Three Nutrition Tips for Plant-Based Athletes

March 10, 2020 | Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD

Plant-based eating is on the rise, with no signs of slowing down. According to Google Trends data, plant-based diet searches have more than quadrupled over the past three years. And Nielsen, the consumer research group, finds that 39% of Americans are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods. 

The number of athletes going plant-based is increasing too, and for good reason. A properly planned and well balanced plant-based diet can adequately meet an athlete’s nutrient needs, and simultaneously optimize mental and physical performance, reduce inflammation, boost blood flow, enhance recovery, and strengthen immunity. 

As a sports dietitian, I’ve worked with professional and competitive athletes in numerous sports, and the marriage of plant-based eating and performance nutrition is one of my specialties. Here are three key strategies I share with my active clients about how to maximize the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. 

Focus on food quality

Eating clean optimizes your intake of vital nutrients and health protective compounds, and curbs your exposure to chemicals that can stress your immune system, fuel inflammation, and interfere with exercise recovery. Make whole plant-based foods the foundation of your eating plan, supplemented with minimally processed products made with simple, recognizable ingredients. 

Aim for variety

Eating a variety of foods exposes your body to a broader spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants. It also helps your cells better utilize plant protein. Every plant food contains all nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein; but some are low or limited in certain amino acids. Diversifying your diet allows you to consume a wider range of amino acids, which get stored in your liver over the course of a day. Research shows that if enough total calories and protein are consumed from a healthful, varied diet, the amino acids come together to heal, repair, and maintain protein tissues in the body, which include muscle, joints, and immune cells. To expand your nutrient and amino acid intake, mix it up. Build lots of colorful veggies into your meals, in addition to whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, beans, lentils, peas, herbs, and spices.  

Eat protein strategically 

Athletes have higher protein requirements than inactive people. Depending on the sport or training program, an athlete’s protein needs range from 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kg of body weight. Many of the athletes I work with aim for 1.6 grams per kg. For a 150 pound adult (68 kg), that’s about 110 grams of protein per day. Studies show that protein is better utilized when it’s evenly distributed between four daily meals. To hit the target, zero in on the protein content of various plant based foods. For example, you can reach a goal of 25-30 grams of protein per meal by eating a salad topped with a cup of lentils (16 grams), a half cup of cooked quinoa (4 grams), and a quarter cup of sprouted pumpkin seeds (9 grams). Concentrated protein sources, like plant protein powder and Longeve crumbles, which easily provide 20+ grams of protein per serving, can also help an athlete readily meet his or her daily protein demands. 

The benefits of plant-based eating are abundant. When done right, a plant-based diet has been shown to prevent obesity, reduce chronic disease risk, and even improve mental health and happiness, in addition to positively impacting the planet. Plant based eating is the future, and the future is now! 

Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and plant based performance nutritionist in private practice in Los Angeles. Sass has consulted for five professional sports teams, and has privately counseled Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy winners, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and pro athletes in numerous sports. Connect with her on Instagram @cyn_sass.

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