Following a plant-based diet is becoming more and more popular among athletes and runners.
Just like any diet which includes removing foods from your diet, doing your homework or seeking advice is essential in ensuring you are staying nourished for training.
Here are some nutrients that are worth knowing about if you are plant based.
Protein plays several important roles in the functioning of our body such as growth and repair and the maintenance of good health. Protein is made up of amino acids, there are about 20 different amino acids commonly found in plant and animal proteins. For adults, 8 of these are essential, meaning they must be provided in the diet. Animal products contain a full range of essential amino acids however, the majority of plant-based proteins don’t. Around 61% of the UK’s protein intake is from animal products (BNF).
When cutting this food group out of your diet it is important to consume a combination of plant-based proteins to boost the overall biological value. Foods such as soya, quinoa and hemp are ‘complete’ plant-based sources of protein and of course, there are many vegan supplements that contain all the essential amino acids.
With the food first approach in mind other plant-based sources of protein include:
- Beans – baked, kidney
- Chickpeas and lentils
- Grains – oatmeal, wheat flour
- Nuts – almonds, walnuts
How much protein do we need? Adults and children should consume two to three servings of protein every day. Our protein requirements change throughout our lifespan however, general recommendations for adults is around 0.75g protein per kg of body weight. Top Tip – add nuts and seeds to porridge or salads, beans and lentils to pasta dishes or for a quick meal baked beans on toast to help boost the variety of plant-based proteins in your diet and increase the biological value
Dairy foods contribute around a third of calcium in the diets of UK adolescents and adults from foods such as cheese, yogurts and milk. Yes, the old wives tale is right, calcium is needed for helping support strong bones and teeth, as well as regulating muscle contraction including your heart and making sure the blood clots normally.
Like many micronutrients calcium is an important mineral throughout the lifespan – lack of calcium can lead to rickets in children and osteoporosis in later life.
An adult needs around 700mg/day. You can get enough calcium from plant based food sources if you are following a vegan diet. Sources of calcium include:
- Bread with wheat flour (this is fortified with calcium by law)
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Dairy alternatives such as yogurts and milks
- Calcium-set tofu
- Pulses – kidney beans, chickpeas
- Tahini and sesame seeds
- Dried fruits such as raisins and figs
- Broccoli, spring greens and oranges
Top tip: Vitamin D aids the absorption of calcium from our food so make sure you are supplementing Vit D in these winter months! Meal Idea: Tofu and chickpea curry topped with sesame seeds and coconut yogurt served with broccoli and rice
Many nutrient requirements change through the lifespan and iron is no exception, not only is there different requirements at different ages there are different requirements between genders. For example: Recommended intakes for males (19-50yrs) = 8.7mg day whilst woman = 14.8mg/d
Iron is a mineral that has many different roles within the body. It is needed for cell growth and production of red blood cells in our blood, the haemoglobin in red blood cells binds oxygen and transports it around the body. The British Nutrition foundation state that iron is also an essential component in many enzyme reactions, having an important role in the immune system.
Iron deficiencies occur when a lack of dietary iron results in a deplete in iron stores in the body. Mild anaemia symptoms are often feeling tired, lacking energy, shortness of breath and sometimes an increased risk of infection… not ideal if you are an athlete. More severe iron deficiency symptoms are heart palpitations, brittle nails, itchy skin and mouth ulcers developing.
There are two main sources of dietary iron; haem iron which is found in animal food and non-haem iron which is found in plant-based foods;
• Haem iron is the most bioavailable form of iron with sources being red meat; beef, lamb and pork particularly rich sources whereas poultry and fish aren’t as rich. However, even though haem iron is the most bioavailable, non-haem iron is the predominant source in our diets through foods such as cereals, pulses, beans, nuts, fruit and vegetables.
It is important to understand that non-haem needs a little help with absorption, for meat eaters this isn’t so difficult but the form of iron in plant foods is absorbed far less efficiently. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C supports the absorption of iron e.g. citrus fruits, strawberries, green leafy vegetables and peppers. For example, adding a small glass of orange juice and topping your porridge and fortified milk with seeds and berries may help aid absorption (BDA)
B12 is an important vitamin especially if you follow a plant based diet with the majority of defiencies amongst vegans. B12 is a water-soluble vitamin which plays an important role in cell metabolism, serving as a cofactor for enzymes involved in the normal function of the nervous system, the formation of red blood cells and the metabolism of folate.
The British Nutrition Foundation state that B12 is involved in energy production and together with folate and Vitamin B6 is required for maintenance of normal blood homocysteine levels – if this rises too much it can be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause: Fatigue, anaemia and potential nerve damage .
Food sources of Vitamin B12 are almost all animal origin products such as meat, salmon, milk, cheese and eggs. However, there are a couple of plant-based sources;
- Fortified breakfasts cereals
- Unsweetened soya milks/yogurts
- Yeast extract such as Marmite
The British Dietetic Association recommend eating two portions of fortified foods per day to help with your B12 intake. If this isn’t possible, consider taking a daily supplement with approximately 10mg of Vitamin B12. The Vegan Society advise that if you are relying on fortified foods, check the labels carefully to ensure you are meeting your daily requirements using the example of “if a fortified plant milk contains 1 microgram of B12 per serving then consuming three servings a day will provide adequate vitamin B12.
Some vegetarian versions of foods such as protein alternatives tend to be lower in calories, therefore making sure you are still getting enough energy for you to run at your full potential is something to be aware of. Try to add healthy fats to your diet as well as a variety of proteins with wholegrains and pulses.
If you need any personal advice or support, my clinical practice has now gone online!
- ASCM 2016
- British Dietetic Association