With the rise in popularity in plant-based diets, many individuals are beginning to switch over from conventional, omnivorous diets to a diet revolving around plants. There is a growing amount of evidence demonstrating the health benefits of plant-based diets on supporting healthier cholesterol levels, heart disease risk, certain types of cancers, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and so on (Dinu, 2017). Supporting the animal agriculture industry also has obvious moral implications as well. Consuming meat directly involves the slaughter of animals that are almost always raised in inhumane conditions. Estimates provide that about 99% of U.S. meat comes from factory farming, which unarguably involves the worst conditions and practices for the slaughter of animals (Anthis, 2019). The dairy and egg industry are no exception to these unethical conditions as well. Environmental concerns are also another reason to switch dietary habits, with a plant-based diet generally using markedly less water, greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and requiring less land to feed more people (Hunnes).
Understandably, there can be a lot of confusion on how to transition over smoothly and the best way to do it differs from person to person as well. Some people may cut out the animal products overnight while others may need years to go fully plant-based. Let’s start with breaking down some points that will ease the process as much as possible, in general.
Understanding Plant-Based Nutrition
A plant-based diet emphasizes foods derived from plants, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These foods offer an array of essential nutrients, but the shift should require a basic knowledge of nutrition and some consideration to ensure that caloric needs and certain nutrients are adequately met, especially in the context of demanding physical activities.
1. Educate Yourself with Reliable Sources
Before embarking on the transition, trainees should aim to educate themselves on the basics of plant-based nutrition through reputable sources. Consulting scientific literature, registered dietitians, and well-established organizations can provide accurate insights. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an organization of over 112,000 professionals in the nutritional space, confirm that well-planned plant-based diets are appropriate for athletes when nutritional needs are met (Craig, 2009).
2. Plan Balanced Meals and Use a Food Tracking App
Some preemptive meal planning is very helpful to ensure caloric and nutrient requirements are fulfilled. Incorporate a variety of nutrient-dense foods into your diet. Whole, unprocessed, plant based foods are very often powerhouses of nutrition but can be very filling so it’s important to make sure that individuals are eating enough calories.
Tracking foods before and during transitioning diets can be an invaluable tool to make sure it’s a seamless process. Using Cronometer or MyFitnessPal along with a food scale and tracking bodyweight is the best way to do this since it eliminates many variables. It’s important to track everything consumed during this time including caloric beverages and oils. One trick is when adding foods to cook in a pan or bowl, add the bowl/pan to the food scale, zero it out, and then add the foods you’ll be cooking. It’s almost impossible to get everything completely accurate – even nutritional labels are often slightly off. The closer you can measure these numbers, however, the better!
3. Prioritize Protein Intake
Adequate protein intake is crucial for muscle repair and growth. Diversify protein sources to include soy products, tofu, tempeh, other legumes, bean-based pastas, protein powders and seitan. A 2018 study examining plant vs animal protein and gains in lean mass and strength suggests that plant-based protein sources can be just as effective as animal sources, assuming enough is consumed (Messina, 2018).
However, some research does seem to support that slightly more plant protein may be needed to cause an equivalent response in muscle protein synthesis and lean mass accrual (Pinckaers, 2021). Using the 1.6g/kg/day goal for protein intake seems like a very safe minimal, cut off number for plant based protein intake, although going slightly higher can definitely be a valid and substantiated method for those who want to maximize any chance possible. In certain cases, some people may want to increase their protein intake to 2.2g/kg/day or even more – such as in the case of a very lean individual dieting for a bodybuilding competition. Older individuals also seem a bit more protein resistant so higher intakes for them might be worth considering. For further reading, check out this article.
4. Monitor Nutrient Intake
Certain nutrients like vitamin B12 warrant close monitoring on a plant-based diet. A simple multivitamin or vitamin B12 supplement once or twice a week will solve this issue. Other nutrients to potentially keep an eye on are zinc and iron. Zinc is particularly important for hormone production and can be found in ample supply in foods such as pumpkin seeds, for example. Legumes are often high in iron but it may be of particular concern for female athletes. Supplementing with some extra Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of DHA/EPA may be worth considering, as well. For further reading about that, check out this article.
Nutrient deficiencies can impact performance. Regardless of diet, athletes and individuals serious about optimizing their health should be doing regular blood tests to monitor their blood markers to get ahead and address any shortcomings.
5. Hydration is Key
Proper hydration enhances athletic performance. Water-rich plant foods like watermelon and cucumbers can supplement hydration levels. Athletes should closely monitor their fluid intake, especially during training and competitions. Ensuring adequate sodium intake is also key, especially for trainees who sweat a lot or practice their sport in warmer conditions.
6. Optimize Pre, Intra and Post-Workout Nutrition
Strategically plan pre and post-workout nutrition. Consuming easily digestible carbohydrates before and during exercise aids energy levels. A fast digesting, glucose based drink such as Gatorade can be very valuable for certain athletes. After workouts, focus on consuming plant-based protein sources like legumes or protein-rich staples like tofu, tempeh and seitan. A study in the “Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition” highlights the importance of protein consumption post-exercise to enhance recovery.
7. Listen to Your Body and Experiment
Athletes and bodybuilders should pay attention to their bodies and experiment with different foods and strategies. There are many general tried and true practices but each individual’s needs could be slightly unique based on various factors. Adjust your diet based on trends through tracking meals in apps like Cronometer and MyFitnessPal and how you feel and perform. Tracking these changes will provide insights into the effectiveness of your transition.
Monitor your athletic performance and general well-being over time. Document changes in energy levels, recovery time, and strength gains. A longitudinal study published in “Nutrients” examined plant-based diets in athletes and found positive effects on body composition and performance.
Potential Issues with Switching to Plant Based Diet and Solutions for Them
Let’s go over the complications some people experience when cutting out animal products for more plant-based food options and how we can easily mitigate them!
1.) Under eating calories
The Potential Problem: UNDEREATING is actually very common when first switching to a plant based diet, especially if the individual is switching over to eating mostly whole foods. Whole, unprocessed, plant based foods are generally very satiating because of the high fiber and water content. This may be a good thing for a lot of people who are looking to lose weight but it can be troublesome for people who are already thin or just not looking to lose any weight. 100 calories of broccoli is a ton of broccoli and will leave you feeling very full. 100 calories of cheese could just be a few, hearty slices of cheddar that just makes you want to eat more. Swapping the cheese for the broccoli is a much more satiating option.
The Solution: Undereating will lead to lower energy levels so it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough when first switching to a plant based diet. Weigh yourself every few days or so and if you’re involuntarily losing weight, simply add in some higher calorie, easy to consume foods. I’ve rarely heard of people complaining about having to eat TOO much food so this shouldn’t be too difficult! Peanut butter, avocado and nuts are some great options here. Even adding in some more processed, plant based foods may be beneficial due to their inherently higher calorie content and lack of fiber. Cereal is very easy to eat a lot of without feeling too full. Calories coming from liquids are also a great option for getting in some quick, extra calories. Smoothies are one of my favorite foods for this purpose and are a healthier option overall. I drink a huge smoothie with soy milk, pea protein powder, banana, blueberries, strawberries, hemp seeds and flaxseed powder almost everyday after the gym. It’s a great way to get in a quick 600-1,000 if you need to get in more calories without feeling overly full.
2.) Temporary bloating and digestional issues
The Potential Problem: Some individuals may experience some gastric upset from a rapid change in diet and usually the issue is increasing fiber intake TOO quickly. The microbiome, or naturally occuring bacteria that lives in our guts, is heavily influenced by our diet and lifestyle. Eating certain foods will foster certain bacteria. If an individual is used to eating only 20-30 grams of fiber a day, they won’t have a gut microbiome that is ideal for digesting 70-80 grams of fiber and this can lead to temporary bloating, stomach pain, and so on.
The Solution: Thankfully, the gut microbiome can shift pretty quickly, so this gastric upset should subside in a couple weeks. It may be helpful to slowly ease into increasing dietary fiber to reduce these effects. Some people may not be able to tolerate two servings of beans a day at first, so it could be helpful just to start with a half serving and slowly work up over time. Including more processed foods during this time may actually be beneficial in this regard because they’re often lower in fiber, although I wouldn’t recommend this in the long term. It’s also worth noting that it’s important to make sure to drink ample water when switching to a diet higher in fiber since this can help aid digestion.
There are massive health benefits for increased fiber intake. Some of these include lower cholesterol levels, improved blood sugar levels, healthier body weight, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, decreased risk of heart disease, reduced risk of certain cancers, improved bowel movements and so on. One of the key indicators of a healthy diet to reduce all-cause mortality is, in fact, higher fiber (Kim, 2014, Kelly, 2016). For this reason, I believe temporary, potential GI distress is a minor concern when compared to the overwhelming amount of health benefits that come along with higher dietary fiber intake.
3.) Reduced fat intake
The Potential Problem: This is another issue more common for individuals switching to a more whole foods, plant based diet which excludes oils. Eating a lot of legumes, grains and vegetables is great but there’s little to no fat in them usually. Dietary fat intake that is too low may cause deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K and could cause hormonal related issues (Dawson-Hughes, 2014, Mumford, 2016))
The Solution: There are a lot of great plant based options high in healthy fats that don’t involve processed oil. Avocado has almost all of its calories coming from fat and also has many vitamins and minerals such as the B Vitamins, Folate, Vitamin K, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Potassium. Nuts such as peanuts, walnuts, chestnuts, brazil nuts, almonds, cashews and so on are also very nutritious, high in fat and also contain a fair bit of protein. Seeds are similar to nuts in that regard and are extremely nutritious too. Hemp seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are just a few great examples. Adding some peanut butter to a smoothie is a great way to add in some extra calories from fat. Adding peanuts to a stir fry, avocado to a sandwich and adding pumpkin seeds to some trail mix are all some strategies you could use to help increase fat intake.
4.) Social inconveniences
The Potential Problem: Plant based diets are growing more and more, but it can still be difficult to eat completely vegan at a lot of restaurants and events that don’t generally cater to that demographic. Going out to eat, to a work-related event or a family party can be frustrating for some people when there’s no suitable food options.
The Solution: Changing and adhering to any specific diet takes willpower and dedication to adjust to the lifestyle change that comes along with it. In these situations, it’s often helpful to plan ahead. Be prepared to bring your own food or snacks to events or check online to view vegan friendly options at non-vegan chain restaurants. Simply typing the name of the restaurant and vegan at the end will likely yield several useful resources for vegan options at that specific restaurant. If it’s a less common or family owned restaurant, don’t hesitate to ask the server about vegan options. A lot of places are happy to accommodate specific dietary restrictions and will make custom orders. It may also be possible just to substitute certain non-vegan options in a meal. For example, substituting black beans for chicken in a chicken burrito and guacamole for cheese and sour cream would be a great option that all restaurants would be able to accomodate.
Approaches for Easing into a Plant Based Diet
Some people may be able to just drop everything and immediately switch to a plant based diet overnight. This is awesome for anyone who’s able to do that, but there is a bit of a learning curve for most people. Switching your whole diet overnight is a big change, especially if you’re not very familiar with nutrition and plant based food options. First of all, it can help to familiarize yourself with some basic nutrition concepts such as calories and macronutrients, especially if you’re an active person. Make sure you’re not vastly under eating calories like we covered above and aim to get enough protein and fat daily for your goals, if you have them!
Being able to read and understand nutritional labels on food packages is also very important. This is also very simple, but it’s important to look at the ingredients to make sure no animal products are listed. One easy trick that works often is to look below the ingredients list to see a list of allergens the food may contain. If it says “Contains: Milk, Eggs or Dairy” as common allergens, you’ll know right away that it isn’t vegan. If it says “May contain traces of…” and lists an animal product there, it’s likely that the processing facility also handles products that have those ingredients. This is mainly listed as a precaution for people who are very allergic. Most people still consider these products vegan but this is up to you to decide. I do recommend skimming the ingredients regardless no matter what though!
One strategy that I personally recommend to most people is to swap out just one meal per week or one full day of eating per week at first for a fully plant based diet. Meatless Monday is a great idea. The easiest way to do this is to replace meat, dairy and eggs with vegan meat alternatives. If you usually eat Chicken Stir Fry for dinner, simply swap the chicken for another plant-based protein source such as a Mock Chicken from a vegan brand like Gardein or try Extra Firm Tofu, Seitan or Tempeh. If you normally eat a Cheese Quesadilla for lunch, just swap the cheese for vegan cheese from a brand like Daiya, Violife or So Delicious. If you normally eat Scrambled Eggs and Bacon for breakfast, swap the scrambled eggs for Just Foods Just Egg or tofu scramble and the bacon for Sweet Earth vegan bacon or tempeh bacon! Do some research in to vegan alternatives and you’re good to go! For the most part, the calories and macros should be fairly similar for a lot of these foods.
After introducing one meal or one day of eating, slowly increase the frequency of those meals until you’re eating 100% plant-based! Then if you’d like to, start swapping out some of the more processed vegan alternatives for more whole foods. Beans can replace most mock meats, vegan cheeses can be replaced pretty well with nutritional yeast, and so on. This is where you can start getting creative!
Also, don’t hesitate to buy a plant-based cookbook or look for recipes online. There are a lot of ingenious ways of using creative plant-based foods in place of common meals with animal-based foods and you may even think they taste even better! Check out the Aethix YouTube for the 60 Second Recipe video series where I teach you how to make some delicious, high protein meals quickly and easily!
Ready? Let’s go!
Switching to a plant-based diet really isn’t difficult at all but there are some valid concerns that select people may experience. To make a permanent lifestyle change, some people need more time than others. Just remember that adhering to a plant based diet is a great decision for the individual, the world and of course, the animals.
By utilizing nutritional knowledge, engaging in meal preparation, tracking food using apps like Cronometer and MyFitnessPal and a food scale, and carefully monitoring nutrient intake, you can experience enhanced performance while contributing to your overall health and the environment. Remember, there are a myriad of high level athletes performing at peak levels, which is an amazing fact considering so few people are even following a strict plant based diet, in the first place. That alone is a testament to just what is possible on plants!
Feel free to reach out in the comments or via E-mail for any further questions and for any extra assistance, Aethix also offers custom plant-based meal plans and coaching that revolve around working with the individual and/or athlete to help!