Are you a plant-based / vegan athlete who wants to improve performance? While plant based diet has many benefits, it has a lot of pitfalls as well, especially for those of us who are very active. Let me lead you through the biggest mistakes that lead to unwanted weight loss, loss of performance, loss of lean muscle mass or general tiredness and give you suggestions for changes that you can make right now so you start feeling energized and powerful so you can start crushing your workouts again!
When I switched to vegan diet, I certainly did not know many things. I was eager to learn and that is how I enrolled to course in sports nutrition, which helped me to figure out the pitfalls I am going to talk about, but before that, there have been months full of struggle.
I always loved veggies and when I switched to vegan diet, I exchanged all the meat and animal products for veggies. I started feeling great, my running performance was increasing until I reached a point, when I would feel like zombie during the day. At the same time, as my training was getting more intense and my runs longer, I started to suffer more and more, which lead me to losing the joy of running. I was no longer looking forward to running after work. It became a chore and a hard work. My legs were heavy and I really had to push myself to complete the training I was assigned.
If you know a little bit about nutrition, you must be screaming “Not enough calories!” while reading this. Me, I did not know it back then. Nowadays, I see that many plant-based athletes and people converting to vegan make the exact same mistake. When we switch to plant-based diet, we improve our nutrition intake but you cannot live off of lettuce alone… (which is also not that nutritious).
Let’s get to the first point:
The reason why vegan diet works so well for many people is two-fold. The foods an average vegan eats are less calorically dense compared to your traditional meals (although processed meals will always be dense in calories like vegan cheese or meat substitutes that use a lot of oil). The second reason is that they are very filling.
“Currently, dietary fiber intakes among adults in the United States average about 15 grams a day.” (1)
An average vegan fiber dietary intake in EPIC OXFORD (2) study was 28g and in AHS2 (3) study 46g. For comparison I get 80+ grams of fiber daily easily.
I assume, that you as a health conscious individual tend to eat much cleaner and calorically lower density meals than an average person or even vegan. That means lower fat diet, full of nutrients and whole foods.
When we look at it from the big perspective, having low calorie density combined with filling foods and higher energy requirements of an athlete, you can easily slip into under-nourishing yourself. You need to eat bigger quantities of food and eat mechanically. Following the mindset that as an athlete you can eat whatever and just burn it out during your workouts is a NO in my book! If anything, you should be more considerate about what you eat in relation to what you demand from your body.
As I wrote in the first paragraph, when I started with plant-based diet I ate about the same volume of food but then in form of salads and veggies alone, which led to big energy deficit over time. We want to get all kinds of vegetables in our daily intake but how to manage it? Isn’t the quantity of food you are required to eat to support your training just overwhelming? Below you will find suggestions that will help you.
On top of that, there are mechanisms that you should be aware of:
1) Digestion requires energy. We know that we need to use energy to digest food and that different macronutrients require different amount of energy to be absorbed (Thermic Effect of Food). If you read articles in any fitness magazine online, you must have stumbled upon notions that fats require nearly no energy to be fully absorbed while protein can take up to 25% of the calories for absorbtion (Hello high protein diets for weight loss.).
However, there is more to it when it comes to digestion besides the macronutrient structure. It seems that processing food allows for more calories to be absorbed by breaking cell walls and therefore depending on how you prepare your food will have a certain effect on how much nutrients and energy you can absorb (And that is one of the reasons why it is advised to pressure cook your beans.)
You can find whole summary about nuts not causing expected weight gain and research that reveals that how many calories we extract from food depends on which species we eat, how we prepare our food, which bacteria are in our gut and how much energy we use to digest different foods. have effect on energy absorbtion.
In general, it seems that the more processed foods are the more they actually give us the number of calories we see on the box, bag or other sort of label. This applies not just to cooking and pounding but also to industrial processing. (5)
2) Everybody has different digestion, which simply means that if me and you were to eat the same food, prepared in the same way, we would get a different amount of calories from the food.
“Differences among individual humans in their symbionts do seem to make differences in how they digest food—individuals appear to differ in their metabolism depending on just which microbes they have.” (5)
Which is not suprising as more and more studies are being made on importance and effects of microbioma in our intestines. That is a topic I advise you to explore more.
You might be burning more than you think
Richard Diaz, who works with OCR athletes to improve their running performance through gait analysis and metabolic assessments brought an interesting point to the table. In several of his interviews he stated that when they test athletes, often they are surprised by their resting RMR and how much energy they actually burn during their typical day.
“We always preface the clinic by metabolic testing and this is usually a really serious wake-up call for most people that we meet because, number one, it never occurred to them to take a look at what their body requires and by doing the RMR assessment we show people how poorly they have been feeding and how much they need relatively to what they thought they should have gotten. And as a matter of fact, I did that test…and we figured his (Hunter McIntire’s) staple diet should be about 5 000kcal daily. That’s assuming he doesn’t do anything crazy. That’s assuming he only did like one hour of relatively intense work and as you know, he is putting about two to three times more of that by average.” Richard said.
I experienced the same thing. When I calculated my energy needs on a calculator, the estimated energy needs for me were about 2,3k kcal/day. However, when doing the calculation “manually” with assistance of a registered dietitian and nutritionist we found out I can easily burn more than 3k kcal/day. Even when I spend most of the day sitting around with low physical activity, the energy needs induced from the previous training days increase the energy requirements through EPOC (Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), i.e. you burn more even when resting.
I went on to contact Richard to comment on these findings and he was very generous in doing so:
“The comments I make are as a result of having tested both resting and active metabolism on so many athletes. Commonly thee athletes are under-nourished. This leads to gluconeogenisis, where the body begins to feed on lean tissue.”
What is a typical energy deficit, from your experience?
“The answer would be very relative, it would be more a reflection of deficit percentage and I would say about 20-25%.”
Energy recommendation for an average adult male is about 2000 kcal/day. You can see it on every food label. 20-25% for such a man would mean about 400kcal. The recommended energy deficit for weight loss is 300-500kcal/day range. That implies staying in a catabolic state for extended period of time, which is not conducive to improvements of performance. At the same time energy requirements of athletes are much higher and therefore the deficit of 20-25% can easily lead to rapid muscle loss accompanied by tiredness, headache, lower performance and increased risk of injury.
The point here is that you might be burning much more calories than what you would expect. This hold especially true for those who train hard 5-7 days a week or multiple sessions a day.
Solution is tracking your energy needs, energy intake and monitoring your weight daily to see the changes and possibility for improvement. And while some of us laught when asked about where we get the protein from, if you don’t eat enough calories, you will not get enough protein, which leads to protein being used for energy instead of recovery. This is the reason behind too thin vegans.
Eating for performance – The mindset
Before I get into actual tips and suggestions, the most important thing to address is the mindset behind eating. While we can monitor what we eat, how often we eat or monitor our daily activities, often we forget to pay attention to the cause, which is the thinking process behind our eating habits. Eating starts in your mind. Whether you want to lose weight for optimal performance or gain muscle or maintain, it all begins in your mind.
Eating for performance is not eating for fat loss.
It is no secret that athletes in endurance sports where every kilo or pound matters try to be as lean as possible. Achieving the optimal racing weight is a fine art. You want to be as lean as possible while maintaining the best power output possible. However, after speaking with several athletes especially in the OCR world (which is my sport of choice) I identified one specific mindset that holds them back and prevent them to reach their nutrition and performance goals. I was even more surprised to identify it in myself. It was not a pursue of leannes per se but rather the fear of gaining weight. That was instilled in us for different reasons but the effect was the same. We focused on restrictive dieting in order not to gain weight. This mindset is not conducive to performance. Quite the opposite. If you want to perform, you have to fuel yourself properly. Restrictive mindset doesn’t work here. This is especially true if you are new to vegan diet. The volume of food you might want to enjoy is much larger compared to standard diet and your mind and stomach might prevent you from eating the voume required.
Base your meals on grains, starches or fruits (high calorie meals)
If you love salads as much as I do, you might find yourself overindulging on them and ending up eating just salad before more calorically dense foods come to place. What I figured out was that I needed to switch the order, in which I eat things. Instead of starting with a bowl of salad now I start with legumes and grains. Your foods need to be centered around fruits, starches, grains and supplemented with vegetables not the other way around. Else you will not be able to sustain on a plant-based diet.
Start your day with breakfast
There are many articles stressing the importance of breakfast, especially in relation to weight loss. But what about us, who are not after weight loss? How important is breakfast for us? “Your goal is to eat one-quarter to one-third of your daily calories in the morning. Some acceptable choices are planned leftovers from dinner, a baked potato with cottage cheese, a peanut butter and honey sandwich, a yogurt “sundae” with sliced fruit and sunflower seeds, tomato soup with crackers, or even special holiday foods. Why not enjoy for breakfast such high-calorie treats as leftover birthday cake or Thanksgiving pies? You’re better off eating them during the day and burning off their calories than holding off until evening, when you may succumb to overconsumption in a moment of weakness. The bottom line is that any breakfast is better than no breakfast, a bigger breakfast is preferable to a skimpy breakfast, and a hearty breakfast that includes wholesome foods and protein is best for your health and performance.” (4) I’ve never bean (pun intended) a breakfast person or at least not first thing in the morning. That led me to following IF (Intermittent Fasting) before I started with a regular training. Skipping breakfast and then having a big lunch and dinner worked for me well but as I started burning more, I had to start to eat more. Now I see breakfast as a perfect way how to start my day and fuel my bigger goal – performance. When I skip breakfast, I am not hungry during the day. When I have breakfast, I am getting nutrients and energy for the day right away and it boosts my appetite, which is good! People I’ve been talking with have observed a similar effect. You might want to try to experiment with it yourself. From my perspective, breakfast is important because it helps you reach your energy goals for the day and if you train in the morning, it can serve as perfect pre-workout or post-workout meal. If you skip breakfast for any reason and you find yourself catching up with calories later during the day, it might be beneficial for you to start implementing breakfast into your diet. Bigger meals might be satisfying but also hard to digest and influence the quality of your sleep if eaten in the evening. If it is during the day, you might find yourself bloated or tired. This holds especially true for those of us who choose plant-based lifestyle. As we have to compensate for low-calorie dense foods with volume, we might be sacrificing our energy digesting big meals. You need to find what eating pattern works for you but I found out that splitting my meals into four is what works for me. Eating breakfast not only helps you with weight management (reduced hunger or contrary helps you to increase your daily calories), it also helps you replenish glycogen stores, which can be half-empty after night sleep. This is especially important if you have a hard workout planned for the morning or before competition. I prefer my breakfast to be a post-workout meal that I can enjoy in solitude and relax. (Mindful eating is something you should practice on a daily basis. It has many benefits that go beyond exercise.) Conclusion of this paragraph: Whether you eat before or after exercise will have a certain measurable effect on your progress, especially over the long term and when you have trouble getting all the calories throughout a day. However, whatever you can stick to and whatever works for you better will always be the better options. Having a regular training during which you train with 90% potential will always be better compared to a training during which you push yourself to 110% but can only do that from time to time. If you are more serious athlete who wants to control all the variables, then fueling during the workout might be a good idea. Athletes need to eat mechanically!
Fueling during workouts
Are you fueling yourself during your workouts? Maybe you have not given it a thought, but fueling yourself during the workout can bring great benefits including improving your fitness, prevent injuries or simply help you with supplying energy during a grueling workout. For example I did not fuel myself because I wanted to save my calories for the meals after the workout and then I was always stuffed anyway. On top of that I used to believe in my version of train low compete high, which simply meant fasted training or long runs without any food. Now, having a deeper understanding I see how it was holding me back. While I believe that fasted training or depletion runs have their place, they should not be overused and there are specific applications for them. If you don’t use this type of training correctly, you can set yourself back and even risk injury, which was exactly my case when after one long run I was so destroyed I was recovering for several days. On top of that I managed to damage one of my leg muscles which prevented me from running for the next four weeks. Having said that, you don’t always need to have a pre-workout meal or intake energy during your training. This is more specific for endurance training sessions, intense sessions and training during hot days. To stick with the topic of this article let’s talk about longer training sessions. During sessions extending beyond 60 minutes, you might consider taking some kind of energy. There are two reasons for that. You kick start your recovery during the training session and by taking in carbohydrates you help protect your muscle mass from being catabolised for energy. Shorter, intense workouts benefit from energy in form of fast carbs by providing necessary energy for the workout. When you have energy, you can push yourself harder and achieve better performance. This means stronger stimuli for your body i.e. you get more out of your training session. Maybe you think that you perform better on an empty stomach and there is a merit to it. Some people don’t feel good when training fasted and some when training after ingesting food. “To train at high intensity, you need to start the workout well fueled. If you start with low muscle glycogen, you will be unable to train at your best, and that means you’ll be unable to compete at your best.” (4) If you believe that you perform better fasted, like I did, I encourage you to do a test. Measure and compare your training results during fasted training vs. when in fed state (Not on full stomach!) and you might be surprised that you perform better when fed. In the end, our body performs better when in abundance of energy. If you still want to train on empty stomach like first thing in the morning, keep sessions shorter or very relaxed like a recovery run. Keep in mind that to get the best results from these training sessions, you should eat your post-workout meal or breakfast soon after to replenish your carbohydrate stores and recover. That’s it for today, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask me or if you want some personal attention and you are serious about your performance, leave your email and what I can help you with in the contact form. ~Dan
- Davey GK, Spencer EA, Appleby PN, Allen NE, Knox KH, Key TJ. EPIC-Oxford: lifestyle characteristics and nutrient intakes in a cohort of 33 883 meat-eaters and 31 546 non meat-eaters in the UK. Public Health Nutr. 2003 May;6(3):259-69. • link
- Rizzo NS, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Sabate J, Fraser GE. Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013 Dec;113(12):1610-9. • link
- Clark N, Nancy Clark’s Guidebook Sports Nutrition Fifth Edition, 2014, ISBN-10: 1-4504-5993-5 (print)