Vegetarian athletes: Q&A with JB | Precision Nutrition

Vegetarian athletes: Q&A with JB

By John Berardi, Ph.D.

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Here at PN, we like to think our programs work for a wide variety of eaters.

Indeed, the PN System isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan. It’s a set of concepts, principles, tools, and strategies that can be quickly and easily individualized to help you reach your goals, whatever they might be.

For some of you, the goal is to become a successful plant-based eater.

Now, there’s a big difference between up and deciding that you’re going to avoid eating meat and actually doing the plant-based thing right.  That’s why I did my own plant-based experiment a few months back.

My own plant-based experiment

Sure, I like my clinical research as much as the next nutrition geek.  But experience is an excellent teacher as well.  And since I never ask a client to do something I haven’t tried myself, I blogged all about my plant-based diet experience right here on the PN site.

JB goes vegetarian – exactly what I did and why
https://www.precisionnutrition.com/jb-goes-vegetarian

Omnivore, vegetarian, flexitarian – what can we learn from each other
https://www.precisionnutrition.com/flexitarian

Meat: Good for us or disease waiting to happen? – making sense of the meat debate
https://www.precisionnutrition.com/meat-and-health

The sexiest vegetarian – the results of my experiment and PN’s own Ryan Andrews
https://www.precisionnutrition.com/sexy-vegetarian

The Tim Ferriss interview

After it was all over, author and well-read blogger, Tim Ferriss picked my brain about this plant-based experiment as part of his research for a new book.

Below, I’ve included our dialogue.  Hopefully, in reprinting it here, some additional light can be shed on how to do the vegetarian thing properly, should you be interested in doing that.

Q1: What’s the biggest challenge of eating this way while being a high-level competitor?

There are a few challenges that can be pretty daunting, especially for very active people and high-level athletes.

Challenge 1: Calories

Hard training athletes require a lot of calories to support their training.  Yet strict vegan/vegetarian diets are not very calorie dense.

In other words, when eating mostly plants, each unit of food contains fewer calories.  The bottom line: you have to eat A LOT of vegetarian food to fuel performance and recovery.

Most vegetarian athletes fall short here, ending up in a chronic negative energy balance.  Sex hormone concentrations drop.  Sleep quality decreases.  Muscle mass erodes.  And performance starts circling the drain.

cropped-circling-the-drain-21

Challenge 2: Digestion and elastic waistbands

The second challenge is that high calorie vegetarian meal plans are hard to digest.   You see, diets high in plant foods contain tons of fiber and lectins.

Fiber comes from plants’ structural materials, such as the cellulose that gives them their rigid cell walls.  Of course, fiber is good for us in the right amount.  But when we consume too much fiber (especially if we’re not accustomed to it), it prevents the digestion and absorption of other nutrients. And it upsets the stomach, leading to diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

And lectins are found primarily in beans and legumes. (See All About Lectins for more on this.) Some people are intolerant to lectins.  This leads to a similar effect as lactose intolerance: massive bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea. More seriously, lectins can cause GI damage and even a broad-based immune system response in susceptible people.

When I followed my plant-based diet, my waist measure started out as 32 inches at the start of the day. By the end of the day I’d ballooned up to a full 42 inches.  Not attractive.  And very uncomfortable.  Other people might notice similar problems from gluten in grains. (See All About Gluten for more.)

Challenge #3: Protein

Although some people will tell you that you can thrive on incomplete proteins in small amounts, there are two situations where plant foods can’t get the job done.

Sarcopenia

As we age, muscle is lost.  The more muscle we lose, the more function and mobility we lose, and the more we risk forced inactivity, injuries, and falls.  Thus, just like bone mass, it’s better to carry more muscle mass. It’s not about vanity. It’s not about subjective judgements of what’s “attractive”. It’s about objective health and not getting stuck on the toilet at age 70.  And without a relatively high, complete protein intake, it’s very hard to keep that mass.

Sport

In sports that require strength and power (or a high ratio of muscle to fat weight), additional protein is required.  Of course, it doesn’t have to come from animals.  But if you don’t get protein from animals, you probably should supplement with concentrated vegan protein supplements and/or amino acids.

People argue against this all the time.  But they’re wrong. And I have the authority to say that, because I’ve worked with elite athletes my entire career – in addition to doing a host of studies on the interaction between exercise and protein intake in both athletes and in the elderly.

Q2: What would two days of a sample meal plan look like for you?

I ate the same menu every day. (Yeah, boring, I know, but it’s all in the name of science.)  My goal was to build muscle mass and improve performance.  So here’s the diet:

Before breakfast

5 tablets BCAA (Biotest – 5 g total)
2 capsules resveratrol (Biotest)
1 multi-vitamin (Genuine Health)
1 tablet vitamin D (Webber Naturals – 1000 IU total)
1 serving sublingual B-12
500 ml water

Breakfast

3 whole eggs with 1 slice cheese
2 slices sprouted grain bread
1 cup vegetables
500 ml water
1 cup green tea

Snack #1

2 cups home-made granola (mix includes pumpkin seeds, unsweetened coconut, whole oats, almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios, and dried fruit)
1 tbsp honey
1 cup unsweetened soy milk

Lunch

1/2 cup home-made hummus
2 whole wheat tortillas
1 cup veggies
1/2 cup mixed beans (not canned)
1 sweet potato with cinnamon on top

Snack #2

2 cups home-made granola (mix includes pumpkin seeds, unsweetened coconut, whole oats, almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios, and dried fruit)
1 tbsp honey
1 cup unsweetened soy milk

Workout drink

2 tsp BCAA (Xtreme Formulations – 14 g total)
2 servings carbohydrate (Avant Labs – 22 g total)
1000 ml water

After workout

1 cup mixed beans
1 cup quinoa (measured uncooked)
2 cups green veggies
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp flavored flax oil
1 tbsp curry powder
1 multi-vitamin (Genuine Health)
1 tablet vitamin D (Webber Naturals – 1000IU total)

Bedtime snack

2 scoops protein (Genuine Health Vegan)
1 scoop greens (Genuine Health Perfect Skin)
Handful raw nuts
1 natural peanut butter and honey sandwich on 1 slice sprouted grain bread

Q3: What supplements did you take and for what reasons?

Strict vegetarians and vegans need to be concerned about a host of macro- and micro-nutrients including protein/amino acids, B12, calcium, iodine, omega 3 fats, vitamin D, and more.  It’s for this reason, where’s what I used when following my plan:

Protein and amino acids

A dearth of amino acids can lead to protein losses from the body, impacting everything from cellular health, bone mass, and muscle mass.  To this end, I used a vegan protein supplement and a branched chain amino acid supplement to help repair the muscles I was damaging with my training.

Multi-vitamin

Many vitamins and minerals are found in animal foods can be missing from a strict vegan food plan.  Vitamin and mineral deficiencies lead to impaired function of nearly every system of the body, including the energy producing cellular reactions.  In other words, vitamin deficiencies make you weak and tired, and prevent you from turning nutrients into energy.  So I used a multi-vitamin to ensure an adequate intake in their absence.

Vitamin B12

This is the most common deficiency found in vegetarians/vegans.  B-12 is a highly energy-producing nutrient that’s involved in many chemical reactions that lead to the creation of ATP.  I used a B-12 supplement to ensure that I wasn’t deficient.

Calcium

Another common deficiency.  Calcium deficiencies can impair all sorts of physiological functions from the heart’s beating to skeletal muscle contractions. I got a healthy amount from my multi-vitamin and got the rest from food sources.

Iodine

Another common deficiency.  Iodine deficiencies can dramatically reduce thyroid hormone output, slowing the metabolism, causing hair to fall out, etc.  Again, I got a healthy amount from my multi and got the rest from food.Luckily, this is easy for plant-based eaters to supplement; one of the best sources is marine vegetables, aka seaweed. Try a little dulse or nori flakes on salad, or even a full wakame (seaweed) salad at your favourite Japanese or Korean restaurant.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega 3s can be in low supply if a vegetarian/vegan isn’t careful. Without adequate omega 3 intake, metabolisms are slower, disease risk goes up, carbohydrate tolerance is poor, and skin quality worsens.  Unfortunately, the conversion of ALA (in plant sources like flax) to EPA/DHA is relatively low. Omega 3s in animal foods, which are usually already in EPA/DHA form, are better delivered. I included nuts and seeds as well as an algae-based nutritional supplement to ensure an adequate amount of the highly potent omega 3, DHA.

Vitamin D

Another common problem with vegetarians/vegans.  But in the winter, almost everyone in a northern hemisphere is D deficient, regardless of dietary intake.  Vitamin D deficiencies can manifest in several ways.  However, most relevant to athletes is a decline in muscle mass and force production. Vitamin D is also critical for immune system support.  I used a D supplement to ensure adequate amounts.

This might seem like a pretty long list of things to worry about. Yeah, it is.

However, if you’re going to make the lifestyle choice to become a vegan/vegetarian, you’ve gotta accept the responsibilities that such a choice foists upon you.  If not, you’re just being negligent.  And you can expect health problems to follow.

Q4: What are the biggest mistakes vegan/vegetarian athletes make?

There are probably too many to mention in this brief review.  But here are the biggies:

Mistake 1: Just dropping animal foods

The worst mistake any would be vegan could make is to simply stop eating meat.  Then their lifestyle choice isn’t a positive one, it’s about negation.  Instead, they should focus on what they’ll be eating more of.  In other words, a proper vegetarian meal plan is based on eating mostly/only foods that come from plants – fruits, veggies, unprocessed grains, legumes, etc. It’s not simply avoiding meat and filling up on processed junk foods.

Unfortunately, many vegetarians do this.  By focusing only on what they’re eliminating, there’s no plan for getting enough calories, enough protein, and enough micronutrition to ensure an easy transition to vegetarianism.

Mistake 2: Using dairy for all their protein

Many lacto-ovo-vegetarians will turn to dairy for all their protein needs when dropping meat.  This can be a big mistake for a few reasons.  First of all, lactose intolerance and milk protein allergy are quite common – more common than most people think.  Second of all, most store bought milk/dairy offerings contain hormone and antibiotic residues which are now being shown to negatively impact human health.

Of course, in small doses (i.e. 1 cup of dairy per day), this isn’t much of a problem unless you’re highly sensitive.  However, using dairy multiple times per day can create big problems for people.

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Mistake 3: Not using supplements

As discussed above, by dropping entire food groups from your menu, you’re bound to create some dietary deficiencies if you’re not careful. So you’ve gotta supplement.  And very few vegetarian athletes know what to do in this regard.

Mistake 4: Not finding help

In all honesty, moving from an omnivorous meal plan to a vegetarian one requires a big lifestyle change.  You need an intervention from someone who knows what the heck they’re doing.  Note: researching the internet doesn’t count. There are a ton of individual differences that will determine exactly how each person should adopt their own version of the vegetarian diet.

Athletes need to seek the help of a performance minded nutrition coach.  Any old dietitian won’t do.  It has to be someone who knows what they’re doing.  And, unfortunately, in the high performance world, those folks are few and far between.

Q5: Any closing thoughts?

I think vegetarianism is a real challenge for the average person to do well.  It’s not something to take lightly.  Without some nutritional guidance, most plant-based eaters are doomed to muscle loss, poor performance, and a host of nutritional deficiencies ranging from mild to severe.

However, vegetarianism can be done right.  (This usually requires the help of a trained nutrition coach).  And when done right it can be satisfying, healthy, and performance boosting.

Learn more

To learn more about making important improvements to your nutrition and exercise program, check out the following 5-day video courses.

They’re probably better than 90% of the seminars we’ve ever attended on the subjects of exercise and nutrition (and probably better than a few we’ve given ourselves, too).

The best part? They’re totally free.

To check out the free courses, just click one of the links below.