When Matt Frazier, creator of the No Meat Athlete blog and author of The No Meat Athlete Cookbook, first went vegetarian in 2009, it was for ethical reasons and not performance-based ones. But after missing his goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon by just 10 minutes, he turned his focus to nutrition.
“Before I made the shift, I had a few staple meals, like chicken and brown rice. Once I started going to farmers’ markets to find new and interesting foods, I found that there were a ton of nutrients that I had totally ignored before,” Frazier says.
While health nuts have long touted the benefits of going vegan (a healthier gut and leaner muscle mass to name a few), many athletes still hesitate to make the switch. Foods like beef, fish and milk are high sources of muscle-building protein, after all. But as Frazier found, it is possible to give up animal products and still train at a high level.
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Within weeks, Frazier saw improvements in his training and ended up qualifying for the Boston Marathon just six months later. Frazier also notes that since first going vegetarian in 2009 and then vegan two years later, running injuries essentially became a non-issue for him.
“I was able to recover from hard workouts faster because of the anti-inflammatory benefits from many vegetables and grains,” Frazier says. Still, it’s important to note that there isn’t scientific evidence that shows that a following a vegan diet can improve or hinder athletic performance. As long as athletes are smart about meeting their nutrition needs, going vegan is completely safe, and it may help you feel better, too. Here are some facts to consider before jumping in with both feet.
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4 Strategies to Make Going Vegan Easier for Athletes
1. Snack Smart
Aside from eliminating animal products from your diet, going vegan also means limiting processed foods. When you’re filling up on vegetables, fruits, nuts and beans, you’re going to have less room for potato chips and cookies. But you want to avoid fitting all of your calorie and nutrient needs into three meals, Starla Garcia, M.Ed, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian in Houston, Texas, says.
“Plant-based athletes may need to eat more than three times per day to meet their calorie and protein needs,” she says. “Plan ahead for three meals and two to three snacks that all include a source of plant-based protein to help you stay satisfied and full in between your meals as well.”
Frazier also recommends preparing healthy snacks that are both nutrient- and calorie-dense. “Some great options include foods that are high in protein and healthy fats like nuts, avocado and nut butters or hummus with a whole-grain bagel or pita,” he says.
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2. Prepare for Social Situations
You can have a social life once you go vegan or plant-based, even if your friends don’t follow suit, Frazier says. It might mean suggesting a restaurant, looking up the menu ahead of time to see what healthy vegan dishes are available, or eating dinner before meeting your friends. “Once you go vegan, it’s not going to be as easy as popping by a nearby McDonald’s to get some quick calories in,” Frazier says.
In fact, you’ll find that some of the unhealthiest dishes on a menu are vegan. From French fries to onion rings, ordering greasy dishes for the sake of sticking to a vegan diet doesn’t make things better. In addition to researching menus, Frazier likes to pack nutritious snacks that he can munch on to avoid temptations. This way, you can spend time with your friends and have something to eat, too.
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3. Focus on Getting Key Nutrients
Although many vegetables and grains are packed with nutrients that are universally essential, athletes especially want to focus on B12 vitamins (which are most commonly found in animal products), D3 vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. For B12, excellent vegan sources include nutritional yeast, seaweed, blue green algae, chlorella and spirulina. For D3, seek out mushrooms, tofu and fortified soy and almond milk. Omega-3s are also fairly easy to come by in walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds, Garcia says. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, try microalgae oils, which can be found at vitamin shops.
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4. Team Up with a Nutritionist
As you transition to a vegan diet, identifying your nutrient needs won’t be as simple as white and black. Garcia recommends working with a registered dietitian to come up with a game plan. She also advises getting yearly or bi-annual lab work done to ensure you aren’t experiencing low levels of certain vitamins and minerals during intense training periods. “It would be a shame to end up with a fracture because you aren’t getting enough calcium, or become anemic simply from a lack of B12 or iron during your marathon training season,” she says.
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Should You Go Vegan?
Transitioning to a vegan lifestyle takes some preparation and planning, but it can be done. Taking a more active approach to your nutrition can help you successfully make the shift. And if you can’t quit meat and dairy cold turkey, not all is lost. Start small by eating one vegan meal a day and replacing cow’s milk with almond milk. Eventually, you won’t miss the cheese and might feel more ready to make the leap.
Frazier says to talk to other athletes who have made the lifestyle change to see what worked for them and what didn’t. “Becoming a vegan doesn’t need to be a scary, all-or-nothing commitment,” Frazier says. “It’s OK to start with ‘micro-commitments’ in the beginning before fully committing to this lifestyle if you’re unsure as to whether it will work for you and your goals.”
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