WHAT IS A PLANT BASED DIET?
Honestly, there isn’t an exact definition of what “plant-based” means. It could mean vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or something completely different! Some people might use the term simply to imply that they eat more plant foods in relation to animal foods, while others imply they only eat plant-foods. At the end of the day, the term likely focuses on a diet that has a foundation of plant-based foods in it.
At Rise Up Nutrition, we don't believe there is "one right way to eat." So it is perfectly fine to explore your version of plant-based dietary intake. In fact, there may even be some benefits to consider eating more plant-based foods. Plant foods are often high in anti-inflammatory & antioxidant compounds which are helpful for recovery from workouts or injury. Plant-based foods may also have long-term health benefits including anti-cancer properties! Plant foods also have more fiber than animal products which may be helpful fo
r gut health, heart health, and prevention of colon and rectal cancers. Many fruits and vegetables have 96-99% water content, meaning plant-based foods may even be helpful in hydrating athletes through their food consumption!
CAN ATHLETES GET ENOUGH PROTEIN ON PLANT-BASED DIETS?
Adequate protein intake can absolutely be achieved on a plant-based diet however there are some differences or challenges to consider.
In general, bite for bite or ounce for ounce, plant-based proteins contain less overall protein than animal based proteins. For example, 3 ounces or about ½ cup of chicken breast contains approximately 20g of protein which would require nearly 16 ounces or 2 ½ cups of quinoa for a similar 20g. This means that athletes may need to consume a larger volume of food in order to reach an equivalent protein amount. In certain instances this may be okay; but for the female athlete that gets full quickly or doesn't have time to eat, more protein dense animal-based products may be preferred.
Further, bioavailability and digestibility of plant-based protein is lower than other animal foods. Proteins including soy and pea are well absorbed at 80-90%, very similar to animal proteins. However beans and lentils are slightly less bioavailable at 70-80%, and foods like sunflower seeds, peanuts, whole grains, and rice may be between just 50-75%. For these reasons, vegans are recommended to increase protein intake by about 10% more than their hypothetical non-vegan counterpart. Some plant-based female athletes may choose to focus on plant foods but still include eggs and dairy such as cheese or milk into their diet, in which case, this 10% increase is not needed as eggs and dairy are highly bioavailable proteins.
PLANT-BASED PROTEINS WITH HIGH QUALITY AMINO ACIDS
Further the quality of protein varies between animal and plant-based proteins. Protein is comprised of various amino acids which form the structural basis of the body's skeletal tissue, hormones, tendons, enzymes, red blood cells, and immune cells. Out of all the 20 different amino acids, 9 are essential -- we must consume these essential amino acids (EAAs) from our food. Animal based protein contain all essential amino acids whereas plant-based foods are usually low or lacking in some of these amino acids. This means that female athletes consuming a plant-based diet may need to prioritize a variety of protein sources to ensure they get all amino acids throughout the day. In some instances, such as post-workout or during times of recovery, key amino acids such as leucine may need to be prioritized and unfortunately leucine is not inherently in plant-based proteins.
Plant-proteins that do have essential amino acids include:
Edamame & /soy beans
Soy milk & soy yogurt
Hemp seeds & hemp milk
Fueling suggestions to boost high quality protein into your plant-based diet include:
Use soy milk as your liquid in a smoothie, adding in oats, peanut butter, and chickpeas
Top a salad with hemp hearts and shelled edamame
Sprinkle pasta with nutritional yeast upon serving
Use buckwheat flour to make pancakes
Blend chickpeas and tahini for hummus
Mix rice & black beans into a burrito or lentils & kidney beans into a soup
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS FOR PLANT-BASED FEMALE ATHLETES
When we think about the female athlete, total protein intake and protein quality is certainly important for performance, recovery, muscle, bone and more. However, keep in mind one of the most important things for female athletes to do nutrition-wise is to ensure adequate overall energy and carbohydrate intake.
Inadequate energy and carbohydrate could utilize your protein ineffectively. When carbohydrate intake is low, amino acids are converted to glucose in order to maintain blood sugar or provide a source of energy to working muscles. Not only is this less effective for optimal performance, but it means protein isn’t being used for protein functions -- such as building bone & recovering muscle -- instead it is being used as an energy source. Consuming adequate carbohydrate and energy first and foremost would avoid this problem so that the protein consumed actually helps build and repair your body! So plant-based or not, prioritize total energy and carbohydrate intake and then optimize protein intake and quality.
If considering a plant-based diet, the great news is that plant-based proteins often have more carbohydrates than animal proteins. Back to the example of comparing chicken to quinoa: Chicken provides 0g carbohydrate while just 1 cup of quinoa provides an energizing 39g of carbohydrate! Other great carbohydrate and plant-based protein sources include black beans, lentils, chickpeas, bread, oats, bagels, plant-based milk, quinoa, and more. There is a good chance that you can increase your carbohydrates by focusing on some plant-based proteins in your diet!
However female athletes should also be mindful that many plant-based proteins can be high in fiber. Too much fiber may limit overall carbohydrate intake or cause unnecessary digestion issues such as bloating or gas which may be undesirable in athletics!