Can Runners Thrive on a Plant-Based Diet

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Thanks to everyone who joined me Thursday evening to answer the question: Can runners thrive on a plant-based diet?

No doubt you’ve seen fitness influencers posting their impossibly lean bodies posed with green smoothies, espousing the benefits of going vegan. And you've likely read about or seen documentaries on how athletes are trying out this way of eating with amazing results.

But can a runner like you or me really thrive on a plant-based diet?

Maybe.

Let’s back up for a minute for some definitions: A vegan diet is one that eschews all animal products: No red meat, poultry or seafood; no dairy, eggs, gelatin or honey. (These choices also extend to a vegan’s lifestyle, where they avoid animal-derived products like wool, leather and more.) A vegetarian diet excludes all animal flesh, but depending on the individual, may have more flexibility to include animal derived products, like dairy or honey.

From an ethical standpoint, a vegan diet is a compassionate choice, and there are tremendous environmental benefits to eliminating or even reducing meat consumption.

But here’s the kicker: Other than the exclusion of animal products, there are no other parameters around this way of eating, so being vegan is not synonymous with being healthy. In fact, there is a ginormous range of heavily marketed vegan junk food, from cookie dough to highly sweetened yogurt alternatives, to boxed mac and cheese. Active people adopting a vegan diet need to do diligent research to make sure their diet adequately meets their needs, not just as a runner but as a human. Additionally, if one chooses this diet without a supportive network of family or friends, it can be socially isolating.

Following are the five most common questions I hear from veg-curious runners:

WILL GOING VEGAN MAKE ME A BETTER RUNNER?

Eschewing animal products does not guarantee you’ll be a faster runner, better fueled, or faster recovery. ALL runners benefit from eating a health-promoting diet like the model from the Harvard School of Public Health, which is adaptable to omnivores, vegetarians or vegans:

  • Half of a nutritious diet is made up of non-starchy vegetables and some whole fruit
  • A quarter of the diet is healthful proteins
  • A quarter is whole grains and/or starchy vegetables.

If your way of eating falls way outside these parameters, whether you're a vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, your body may not be getting the nutrients it needs.


DO VEGAN ATHLETES RECOVER FASTER?

Principles of healthful fueling apply to plant-based athletes, too: Vegetables, whole fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains + legumes are vital to a healthy body, as is eliminating inflammatory foods, including many animal products, fried food + sugary junk. Fueling well before and after workouts is also key for speedy recovery. More on that what and when to eat before, during and after workouts HERE.


WILL I NEED TO SUPPLEMENT?

Some vital nutrients do not occur naturally in significant amounts in a whole food, plant-based diet. They must be consumed via fortified foods, in supplement form, or very deliberately eaten as whole foods:

B12 is required for healthy blood and nerve cells, as well as production of DNA, and it’s the one non-negotiable supplement vegans must take. B12 deficiency accumulates over years and can be devastating to the body. To achieve the recommended 2.4mcg/day, supplements are the most convenient option. There are some fortified foods, like nutritional yeast, some cereals + plant milks, but this route is tougher.

Iodide regulates thyroid and supports metabolism and is found in eggs, fish, dairy and sea vegetables in small amounts. ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt contains nearly half the recommended daily value.

Omega 3 fatty acids DHA + EPA are vital in managing inflammation, and necessary for brain + heart health. They’re found in cold water fish (the fish get them from algae). Omega 3 fats as ALA are in flax, hemp + chia seeds, you may need to eat 10-50 times the amount of ALA to convert it to adequate DHA + EPA. Eating less Omega 6 fats from processed foods like soybean oil is also key.

Depending on your unique needs and diet, whether you’re plant-based or an omnivore, you may need additional supplements, such as vitamin D (which many are deficient in regardless of diet), zinc or iron. There is no need to self-diagnose vitamin and mineral deficiencies when they are easily detectable by blood tests ordered by your doctor. 


WHAT ABOUT CALCIUM?

The RDA for calcium for adults is 1,000 mg/day (1,200mg/day for women >50 + men >70). This is achievable with whole foods: There are 80mg calcium in 1 cup edamame, 100mg in 1 cup cooked kale, 160mg in ½ cup white beans, 140mg in 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds. Fortified plant milks have 300-450mg/cup. You can see how an intentional combination of foods could easily add up to meet daily needs.


AND THE BIG QUESTION: WHERE WILL YOU GET YOUR PROTEIN?

To determine your Recommended Daily Allowance—the amount you need to meet basic nutritional requirements—for protein, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. (You can also get a more detailed calculation based on your gender, age and activity level on using a calculator HERE). For example, the basic protein requirement for a 130-pound woman is about 47 grams daily, and a 180-pound man is 65 grams daily. A more active person will most definitely require more.

If your diet follows the Healthy Eating Plate proportions, your protein needs can be easily met without ever touching protein powder or bars. Whole grains, nuts + seeds, and legumes (including whole soy) all provide excellent protein, and even fruit and vegetables provide small amounts that add up to your daily needs. This example of a fairly light day of eating shows how easily 75.9 grams of protein add up:

Breakfast - 13 grams

  • .5 cup oats: 6g
  • 1 Tbsp chia seeds: 2g
  • 1 banana: 1g
  • 1 Tbsp peanut butter: 4g
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened almond milk: 0g

Snack - 6.5 grams

  • Apple: 0.5g
  • Handful of almonds (1 oz): 6g

Lunch - 25 grams

  • 2 slices sprouted grain bread: 8g
  • Avocado half: 2g
  • Green salad: 2g
  • 1/4 cup cooked farro: 3g
  • 3 Tbsp hemp hearts: 10g

Snack - 5 grams

  • Handful of carrot sticks: 1g
  • Hummus, 1/4 cup: 4g

Dinner - 30 grams

  • Green salad: 2g
  • 1 Tbsp tahini (sesame seed paste): 3g
  • Whole wheat pasta serving: 7g
  • Green beans: 2g
  • Marinated cooked tempeh: 16g

Final verdict: If you’re driven by a strong motivation to choose this lifestyle, and if you’re willing to do a bit of extra homework to make sure your nutrition needs—as well as social and emotional needs—are adequately met, veganism can be a healthful choice that supports an active lifestyle.

Even if you don't want to commit to a fully vegan lifestyle, we can all benefit eating more vegetables and adopting the proportions of the Healthy Eating Plate, where protein represents a smaller portion of the diet than most American's consume.  

Got questions? Please be in touch!

This information is not intended to prevent, treat or diagnose any disease, and should not supersede recommendations prescribed to you by a medical professional.

I ran 50 miles, so now I can eat anything...right?

"You ran 50 miles? Man, you can go crazy at the Thanksgiving table!"

I have heard some version of these sentences about 15 times since my 50-mile race on Saturday. So exactly how much of a caloric deficit did I create and how quickly could I blow it? 

Over the course of 50 miles, someone of my size burns somewhere around 4,500 calories. There may also be a post-exercise burn where my body continues to burn calories quickly, so I'll be generous and round up to 5,000 calories burned. 

By just existing--breathing, heart beating and systems running--my basal metabolism is somewhere around 1,100 calories, so we'll subtract that from the 5,000 to get the caloric deficit:

5000 - 1,100 = 3,900 deficit

Between gels, bananas, sugary drinks and other food on the race course, I at somewhere around 1,200 calories, so that gets subtracted as well... 

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3,900 - 1,200 = 2,700 calories. Let's spend extra those calories! 

3 giant slices of greasy cheese pizza at the finish would run 1,200 calories

A slice of frosted cake would hack off another 350 calories

A big breakfast the morning after of waffles + syrup and hash browns would run around 1,000 - 1,200 calories depending on how greasy the grill was.

Serious waffle photo courtesy Waffle House, where arteries go to get clogged.  

Serious waffle photo courtesy Waffle House, where arteries go to get clogged.  

...and that's it. The deficit is spent, and now it's back to healthful eating in reasonable, non-maple-syrup-coated portions. Seems like that level of effort should have enabled a runner to drag out the party for days, but unless your exercise habits are like those of a professional athlete, working out for hours day in and day out, exercise doesn't really enable us to eat whatever we want and maintain or lose weight.

 

But if you're exercising solely so you intake more calories, you're overlooking all of the wonderful benefits of exercise:

  • Building strength that will carry on well into advanced age
  • Boosting energy
  • Reducing stress
  • Reducing symptoms of depression
  • Building self-esteem (it's not just kids who need that boost!)
  • Protecting our brain
  • Helping us to sleep better
  • Protecting our heart as HDL, the "good" cholesterol is increased, and trigylcerides--fat in our blood--are decreased, leading to better functioning of the heart
  • Managing blood sugar for diabetics, both juvenile diabetes and later onset diabetes brought on by lifestyle

Many of these benefits of exercise you will be tapping into not just today but 10, 20, 30 years into the future! 

Who needs pizza when you have this rich + tasty soup on the table in less than 45 minutes?! 

Who needs pizza when you have this rich + tasty soup on the table in less than 45 minutes?! 

And sure, with a little extra caloric deficit, exercise does afford us the ability to enjoy a treat here and there, but after a little splurge, I'm very happy to reward my hardworking body with a meal loaded with vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats. Click here for this recipe for Red Lentil Soup.