Plant-based diets have never been more popular. And with good reason. A mounting body of research shows that consuming a wide variety of fruits and vegetables—rich in fiber, minerals and nutrients— helps ward off a host of chronic illnesses, from Type 2 Diabetes to stroke, heart disease, and hypertension, because they are rich in fiber, nutrients, and minerals. At the same time, health authorities like the American Heart Association recommend that people limit their intake of saturated fats (like the kinds in animal products) and replace them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and to reduce intake of sodium to lower blood pressure.
From the successes of ultrarunning champions like Scott Jurek, and scores of other plant-based runners, we know that it’s possible to log a top-tier performance without eating meat.
“A plant-based diet can be just as healthy as any other diet,” says Alexa McDonald, MS, RDN, RYT, a Hoboken-based PrivatePractice Dietitian and Yoga Instructor. That said, it can take a little extra planning, she adds. .”When not done right, this diet can lack fuel, essential vitamins and mineral, and leave your ravenous until your next meal or snack.”
Whether you’re ditching meat for long-term health concerns, you’re watching your weight, and you’re concerned about animal welfare, here’s what you need to know about adopting a plant-based diet to fit your running life:
If you are completely eliminating meat from your diet, you don’t necessarily need more protein than meat-eating runners. You can get the protein you need from a variety of soy products, beans, nuts, and whole grains. But certain nutrients will be harder to get —including omega- 3 fatty acids, Vitamin B12, zinc, and iron. If you are consuming a diet rich in whole grains, fortified foods, and protein, you won’t fall short.
Protein is critical to staying healthy, getting stronger, and staving off weight gain. It helps repair torn muscle tissue, and helps you feel fuller for longer. Those who aren’t eating meat don’t need more protein than others, but if you’re taking animal products off the menu, you may have to make extra efforts to meet your daily protein intake. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that “intense or prolonged exercise increases protein needs because protein repairs small muscle tears that happen during exercise.” The group recommends that athletes consume 1.2 to 1.7 g per kilogram of body weight per day. So an athlete who weighs 75 kg (or 165 pounds) should consume 90 to 127.5 grams of protein per day. Try to take in protein at each meal and snack. Swap in beans for potatoes as a side dish. Add tofu to your tacos. Foods like corn, Avocado, broccoli, spinach, wild rice, steel-cut oats, nuts, seeds, all are sources of protein and plenty of other nutrients.
Nutritionists, doctors, and other health professionals used to worry that you had to eat certain plant-based proteins —like beans and rice—together in the same meal in order to round out your intake for essential amino acids. “However, now we know better,” she says. “Both variety and calories are most important when it comes to protein intake and amino acids, no matter what the source.”
“Just because a food is meatless and plant-based doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” says McDonald. After all, French Fries, Fried Chicken-less Nuggets, and Veggie hot dogs may be meatless, but that doesn’t mean they belong in your cart. In recent years, foodmakers have rushed to add protein to everything from cereal to candy bars, in part buoyed by the popularity of low-carb diets. But many protein-enriched foods have artificial additives, calories, sugar, fat and sodium to make the product taste good. So it’s critical to comparison-shop and carefully inspect the nutrition facts panel. When shopping for packaged foods, pick products that are labeled as being high, rich in, or excellent sources of protein. The FDA requires products that carry those claims to contain 20 percent or more of the recommended daily Daily Value of protein. And when searching for more heart-healthy forms of meat and seafood, look for cuts that have been labeled “lean”—which means it contains less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams.
While refined carbs should be consumed in moderation, there’s no need to go carb-free, says McDonald. In fact doing so, you could impact your fueling. Carbs are the body’s most efficient form of fuel, so it’s important to have them in your diet to fuel up strong workouts. “Wholesome whole grains should be a diet staple, especially when meat-based protein sources are being eliminated from the diet,” says McDonald. A cup of quinoa, brown rice, or farro can have as much as 8 grams of protein and essential B vitamins.
Vitamin D, Vitamin B, Calcium, and Iron should be top priorities for meat-free athletes, according to the The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Most of these nutrients are easy to get as long as you include a variety of food groups and colors, says McDonald. If you’re concerned about whether you’re meeting your daily targets, consult a Registered Dietitian. Always get nutrients from food first, but if you’re running into trouble hitting your daily targets, a multivitamin or supplement might be worth consideration.
Vitamin D Essential to for healthy bones and robust immunity, meat-free athletes should get plenty of Vitamin D, especially those who are not exposed to the sunshine-.
Vitamin B Legumes and whole- or enriched-grain products can help you get adequate doses of vitamin B. If you’re avoiding animal products entirely, you might consider taking a B12 supplement or having foods that are fortified with B12, like soy or rice milk, and cereal.
Antioxidants These disease-fighting compounds, like vitamins C, E, and betacarotene, reduce damage to the body tissues and help you enhance recovery post workouts. Foods like whole-grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds provide these compounds.
Iron Iron carries oxygen in the blood, and if you’re iron deficient, you may suffer from fatigue that could drag down your performance. Look for iron-rich foods like legumes, dark, green vegetables, prunes, whole grains, nuts, and enriched breads. But because the body doesn’t absorb plant-based sources of iron as well as iron from meat, pair your iron-rich foods with Vitamin C, such as tomatoes, citrus fruits and peppers, says McDonald.
Calcium Calcium builds healthy bone and muscles. Fortified soy or rice milk, calcium-set tofu, fortified fruit juice, collards, broccoli, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, milk, cheese, yogurt, dried figs, and blackstrap molasses are good calcium sources that are easy to pack into an active lifestyle.
About Jen Van Allen
Jen has spent the past six years working as Special Projects Editor for Runner's World magazine, and writing stories for the magazine. She also has a book, The Runner's World Training Journal for Beginners (Rodale Books, April 2014), and contributes stories to The Portland Press Herald.