As I started to eat more nutritious food and changed my diet to eat more “clean”, I realized that I have unconsciously eliminated meat and other animal products out of my diet and become more plant-based. Before I made the switch, I didn’t eat a lot of meat in general. As I’ve made the transition, I’ve been discovering alternative meat sources and other plant sources of protein that are quite delicious. However, I wouldn’t say I am 100% plant-based. This isn’t an argumentative essay to convince you to become a vegetarian nor am I shunning other diets. You can certainly have a healthy lifestyle with meat protein. The reason I am writing this is to help others who are interested in becoming more plant-based and help them learn from my mistakes and the advice of a registered sports dietitian.
- Caloric intake is key: As runners, we need a lot of calories. Eating a plant-based diet can be challenging to get all the calories we need, especially if you just eat three meals a day. During the Cross Country season, I ended up not eating enough to sustain my body because I was unaware. My dietitian introduced me to the concept of energy availability or energy consumed – energy expended. Without enough calories, my body became weak and didn’t have enough fuel to continue with a lot of necessary processes and power through those weekly 5k’s. Those extra calories help muscles recover and refuel so that the next day your run feels amazing consistently. As I continue being plant-based, I have made sure to add lots of snacks in the day to get in those necessary calories and prevent crashing.
- What about Iron?: Especially for female runners, iron is essential to menstrual cycle and it is one of the vitamins we lack from excessive running. Usually the most common form of iron in food comes from meat. However, there are other foods to turn to such as pumpkin seeds and tempeh. Obviously these foods don’t contain as much iron as meat, so if you feel any symptoms of iron deficiency or have recently cut meat out of your diet, make sure to consult with your doctor to see if you might need iron supplements. I have had to supplement with iron since my Sophomore year, and it makes a huge difference in my running if I am lacking.
- How do I get protein without meat? There are many sources of plant-based protein from tofu to peas. I also learned to look at the protein grams in all of the food I eat because some tofu’s and other foods have higher amounts of protein. My dietitian recommended adding pea protein powder to my daily oatmeal to sustain my breakfast for longer. It might sound gross, but it really makes a difference and you can’t taste it. You can put this protein powder in anything from pancakes to acai bowls, and it is only $12 at Trader Joes for 20 servings (I use the unsweetened). Other sources of protein that I like are Beyond Meat products which have the same texture as meat. I know that also sounds gross, but it works in dishes that usually contain meat as the front runner. In sandwiches I like to substitute with Tofurky slices. Beans, chia seeds and quinoa also add good protein to my day.
- Almond Milk vs. Soy Milk?: I know almond milk tastes good, but I learned from my dietitian, that it really offers no nutritional benefit. Soy milk is so much better when it comes to its nutritional content and how closely it mimics regular milk with its protein, calcium, and caloric amount. Pro tip: Drink a glass of chocolate soy milk immediately after your run to replenish glycogen stores in your muscles and help you recover faster. Chocolate and vanilla soy milk honestly tastes so good. Way better than straight-up almond milk. I still enjoy almond milk with my chai tea lattes.
- What the heck it tempeh? It is a fermented tofu, so it is a lot healthier than regular tofu and contains a lot of probiotics (which is good for your gut!). The taste does take some getting used to since it is fermented, but it tastes pretty similar to sausage so I like to put it on my pizza.
I hope that answered some questions and was helpful for those of you looking to become more plant-based (wow how many times can I say “plant-based” during this?) because I have definitely noticed a difference in the way I feel and perform. It feels a lot cleaner and I find that I have more energy. Plus it clears up your skin and has many other nutritional benefits! I never expected to eliminate animal-products from my diet, but I think over the past couple of years as I have changed the way I eat and focused on nutritious foods it kind of just comes along with it. I learn that I can get protein from other creative sources without damaging my body. For those of you who are convinced, my only warning is to be smart when you switch to being plant-based. Often too many people will forget to supplement with vitamins, or end up eating too little, resulting in a tired body and an inefficient runner. My biggest pet peeve is those who become vegan and vegetarian but don’t keep up with a healthy, balanced diet. Consulting a dietitian was the best decision I have ever made and they can certainly help match your food intake with your active lifestyle. And last, but not least, make sure to still have fun. Eating better should be fun, and not a burden!