Fueling for workouts solely through plant-based power is very feasible but requires more detailed planning. Eating a balanced plant-based diet is key to achieving optimal results of exercise.
Through strategic planning and preparation, a plant-based athlete meal plan can flourish! This article is a guide to powering a plant-based workout, including vegan pre-workout food ideas and post-workout recovery.
Like it sounds, plant-based eating refers to eating a diet that consists of only plant matter and minimal to no animal products. And like other dietary patterns, it falls along a continuum. Meaning, many different variations exist.
For example, some plant based eaters consume absolutely no animal products, including honey, while others self-claimed herbivores include eggs and dairy products. The exact label and parameters of each specific plant-based title such as lacto-ovo vegetarian versus vegan matter little.
Rather, focus on the quality and nutrient density of the foods within any plant based eating pattern to ensure workouts are fueled properly- before and after!
New to the plant-based power? No worries. Here are the main food groups of focus on this plan:
- Whole grains
- Beans and Legumes
- Nuts and Seeds
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Soy-based proteins (Tofu, Tempeh, Seitan)
- Healthy fats (unrefined plant oils, avocado, ghee, vegan substitutes)
Conversely, here are food groups typically limited or avoided:
- Meat (Poultry, Beef, Pork, Turkey, Lamb, Bison, Elk, etc.)
- Fish and Seafood
- Animal based broths and stocks (Beef, Chicken, Turkey)
- Dairy products (Milk, Butter, Cheese, Yogurt, etc.)
- Honey and gelatin
- Animal based ingredients (whey, casein, lactose, egg whites, fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids
Health Claims of Plant-Based Eating
Plant-based eating is associated with various health claims, weight loss, blood sugar control, amongst the many. Less research has studied the effects of plant-based eating and exercise performance, though theoretical underpinnings may explain how and why it appears helpful.
One study found consuming a plant-based diet can result in improvements in C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, fibrinogen and leukocyte concentrations. Basically, these anti-inflammatory improvements may lead to better cell function, which can then translate into better endurance exercise performance.
Furthermore, several short-term studies detected no difference in exercise performance parameters based on the presence or absence of animal food products. This is noteworthy because many critics of plant based eating claim herbivorism is nutritionally deficient, which may hinder athletic performance of any kind. Thus, it is plausible that a carefully planned plant-based eating pattern can be consumed without detriment towards exercise performance.
Pre-workout meals refer to the food consumed before a workout. While some people prefer exercising on an empty stomach, eating beforehand can optimally fuel a workout session.
However, certain foods fare better than others in this window of time. As is the case with any style of eating, the pre-workout meal should focus on quick digesting carbohydrates and potentially small amounts of protein and be low in fiber and fat.
Since many plant carbohydrate sources are high in fiber, it is especially important to plan accordingly. For example, sprouted whole wheat breads, oats, beans and legumes (popular plant based carbs) are pretty high in fiber, which slows digestion. While helpful for weight management and blood sugar balance, the sources are nonoptimal right before a workout when muscles need quick, usable boosts of energy.
Thus, proper pre-workout plant-based foods/meals/snacks include:
- Cereals and other low fiber grains
- Lower-fiber fruits like bananas, melons, peaches, and fruits with their skins removed
- Figs and dates
- Date-based granola bars
- Sweet and white potatoes without skin
Before strength based workouts void of cardio, adding in some protein can spur muscle growth and kickstart recovery. Tofu, seitan, and tempeh are the lowest fiber protein sources and can safely be eaten before a workout more than sources like beans and legumes. If eating protein in the pre workout meal or snack, aim to finish 1 to 3 hours before the workout when able.
Importance of Protein
Although carbohydrates fuel workouts, protein is equally important in terms of muscle growth and repair. There is a misconception that plant based eating is deficient in protein and essential amino acids. This is certainly possible without careful planning, but protein deficiency is not inevitable.
Typical protein recommendations are anywhere from 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily (g/kg/day). However, the Institute of Medicine concluded that evidence for increased requirements of protein for athletes was not compelling enough.
Instead, the RDA of 0.8g/kg/day seems appropriate for healthy strength and endurance based athletes (1). With this in mind, focusing on the following high protein plant based foods is smart:
- Tofu, tempeh, seitan
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts, nut butters and seeds
- Spirulina, chlorella, and nutritional yeast
- Quinoa, spelt, amaranth, and teff
Other Nutrients of Concern
A mostly whole food plant based diet can sufficiently supply all necessary macro and micronutrients. It just requires more careful planning and potentially prevention through supplementation!
Certain nutrients are more concentrated or bioavailable (better absorbed by the body) in animal products. Thus, the most common nutrients of concern within a plant-based eating pattern include vitamins B12 and D, iron, iodine, calcium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Plant-based eaters can avoid these nutrient deficiencies by:
- Eating plenty of foods enriched with B12
- Vitamin D and calcium
- Increasing fermented and sprouted foods
- Using cast iron skillets and eating vitamin C along with iron
- Adding seaweed and iodized salt
- Consuming many foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like chia, hemp, and flax seeds, walnuts, and soybeans
Moreover, it can be tremendously helpful to work alongside a Registered Dietitian. Their expertise can help determine if additional supplementation is necessary to ensure dietary adequacy.
Last but not least, the post workout meal is arguably the most important in terms of exercise progress and workout results. This meal directly contributes to how well the muscle mass can grow and repair, which is essential for muscle building and subsequent progressive workouts.
While protein reigns the supreme macronutrient for optimal recovery from exercise, carbs are also needed to replenish muscle stores of glycogen. (And gone are the days of believing slugging down a protein shake is the only route for max results!)
Luckily, plant based protein sources tend to also include carbohydrates. Think beans, lentils, edamame, and soy. Some hearty plant based snacks and meals high in protein and useable carbohydrates include:
- Breakfast sandwich with tofu, spinach, and tomato
- Quinoa salad with plenty of vegetables and peanut dressing
- Lentils and roasted veggies with rice
- Oats with fruit, fortified plant milk, chia seeds, and a plant based protein powder
- Edamame pasta with steamed veggies and a side salad
- Banana flaxseed muffins + ghee
- Vegan chili + naan bread
- Toast + fruit + plant fortified yogurt
- Tempeh or seitan stir-fry with brown rice
- Scrambled tofu wraps
- Chickpea cookies + plant fortified milk
The Bottom Line
Through careful planning and moderating, fueling workouts through plant-based eating can absolutely shine and lead to desirable results. Not only in terms of exercise performance, but also in terms of general health.
Focusing on low-fiber carbs before workouts and refueling with high-protein and wholesome carbohydrates after exercise will set any athlete up for success.
Barr SI, Rideout CA. Nutritional considerations for vegetarian athletes. Nutrition. 2004;20(7-8):696-703.
Fuhrman J, Ferreri DM. Fueling the vegetarian (vegan) athlete. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010;9(4):233-241.
Petre A, MS, (nl) RD. The vegan diet — A complete guide for beginners. Healthline.com. Published November 1, 2016. http://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegan-diet-guide.