial or full exclusion of animal products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. The table below details the different variations of plant-based diets:
Not as simple as it is portrayed, is it? The choice to practice plant-based eating is multifaceted. Concerns over health and chronic disease, animal welfare, economic and environmental consequences of a diet rich in animal products may precipitate this transition, or simply personal preference. Others take cues from their favourite celebrity or athlete as the influence of social media has also been felt in expanding this way of eating. Social media stars and high-level athletes take to Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and TikTok sharing their experiences generating high levels of interest, increasing the number of people trying it out . Although anecdotal, many of these social media gurus praise plant-based eating and attribute positive health and performance outcomes to such a diet regimen. Is there truth behind these mass social media claims? Let’s dive into the science behind why this may be the case.
Plant-Based Diets: Are they Worth the Health Hype?
In short, yes! Vegetarianism/veganism have been consistently associated with a lower risk and onset of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some types of cancers . Plant-based diets were outlined in a nutritional update for physicians, calling them a cost-effective and low-risk intervention to effectively lowering body mass index (BMI) and the risk of cardiovascular-related conditions; thereby highly suggesting these physicians recommend plant-based eating to their patients .
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.” 
While this may be true, nutritionally speaking, plant-based diets DO have potential health risks, as any other diet would - namely insufficient intakes of certain essential nutrients. Because plant-based foods inevitably lack specific nutrients found abundantly in animal-based protein, the elements of meal planning and supplementation are necessary. While this can change depending upon the person, there are 3 areas of potential concern common to those who opt to go plant base: quality protein intake, and the risk of Vitamin D and B-12 deficiency. Let’s shift the discussion on how to optimize your plant-based eating through food and supplementation and it is my firm belief that the benefits of a plant-based diet far outweigh the potential health risks.
Potential Protein Challenges
While it is true that plant-based diets typically contain less protein, there is a misconception that plant-based eating means suffering from an insufficient intake. This view is not accurate, but it does indicate that making the switch to a plant-base does require some planning! To properly understand this, we need a quick review on protein and how foods are classified with this macro in mind.
Protein is required to build & repair tissue, to make enzymes, hormones, hemoglobin as well as a myriad of other chemicals in the body. Consisting of basic building blocks called amino acids, these are classified into two groups: Essential Amino Acids (or EAAs) and Non-Essential Amino Acids (NEAAs). The former (EAAs) MUST be obtained through our diet as we cannot produce them on our own while the NEAAs are endogenously produced. As this relates back to our food, proteins that contain a complete spectrum of all nine EAAs in adequate amounts are deemed to be “complete” protein sources. Those that do not are called “incomplete”.
Herein lies the source of the misconception: all animal-based proteins are “complete” are therefore considered superior sources of protein. When looking at single plant-based protein sources, they lack certain EAAs (particularly leucine, methionine, and lysine) and have poorer digestibility  and are labelled as “incomplete”. For this reason, those who follow a plant-based lifestyle need to mix things up a bit and get protein from multiple sources to ensure they get enough of those critical EAAs! While this at first can sound a bit daunting, it is surprisingly easy to do with a basic understanding proper food combining and some timely supplementation.
How Much Protein is Enough?
Protein requirements vary depending on the individual’s health goals, a specific population, or life stage, and therefore may require greater dietary protein consumption. Some examples include:
➮ Elderly require more protein to maintain muscle mass, strength and bone health.
➮ Active individuals/athletes need more protein to improve muscle mass and optimize strength.
➮ Children require greater protein consumption to support growth and development.
➮ Plant-based individuals require more protein to account for low(er) protein bioavailability.
As a result, non-athletic, plant-based populations should consume ≥1.0g/kg/day of plant protein (vs. Health Canada’s recommended dietary intake of 0.8g/kg).
- For example, a 175lb man (~79kg) would be required to consume a base level of 79g of protein compared to Health Canada’s recommendation of 64g.
Similarly, plant-based athletes with increased protein demands require greater protein intakes, compared to omnivorous athletes, and should aim for the upper range of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) protein recommendation of 1.4-2.0g/kg per day .
- Using the same mass, a 175lb man (~79kg) would be required to consume between at minimum 110g compared to Health Canada’s recommendation of 64g. At the upper end of the spectrum, this could go up to as high as 158g/day.
Plant-Based Protein: What Should I Eat?
While animal-based proteins contain sufficient EAAs, the EAA content in plant proteins are lower and require protein combining across meals . In simple terms, combining complementary protein sources at meals maximizes nutrition and fulfills our EAA requirements.
Therefore, plant-based diets consisting of a variety of plant foods (daily) will supply all essential amino acids . I have included a table that outlines examples of plant protein sources, including a favourable protein combination typically seen in plant-based eating when compared to the amino acid composition found in human muscle. Earlier I mentioned that plant-based protein sources often lack 3 of those critical EAAs – leucine, methionine & lysine – and this can be balanced!
For example, a burrito bowl containing lentil, quinoa and corn offers a “complete” protein picture to help an individual fulfill their meal-protein requirement by providing adequate levels of those 3 EAA’s. Protein combining can easily be achieved by including a variety of your favourite plant-based protein sources at any mealtime. I’ve included my favorite meal at the bottom of the article which is adaptable to whatever form of plant-based eating you wish to adopt and believe me, it is delicious!
Need Help? Supplementing Your Protein Sources
Sometimes, it may not always be feasible to consume adequate amounts of plant protein at designated meals. This could be in part to a busy work schedule, the time required to prepare food, or simply not knowing how to prepare/what to eat. It may seem particularly daunting to prepare a recovery meal after a good workout that checks all the boxes for a complete plant-based protein meal.
Supplementation is a safe and effective way to help reach these protein goals, not to mention the convenience and portability of protein supplements for on-the-go nutrition!
What are the Benefits?
Supplementing with plant-based protein powders accomplishes many objectives aside from offering a plant-based source of protein:
➮ They pack a nutritious punch! Plant-based protein powders contain sources of healthy fats, fibre to keep you satiated, a source of iron plus other essential vitamins and minerals to optimize health.
➮Contain multiple protein sources (like the protein combining strategy), offering a complete and rich protein source to optimize the anabolic response and recovery when consumed after exercise.
➮ Contain bacterially fermented protein that improves protein digestibility, helping reduce non-nutritive compounds (phytate) that may negatively affect protein digestion and nutrient absorption .
➮ Contain sprouted protein that, similarly, increases nutrient and EAA availability, as well as increases enzyme activity to improve protein digestion and absorption!
➮ Can help balance a vegetarian/vegans macro intake, specifically with respect to carbohydrates. A good quality vegan protein can be upwards of 75% protein per serving, greatly reducing the amount of carbs normally found in whole foods that would deliver as much protein.
Food technology has significantly advanced the plant-based protein industry from where it used to be. Now, individuals choosing to follow a plant-based diet are given many different options, especially when it comes to protein powders. Some of my personal favourites include the Canadian Iron Vegan Sprouted, EHP Blessed and the delicious Beyond Yourself Vegan, perfect for newcomers who are concerned about taste & texture.
Additionally, supplementing with (fermented, vegan) branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and/or EAAs may be another strategy for plant-based eaters looking to further increase their EAA intakes. Additional benefits of supplementing with BCAAs and EAAs include:
➮ Reducing muscle mass breakdown and muscle damage in response to resistance training.
➮ Reducing feelings of muscle soreness.
➮ Delaying onset of fatigue and boosting energy during exercise.
➮ Improving muscular recovery after exercise .
Potential Shortcomings: Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D
Moving on from protein, it is well-recognized that vitamin B12 and vitamin D may be inadequate for individuals following a restricted plant-based diet and are at risk of deficiency due to its scarcity in plant foods. While we can account for lower intakes through dietary, supplementation and lifestyle factors, a poorly constructed diet can lead to suboptimal amounts of both vitamin D and B12.
Important for cellular energy production and DNA synthesis, Vitamin B12 deficiency is common particularly in those eating primarily plant based (vegetarians, vegans) and follow restrictive dietary patterns.
subsequently higher circulating homocysteine levels compared to omnivores, which is associated with increased inflammation and cardiovascular risk . Additionally, chronic B12 insufficiency is associated with an increased risk of macrocytic anemia, which may impair oxygen transport and subsequently aerobic performance , leading to poor endurance during exercise.
Whole Foods: For these reasons, consider the inclusion of B12-fortified foods in the dietary rotation such as plants milks, nutritional yeasts, fermentable soy and mushrooms. For those who are lacto-ovo or pescatarian, there are a few more options as dairy, fish and eggs also provide a dietary source of B12.
Supplementation: A full spectrum B-complex is highly suggested as it incorporates all the B vitamins in a balanced amount. Make sure your B-complex contains at least a portion of the natural methyl cobalamin form of B12, as this form is more bioavailable than the more common cyanocobalamin version.
Vitamin D is recognized for its essential role in bone health, calcium regulation, immune function and more recently skeletal muscle function . Although vitamin D can be obtained naturally in the diet, albeit very little, plant-based individuals may be at additional risk of deficiency due to lower dietary intake.
Whole Food Options: While mushrooms, eggs, fish and fortified dairy contain vitamin D, consumption of these foods still may not be enough, considering the level of dietary adherence for the plant-based individual. Canadians are particularly at risk of vitamin D inadequacy, as a 2013 study by Statistics Canada found that 32% of Canadians had insufficient levels of vitamin D .
Lifestyle Factors: Most significantly, (safely) increasing the quality and time of sun exposure, as well as physical activity promoting a healthy body mass index (BMI) remain crucial predictors for vitamin D sufficiency, as those with greater sun exposure (during the summer compared to winter) and healthier BMI had
higher levels of vitamin D .
This year, travel has been . . . well, difficult so escaping to the Sunbelt during winter has not been an option. Add to this, with gym closures many have not been able to train, thereby negatively impacting BMI!
Last point on D3: Skin pigmentation, genetics, and vitamin D supplementation are important predictors of Vitamin D status and likely compensate for poor dietary intake . Therefore, EVERYONE (plant-based diet or otherwise) should consider implementing a lifestyle regimen to include healthy sun exposure, physical activity, and vitamin D supplementation to minimize the risk of vitamin D insufficiency.
Final Thoughts – Small Dietary Changes are Still Effective!
Thank you for making it this far! I hope the information provided was both educational and informative. Before I go, I do want to address those who may be skeptical of pursuing a plant-based lifestyle and are not quite ready yet. What if I told you that you do not have to give up animal foods entirely to experience similar health benefits?
Research findings suggest a higher adherence to plant-based eating (but not necessarily eliminating animal foods) may confer benefits for cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of cardiovascular-related diseases . Therefore, the complete elimination of animal products may not be necessary for many, and more realistic for an individual to successfully implement.
Not sure where to start? A good place is to reduce meat intake to 3-5 times a week compared to 1-2 times a day. What changes do you feel in digestion, mood and overall health after 1 week? 2 weeks? A month? Small changes can equate to some substantial results! Who knows where it can go from there? Feeling is believing and maybe in time you will be ready to move future along the plant-based scale from Flexitarian to Pescatarian and eventually, Vegan!
As promised, here is my favourite plant-based meal for you to try!
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