Can a meat-free lifestyle fuel an active body?

More of us are exercising while eating meat-free diets. But can vegetarian food fuel our bodies enough for the energy required for post-training recovery and repair?

Lifelong vegetarian Anita Bean was a competitive bodybuilder while studying nutrition at university, so she’s used to comments about plant-based diets not mixing with sport and exercise.

“Many people still believe you can’t get enough protein, that you feel hungrier, you get ill more often, or that plant protein isn’t as good as animal protein for building muscle,” Anita, a registered nutritionist in the UK, specialising in sport and exercise nutrition, says.

“(But) there’s no evidence to back these up and, in most cases, the reverse is true.”

Plant-based eating is rising

The increasing availability of plant-based products, including meat alternatives, reflects the growing popularity of vegetarian diets.

A Roy Morgan survey in 2019 noted the slow but steady rise of vegetarianism in Australia.

If you’re among this growing plant-eating demographic, or considering joining it, making plants work for you when you’re working out requires thought and perhaps professional advice.

“Regardless of the eating pattern you choose, it’s possible to achieve most kinds of fitness goals,” dietitian Dr Anika Rouf says.

“If you choose a plant-based diet, plan ahead to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need, because some nutrients – like protein, iron and vitamin B12 – are more easily absorbed from animal sources.”

How can athletes get enough protein from plants?

Serena Williams and Lewis Hamilton are among the sports stars thriving on a plant-based diet – but however you exercise, making the food switch could work for you, too.

Just bear in mind you will need some nutritional insights.

“If you’re active, you need approximately double the protein of someone who is sedentary,” Anita says.

She recommends including protein at every meal.

“Otherwise you could end up struggling to recover after exercise, making sub-optimal gains in strength and endurance and increasing the risk of illness and injury.”

According to Dr Rouf, getting enough protein on a plant-based diet can take more effort than an omnivorous diet (eating both plants and animals), especially if you’re new to it or vegan.

Animal-free protein sources she recommends include grains, beans, tofu, lentils, quinoa, nuts, seeds, soy milk and split peas, while vegetarians can also power up on protein-rich eggs and dairy.

“It’s all about the timing,” Dr Rouf adds.

“If you’re wanting to promote muscle growth, eating protein-rich foods after exercise can help boost muscle recovery.

“Our body only uses about 20 grams of protein at any one time, so it’s important to spread your protein intake throughout the day.”

Meat-free ways to repair your muscles

Thinking about what you eat is especially important pre and post-workout.

“We want to make sure our muscles have the energy ready to go, so having a carbohydrate-rich snack before working out can be beneficial,” Dr Rouf says.

“Examples include a small bowl of cereal with chopped fruit and yoghurt, fruit smoothies, baked beans on toast, or raisin toast with jam.”

Afterwards, in addition to protein for muscle repair and fluids for rehydration, she recommends food rich in quality carbohydrates to replenish muscle energy stores. “Examples include black-bean burritos with salad and cheese, fresh fruit salad topped with yoghurt, or sandwiches with tofu or lentil patties or peanut butter,” Dr Rouf says.

Of course, the best bet is to consult a professional, because every body is different. “For those who train intensively, such as sportspeople, I would recommend seeing an accredited sports dietitian for tailored advice,” Dr Rouf says.

Written by Patricia Maunder.

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