How To Fuel Intense Workouts With A Plant-Based Diet

When you think about an athlete what do you picture? A guy with big bulging muscles eating 10,000 calories a day in chicken and broccoli? Or a buff female with six-pack abs drinking a whey protein shake? This is often the stereotypical thought of an athlete but this is not always the case. In this blog, I will show you how to fuel intense workouts with a plant-based diet.  

In my opinion, an athlete is anyone who takes care of their body and strives to regularly perform better with each workout. To get better, not only do your workouts need to be well planned out and at a level of intensity that pushes you out of your comfort zone, but your nutrition needs to support your activity. Nutrient dense food will also speed up recovery and repair the tissues that build strength. 

The question most people ask is, “is it possible to get enough nutrients from plant-based foods to support intense, athletic-based workouts?” This answer is an undeniable YES… and research supports it! 

The Benefits Of A Plant-Based Diet

Athletes are prone to oxidative stress and inflammation in the body that ultimately breaks down tissues, causes cells to die and eventually result in break down and injury. This happens because by-products, such as lactic acid and free-radicals, are released as the body uses oxygen and other products as fuel during exercise. Think of it this way… when you put gas in your car, and burn the gas as you drive, a by-product of exhaust is released into the air. This is similar to the by-products released with exercise. 

Your muscle cells primarily depend on mitochondria to create energy. A build up of free-radicals in the body attack the mitochondria, which will produce less energy. As a result your muscle cells will switch to a process called anaerobic glycolysis to make up for the energy loss. Unfortunately, when the body overuses this form of energy production, too much lactic acid builds up in the muscles and fatigue sets in. 

The only way an athlete, or active person, can be sure to reduce oxidative stress and prevent breakdown of tissues and injury is to consume an adequate amount of antioxidants, which are foods that prevent and reduce inflammation in the body. Plant foods are high in antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory, unlike animal products such as meat, animal fat and dairy, which have been proven time and time again to cause inflammation.

This is why many athletes are turning to a plant-based diet to fuel their performance. 

Things To Consider When Choosing A Plant-Based Diet

Eating a diet rich in plant-based food is proven to be a healthy way to feed the body. However, it’s not just about cutting out meat. It’s important to consistently eat a wide variety of nutrient dense foods rather than eating too many refined and processed foods.

When choosing to eat a vegan diet start by asking these few questions:

1) Where will you get your protein?  

Most athletes are worried they won’t get enough protein eating a plant-based diet but this is absolutely untrue. Plant-foods are rich in highly bioavailable sources of protein; however, it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you get all the essential amino acids.

Science shows that an endurance athlete requires about 0.8 – 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight and a strength athlete up to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This, compared to the 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, proves that getting enough protein should be the least of your worries. Essentially, if you are eating enough calories and a wide variety of whole-foods, you will get enough protein. 

Here is a list of high protein foods you will want to add into your diet when eating a diet rich in plant-based foods:

  • Legumes: 1/2 cup = 15 to 26 grams of protein
  • Tofu: 1/2 cup = 20 grams of complete protein
  • Hemp seeds: 1/4 cup = 15 grams of complete protein
  • Quinoa: 1/2 cup = 14 grams of complete protein
  • Almonds: 1/4 cup = 8 grams of protein
  • Soy milk: 8 ounces = 4 to 8 grams of protein
  • Sunflower seeds: 1/4 cup = 7.3 grams of protein
  • Sesame & poppy seeds: 1/4 cup = 5.4 grams of protein
  • Oats: 1/2 cup = 5 grams of protein
  • Broccoli: 1 cup = 4.3 grams of protein
  • Buckwheat: 1/2 cup = 3 grams of complete protein
  • Leafy Greens: 2 cups = 2.1 grams of protein
  • Spirulina: 1/2 Tbsp = 2 grams of protein
  • Chia seeds:  Tbsp = 2 grams of protein
  • Raw Cacao: 1 Tbsp = 1 gram of protein

Eating a combination of these foods will provide you with a complete profile of amino acids. For example, combining rice with beans creates a complete amino acid profile. Some plant-based protein sources, including soy (tofu), quinoa, hemp seeds and buckwheat contain all nine essential amino acids.  

For more information on plant-based sources of protein click the link to read article: “21 Best Sources Of Plant-Based Protein. 

2) How will you get enough vitamins and minerals? 

Eating a wide variety of fruits and veggies will guarantee you get enough vitamins and minerals. If you find you are unable to eat enough of these foods you may want to consider taking a whole food supplement to ensure you are getting enough of these nutrients. 

As mentioned before, it is important to eat foods that are rich in anti-oxidants such as brightly coloured foods like carrots, peppers, tomatoes, oranges, beets and lemons to reduce inflammation in the body. However, you must also be sure to eat foods rich in fat soluble vitamins,  water soluble vitamins such as vitamin B12 and minerals like magnesium. 

Fat soluble vitamins, like vitamin D, can be more difficult to obtain if eating a nutrient deficient vegan diet but if you eat a diet rich in whole-real food it becomes much easier. 

Magnesium-rich foods like green leafy vegetables and almonds are great for increasing cellular energy production and reducing muscle cramps. 

3) What healthy fats need to be included in my diet? 

Eating healthy, unsaturated and omega fats is important for optimal health and athletic performance. Healthy fats are responsible for optimal nerve, brain and heart function as well as support the health of the hair, skin and nails.  

Nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives will help keep your calorie intake up and they’re a great source of healing anti-inflammatory fats. Eating algae food like spirulina and chlorella as well as plant-based omega supplements are great sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3’s that are a great addition to a vegan diet. 

4) What foods are best to eat before a workout? 

This is a common question I get a lot from my clients.  There is so much information out there, and often conflicting information, that it’s hard to know what is right.

The best foods to eat before a workout are those rich in fast acting sugar, or carbohydrates, such as fruit. This type of carbohydrates are quickly digested and uploaded to the the blood stream for immediate energy. This fast-acting energy will give you enough fuel to power you through your workout. 

Pre-workout fuel examples include:

  • Dates – these power packed fruits are rich in fast acting sugar and fibre. They won’t be too heavy in the stomach and are perfect to eat just before a workout. 
  • Fruit Juice or coconut water – Drinking fruit juice or coconut water before your workout will give you the fast acting sugar you need to fuel your workout without sitting heavy in your stomach. 
  • Fruit smoothie – A blend of fruits in smoothie form is a great grab and go snack to drink before a workout. Just make sure you drink it 30-60 minutes before your workout so you don’t get the liquid sloshing around your stomach. 
  • Apple or banana – Any fruit is the perfect pre-workout food. Fruit is easy to digest and provide fast acting sugars to the blood stream. 
  • Oatmeal – Oatmeal is great for fuel if you have it an hour or so before your workout. The sugars will be released a little slower but will provide you with more energy to get your through an intense workout. 

5) What foods are best to eat after a workout?

It’s just as important to fuel your body after a workout as it is before. The only difference is you will want to consume a carbohydrate, which will replenish the stored energy in your muscles and liver that you just depleted in your workout, and a protein source, which will help your body repair the broken down tissue and recover from your workout. 

Some post-workout fuel examples include:

  • Oatmeal with nut butter – Oatmeal is rich in healthy carbohydrates and protein and nut butter is rich in protein and healthy fats. The perfect post-workout combo.
  • Tofu stir-fry – A blend of tofu, veggie and brown rice is a meal rich in carbohydrates and protein that will help your body recover and repair. 
  • Protein shake – Add a shot of your favourite plant-based protein power to your fruit smoothie and voila… grab and go meal to get you home form the gym. 
  • Protein bar – Don’t have time to make a smoothie or meal? Keep a protein bar in your bag and eat it while driving home. 
  • Apple or banana with almond butter – A simple snack that will give you the energy you need post workout. 
  • Homemade energy balls – These are great little snacks and easy to make too! Need a recipe? Click the link for Energy Bliss Balls recipe. 
  • Whole grain toast with nut butter – If you are not far from home and can eat this simple snack shortly after your workout it is easy and nutritious. 
  • Handful of nuts with dried fruit – This is easy to pack in your bag and will help you recover from your workout with health carbohydrates, fats and proteins. 
  • Hummus and veggies – This is the perfect snack post workout as chickpeas, which is usually what hummus is made of, are rich in protein and carbohydrates. 

A vegan diet isn’t about what you’re NOT eating, it’s about what you ARE eating. You can by far get enough nutrition by eating only plant foods and science proves that it is better for performance and recovery than an animal-based diet. A vegan diet is the way of the future as it is not only healthier but more sustainable for the environment and does not require the exploitation of living beings. 

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Until next time…


Rachel Joy Olsen, BSc., MBA

Author, Health & Wellness coach