Just to give you a little background, Don and I haven’t always been predominantly plant-based eaters. Nope, we sure haven’t.
If you read “a little more about me” you saw that not only did I eat meat many years ago, I ate gross meat like cow tongue sandwich, pickled pigs feet and fried chicken feet. Yuk!
I dumped the meat almost 30 years ago and started my predominantly plant-based diet. Just because I wasn’t eating meat didn’t necessarily mean my diet was “healthy”.
Over the years I’ve worked to constantly learn and improve the way I eat not only so I can enjoy the things I love, like physical activity, but so I can live a more healthy life into my golden years.
I don’t think Don ever had the opportunity to indulge in such delicacies like I did (I’m sure he counts his blessings) but he did eat meat on a regular basis up until he met me. He also ate a lot of processed foods and not many veggies. It wasn’t that his desire to eat “healthier” wasn’t there, he just didn’t know where to start.
It’s okay if you’re a little late to the game…now is better than never!
What’s a predominantly plant-based diet?
I can see you now, head slightly cocked to the side, eyes squinting and maybe your thumb and pointer finger cradling your chin asking yourself… “predominantly” plant-based what exactly does that mean?
No worries, I’m here to explain the details to you. It’s not cut and dry because following a predominantly plant-based diet (and by the way I’m going to use predominantly plant-based and plant-based interchangeably) is not really a diet at all, it’s more of a lifestyle.
The “predominantly” part gives you the freedom to design the right nutrition plan for you. It’s never an all or nothing mentality. Not one nutrition plan fits all, everybody is different and deserves a plan that allows for enjoyment, flexibility, and balance without the guilt.
Designing an athlete diet that fits your specific lifestyle creates satisfaction at mealtime.
This typically leads to a plan you can follow long term. Breaking the pattern of falling into the trap of the newest and coolest diet with lots of food rules.
Let me give you an example. Don and I, we’re not completely plant-based or what many refer to as vegan (although not the same). For us, being predominantly plant-based works really well for our lifestyle. This means we add in some animal products like eggs, some cheese, fish and seafood oh and I don’t want to forget Don’s favorite…ice cream. Every once in awhile Don will eat meat but it’s rare (no pun intended!).
An important part of being predominantly plant-based, especially for all you endurance athletes, is to listen to your body. For example, after a big race Triathlon Don craves a burger. It’s times like these where flexibility and balance are key!
Our main focus isn’t really the “flexibility” part it’s really the plant-based part. That’s where I spend most of my energy when creating a meal plan for the week. It’s the main focus of our meals and everything else is an afterthought. Plants become the shining star of our plates.
By following a plant-based diet we’re focusing less on processed foods, animal products, and added sugars and moving our food focus to more plants, most of the time. Which is our ultimate goal, right?
Now if you’re a triathlete who is actually completely plant-based kudos to you (I’m clapping for you). Not only are you supporting your health in an amazing way you’re also supporting our environment.
But if you’re like Don and I and not quite there…that’s A-okay! Every small change you can make to focus more on plants is a step in not only decreasing your risk for chronic disease, but it’s also improving your gut health (that’s another day, another blog post) and your athletic performance.
Top 4 health benefits of eating a plant-based diet for athletes competing in endurance sports
Research has repeatedly provided us with evidence on the best way to improve our health and that’s to follow a nutrition plan that focuses more on plants and less on animal products and processed foods.
Eating the Standard American Diet, defined as SAD, is typically high in saturated fat, animal products, sugar and salt, low in fiber and necessary nutrients and full of fast food, processed food and convenience foods. The SAD diet and chronic disease are directly related.
In a current review: Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports (Nutrients, 2019) concludes that plant-based diets play a key role in cardiovascular health, which is imperative for endurance athletes.
Following are 4 reasons, based on the review article, your athlete meal plan should include more plants most of the time.
A PLANT-BASED DIET:
- Reduces Body Fat
- plant-based diets are low in fat and high in fiber which has a direct effect not only on body fat but the build-up of fat inside your arteries (more plants, less fat inside your arteries = improved cardiovascular health and athletic performance)
- plant-based diets have an effect on continued calorie burn after you’ve eaten your meal
- decreasing body fat can boost athletic endurance
- Reduces Oxidative Stress
- eating a plant-based diet increases antioxidant activity (substances that decrease damage to the cells in your body)
- those who eat a plant-based diet have higher antioxidant enzyme production
- Reduces Inflammation
- antioxidants in plant foods have a direct effect on decreasing inflammation markers in the body, this improves your overall health and athletic performance
- eating a plant-based diet typically decreases the amount of pro-inflammatory foods you’re ingesting i.e.: highly processed foods, meat, junk foods, high sugar, and fatty food, etc.
- Increases Nutrient Intake
- transitioning to a plant-based diet typically improves overall nutrition adequacy
- plant-based foods tend to be high in vitamins, minerals and fiber
- surveys show that virtually all endurance athletes meet recommended protein intakes with a varied plant-based diet
This particular review concludes that plant-based diets play a key role in not only improving cardiovascular health for athletes but also improved performance and accelerated recovery.
When a predominantly plant-based diet is doing more harm than good
Did you know you can eat predominantly plant-based and still be unhealthy? How though?
There are 3 main ways to eat an unhealthy plant-based diet:
- Relying on “vegetarian” processed foods that are typically high in sodium and saturated fats.
- Overeat one specific macronutrient group, usually carbohydrates.
- Eat the same foods over and over leaving out the variety.
Dietitian Jenn does a great job breaking down these 3 points and more for you in her blog post “Are You An Unhealthy Vegetarian?”
Guidelines for your triathlete diet
Foods to make the star of your plate:
- Fruits: peaches, pears, berries, citrus fruits, apples, melons, pineapple, cherries, mango, papaya, etc.
- Vegetables: cauliflower, zucchini, squash, green beans, spinach, kale, salad mixtures, mushrooms, carrots, asparagus, artichokes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.
- Complex carbohydrates: oats, millet, buckwheat, brown rice, quinoa, farro, barley, sweet potato, fall/winter squash, etc.
- Plant-based protein: tempeh, tofu, plant-based protein powders
- Healthy fats: avocado/avocado oil, olives/olive oil, unsweetened coconut, coconut oil
- Beans and legumes: black, chickpea, lima, white, kidney, pinto beans, lentils, split pea, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: cashew, sunflower, pecan, peanut, almond (no sugars added) butters, and tahini. Plain nuts and seeds including cashews, sunflower seeds, pecans, almonds, peanuts, pumpkin, etc.
- Extras: chia seeds, hemp seeds, ground flaxseed, Maca powder
- Anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting: ginger, turmeric, black pepper, green tea, matcha powder, citrus
Foods to Slowly Start Minimizing in Your Diet
- Animal protein such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry, wild meats, and sheep
- Consider dairy, eggs, seafood/fish
Foods to Use Sparingly:
- Fast food: burgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, French fries, etc.
- Added sugar and sweets: sweet tea, sodas, energy drinks, cereals, pastries, cookies, table sugar, candy, fancy coffees, etc.
- Processed or refined grains: white flour, white bread, white pasta, bagels, etc.
- Convenience foods: cereal bars, chips, crackers, frozen dinners, canned soups, and meals, etc.
- Processed meat products: hotdogs, lunch meats, bacon, etc.
- It’s never an all or nothing mentality
- The most important question to ask yourself “Do I feel healthy?” “Do I feel satiated?” “How’s my performance?”
- Create an athlete nutrition plan that works for you
How to get started
So either you’ve decided to jump in and start transitioning your current nutrition plan to a more predominantly plant-based diet or you’re already trying to eat predominantly plant-based and just need to work out the bugs.
Either way, you’re in the right spot!
My first words of advice…transition slowly. Going cold-turkey hardly ever works out like you’ve planned, right?
Trying to maneuver the ins and outs of being a newbie triathlete and re-creating your athlete meal plan might seem a little overwhelming.
Be kind to yourself during this process. Remember, it’s never an all or nothing mentality. The transition takes time.
Keep in mind that going through a transition (no, not between the swim and bike and bike and run) might work best if you start during your off-season when the overwhelm of everything else isn’t breathing down your neck.
Here are 4 tips to get you started in the right direction.
- Eat foods that you enjoy and are easy to prepare.
- Focus on lots of plants at breakfast, you can actually mix and match and come up with a variety of great options.
- Make sure you have plenty of plant-based foods in the house, office drawer, triathlon bag, car, on your bike and even your purse to help you stay on track.
- Focus on eating colorful foods. Your daily nutrition should look like a rainbow!
According to research, transitioning your athlete diet over to a plant-based diet is one of the healthiest moves you can make.
Research continues to show us how eating more plants most of the time not only improves overall heart health but decreases the risk of chronic disease.
In regards to endurance athletes, eating more plants most of the time not only keeps your health in tip-top shape it has been shown to improve athletic performance (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be a stronger, healthier athlete) and your recovery!
If you need guidance and ideas on transitioning your diet or you just need to iron out the bugs, hang out here on this blog where I’ll continue to share not only great nutrition tips to move you towards being a healthier and stronger athlete but also plant-based recipes so you’re not overwhelmed and stressed out in the process.
If you need ideas on what to grab at the grocery store to start your transition to a plant-based diet today grab my FREE Plant-Based Grocery List for Busy Athletes below.
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Dietitian Kathleen and Kona-Qualifier Don Oswalt
Welcome to Eat Love Triathlon! We’re Don and Kathleen your go-to dietitian and triathlete. Together, we’re here to share our latest and greatest tips, with you, on how to be a well-balanced triathlete with nutrition, triathlon and keeping harmony in your relationships. We’re excited you’ve stopped by, happy reading and don’t be shy about reaching out. We’d love to hear from you!