Plant-based foods are growing in popularity as more people throw away burgers and chicken every day for vegetarian alternatives. Reducing your meat consumption has wide-ranging potential benefits, from losing weight to feeling energetic. However, a common problem is whether a plant-based diet can provide all of the nutrients you need, especially if you are lifting weights or exercising.
The good news is, yes it absolutely can, but you have to be strategic. Here are the FAQs on what you need to know to build a plant-based diet with enough vigor to promote an active life.
What do you eat plant-based?
A “plant-based diet”
“Vegan diets can also be called plant-based. However, people who sometimes eat meat can also follow plant-based eating habits,” explains Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. Plant-based eating also means enjoying these plants as close as possible to their original shape.
“A plant-based diet emphasizes whole plant-based foods like legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds as the stars of most meals and snacks,” says Jones. “It may contain animal products, but the frequency and serving sizes of animal products are less than most traditional American diets.”
What are good vegetable sources of protein?
Soy, one of the most popular vegetable proteins in the world, is a great option. Soy products like tempeh, tofu, and edamame are simple staples with high protein counts per serving.
Jones says, “Soy is known as the highest quality vegetable protein when it comes to essential amino acid content and bioavailability.”
Despite the widespread myth that soy messes up your hormones, research suggests that isoflavones in soy, on the contrary, may offer a wide variety of health benefits. So grill a few soy burgers or sauté them with vegetables and diced tofu for an easy weekday meal.
Other legumes like beans, lentils, and peas are also high in protein, as are grains like faro, quinoa (technically a seed but acts like a cereal), and bulgur.
Nuts also provide protein. Eat lots of protein-rich nuts like pistachios and peanuts (technically a legume, but acts like a nut). Other nuts like macadamias and pecans are lower in protein, but have many other important nutrients. So don’t count them out.
Can You Get Enough Protein From Plants?
You may wonder how you’re going to live without steak and chicken for muscle repair and regeneration, but you can actually live on vegetable proteins with a little meat if you want. The key is to eat a variety of vegetable proteins every day. While animal proteins provide all of the essential amino acids your body needs for muscle repair and growth, most plant proteins contain some, but not all, of EAAs. (Quinoa, soy, and pistachios are the exception, as they each contain the full range of EAAs.) Adding a mix of whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes to your diet can help you put together all of the EAAs you would get from animal-based ones Swell.
To maximize your EAA intake, Jones suggests prioritizing the grains, legumes, and nuts with the highest protein content. For example, instead of combining lentils with low-protein rice, swap the rice for Faro or Quinoa, both of which are higher in protein. And spread your protein-rich whole wheat bread with peanut or pistachio butter instead of cashew butter, which is less protein than the others.
As you begin to replace animal products in your diet with plant-based alternatives, keep in mind that these foods are sometimes lower in protein than their animal counterparts.
“Foods like jackfruit, almond milk, coconut yogurt, and many vegetarian burgers don’t contain significant amounts of protein,” says Jones.
Be creative with your meal planning. Add hemp and chia seeds to this coconut yogurt to increase protein. Pour muesli with nuts over almond milk. And remember, it’s still okay to eat meat in moderation. So when it’s time to light the grill, an occasional turkey or chicken burger can be a great choice.
Why is leucine important?
All of the essential amino acids are important for health, but the most important one for muscle and strength is the branched chain amino acid leucine. If you eat a variety of plant-based foods but still feel like you are not maximizing your fitness gains on a plant-based diet, you may need more leucine.
“Leucine is the BCAA that acts as an important trigger for muscle protein synthesis after exercise, and it is found in large amounts in tofu, soy milk, adzuki beans, lentils, buckwheat and pumpkin seeds,” says Jones.
You can also increase your leucine with a BCAA supplement. Look for plant-based BCAA products – if it’s not labeled vegan or fermented, it’s likely made from animal sources.
Should You Use Plant-Based Protein Powder?
While it is possible to get all of the protein you need from whole-food plant-based foods, a plant-based protein powder provides extra insurance, especially if you do weight training or bodybuilding and have high protein needs. Using protein powder made from rice, peas, hemp, or soy in a shake and using it in recipes can promote muscle growth and strength, keep you full, and reduce cravings. Mix together vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits for a healthy, nutrient-dense smoothie to speed muscle recovery after a workout.
Do plant foods provide enough calories and carbohydrates?
Herbal diets can help promote a healthy weight as they naturally curb your appetite, but sometimes they work too well.
“When you switch to plant-based foods, you will naturally get more fiber in your diet, which increases the feeling of fullness,” says Jones. “While this is a good thing for most people, and fiber offers many other health benefits, as your body adapts to its new eating habits can lead to premature fullness.”
Also, fruits and vegetables tend to be lower in calories, so your overall caloric intake may get too low without you noticing. You want to make sure that you are still eating enough calories to strengthen and repair your muscles, especially when you are active. The same goes for carbohydrates.
“Be sure to include low-fiber sources of carbohydrates before and during your workout, and don’t fear adding a little extra fruit or even 100 percent juice to ensure adequate caloric intake,” says Jones. Bananas, potatoes, cereal, bread, and rice cakes are good low-fiber options.
“Since carbohydrates are the most efficient source of energy for high-intensity exercise and the central nervous system, and because they are protein sparing, limiting calories and carbohydrates can contribute to muscle loss or at least impair the ability of muscle to optimally repair and grow,” warns Jones.
So, in addition to eating vegetables all day, add the great grains, beans, legumes, and fruits that are high in complex carbohydrates and fiber.
Which supplements should you take while on a herbal diet?
Despite the wealth of vitamins and minerals that plant foods offer, it is difficult to get some nutrients from plants. If you’re cutting out animal products entirely, Jones recommends taking a vegan vitamin B12 supplement, as animal products are the main food sources for this essential vitamin.
It is also a good idea to supplement with a vegan vitamin D3 as it is difficult to produce the active form of vitamin D in the body beyond exposure to sunlight. Not only is vitamin D important for bone health and antioxidant strength, but also for the role it plays in fast-twitch muscle fiber responses, which are extremely important in weight training and athletics.
For women, iron supplements can be helpful when switching to a plant-based diet. However, it is possible to get the iron you need from plant foods like green vegetables, especially when combined with other foods.
“Vitamin C improves the plants’ iron absorption, so try to include a source of vitamin C in most meals and snacks,” says Jones. “Think citrus fruits, kiwi, peppers, potatoes, spinach, and broccoli.”
However, if you have symptoms of iron deficiency anemia even though you are high in iron and vitamin C, you should consult a dietitian.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also hard to come by from plants. If you occasionally include animal-based foods in your plant-based diet, ingesting fish oil or consuming fish may provide the omega-3 fats you need. Otherwise, consider an omega-3 supplement made from algae.
- Rizzo, G. & Baroni, L. (2018). Soy, soy and their role in the vegetarian diet. Nutrients, 10(1), 43.
- Breen, L. & Churchward-Venne, TA (2012). Leucine: a nutrient trigger for muscle anabolism, but what else? The Journal of Physiology, 590(Pt 9), 2065.