Like me, you’ve probably noticed that suddenly, everyone seems to be into “fitness”. Friends who used to fake periods to get out of PE class are running half marathons and colleagues are skipping out on after work happy hour to hit the gym.
You’ve probably also noticed that the number of vegetarians and vegan you know has skyrocketed. This means that the Venn diagram of people who are now eating a plant-based diet and working out more has also increased, and quite possibly includes you. You might have not eaten meat in a decade and recently taken up a new exercise regime, or perhaps you’ve always been a dedicated athlete but are looking to reduce your meat consumption. So how do you do both, and how do you do it safely?
When I first became vegetarian as a teenager, the vegetarian aisle in the supermarket was limited to lentils and Linda McCartney sausages and the options for eating out were almost exclusively chips and a side salad. Like many vegetarians, I lived on pasta, cheese, and jacket potatoes, which was not good for either my waistline or my overall health. The biggest impact was on my sporting ability, in which I seemed to never be improved, no matter how much I practiced. Within a few years, I became so demotivated that I quit completely. It wasn’t until I began triathlon training that I realised a good diet was just as important to performance as training, something that will seem like common sense but is sometimes much harder to achieve.
The Protein Problem
One of the biggest questions for very active vegetarians is how to get enough protein. Protein is vital for repairing and building muscles. Exercising breaks down the muscles to provide energy for your activity, so the more intense your exercise, the more protein you need. Animal sources generally provide a greater amount of protein per gram than plant sources. However, meat-free alternatives have become increasingly available, and more interesting, which means you don’t have to leap for the protein shakes. Seitan, tofu and tempeh are fantastic and versatile sources of protein that can be purchased in many different forms and can slot easily into that meat-shaped hole we often find in a meal. Beans and legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas, are also great choices, as are grains, seeds, eggs and dairy products (or vegan alternatives).
Food For Fuel
While protein is vital, so is a sufficient supply of carbohydrates as these get broken down into sugars, which are used for immediate fuel, or stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, making them available for use in future activity. Complex carbohydrates provide the most nutrients, so opt for rice, whole grains, sweet potatoes, squash, leafy green vegetables instead of white breads and pastas. Additionally, don’t fear fats. Healthy fats, such as avocado, olive oil, and nut butters provide energy, can help slow the onset of fatigue, as well as helping our bodies absorb nutrients and repair cells. Fortunately, these are staples in many vegetarian diets, so recipes with these ingredients can be found easily on the internet.
Go For Greens
Finally, a healthy diet for anyone should be full of fruits and vegetables, and this is even more important for someone looking to participate in regular exercise. They contain a range of vitamins and minerals that are essential to maintain bodily functions, including digestion, hydration and the immune system. They also provide antioxidants to protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals, which increase with intense physical activity.
Keep It Personal
It should be kept in mind, that our personal requirements are just that, personal, and they should be calculated based on your own height, weight, age, gender and physical activity levels. However, as a rough guide, it is recommended that 20-25% of our daily calories should come from fats, and 3-10 g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight increasing with activity level, and 1-1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight depending on goals and type of activity. Online calculators can help you personalise these numbers, as what my body needs will vary greatly from what you need. And it should not be forgotten that personal taste should also be considered when preparing food.
Healthy food can absolutely be delicious and prepared to your own preferences. You do not have to suck it up and live off beans and salad if that doesn’t appeal to you. So many people are innovating and creating new, exciting recipes, and as the number of people into fitness and plant-based diets grows, as will the quality and variety of options available, making it easier than ever for us to a healthy, active, meat-free lifestyle.
About The Author
Kim Graves is a Nutrition Advisor, writer, and editor. Having spent a decade working in publishing, Kim is using those skills to share her love of food and wellness.
Kim is also a keen triathlete and weightlifter and wannabe yogi, constantly finding new physical activities to try. You can follow her personal attempts to mother a crazy toddler and adorable kitten and sometimes read a book or two on Instagram at @kim_grs, or find some recipe inspiration and ask nutrition questions over at @thefitchen.