Have you always believed that you had to constantly be eating meat to get enough protein? Yep, me too.
It has been a long-held belief in both the fitness and nutrition industry that an athlete must rely on animal foods to get enough protein in their diet to recover, rebuild, and refuel muscles after a workout. Makes sense.
But is it actually true?
If you saw my email last week, you know that my partner and I were watching Game Changers, a documentary about plant-based nutrition for athletes and non-athletes alike.
The message resonated with us so much that we both decided to dive all in to boost energy, perform our best, and recover better from our workouts.
After all, the best way to see if something works for you is to just try it, right?
I’m dedicated to sharing my plant-based journey here, step by step. Along the way, I’ll provide as much info as I can; the science, potential health benefits, tips and tricks, and of course, whether or not it is actually working for me.
What’s A Plant-Based Diet Look Like?
The first week had me asking a lot of questions. Eating habits can be pretty tough to break, so I wanted to really understand what a plant-based diet would look like for me individually.
What are my options? Will I have more energy or less at the start? Should I cut out all refined sugar or just lower it? Are whole grains worth it?
Does bathing in coconut milk give me bonus points? (Ok, maybe not that last one.)
I sought out a lot of information, turning to my nutrition certification resources at Precision Nutrition, and consulted with other nutrition and fitness-focused colleagues. Here are the first two lessons I learned.
Lesson 1: You’ve Got A Lot Of Plant-Based Options
The first thing that stood out to me? There are many different definitions of a plant-based diet. It’s easy to think that a “plant-based” diet means absolutely no meat intake, but it’s not necessarily true! Plant-based just means mostly plants, not plants only.
Lesson 2: A Plant-Based Diet Is Not A Magic Bullet
I want to remind you of something important. All five of these plant-based diets can be a healthy diet. They can also be un-healthy. It all depends on…
- How mindful you are of what you’re taking in.
- The ratio of whole foods versus things like refined grains and processed foods.
- Leveraging a healthy diet by living a healthy lifestyle.
Plant Foods = Healthy Foods?
Imagine a plant-based diet, but it’s only sweet potato, brown rice, and other starchy vegetables. Doesn’t seem like a great idea. A vegan diet that relies a little too much on french fries and does not get the exercise the body craves? Not ideal either.
Each plant-based diet above requires extra care if you want to make sure you’re getting the right levels of essential nutrients and cooking with healthy fats, for example.
With all of this in mind, here’s a basic look at five different plant-based diets and a quick look at some pros and cons. I’ve ordered them from most strict to least.
A vegan diet is obviously on the list; no animal products here! Strict vegan diets fall into the “plant-based” bucket because the “plantiness” of their diet is 100 percent.
Research shows that a strict vegan diet has some positive effects on blood sugar, kidney function, heart disease, and even arthritis. Plus, the high intake of plant foods bumps up nutrients like potassium, folate, and several vitamins.
And while it used to be that a vegan diet had barely any options, that’s changing! Plant-based milks, plant-based protein, nut-based cheeses, and more allow for a wider variety than ever. Just make sure to keep whole foods as your staple.
Without proper nutritional planning, vegan diets might not provide enough vitamin B12, EFAs (essential fatty acids like Omega-3), and other nutrients. If you go this route, again, focus on whole foods (and possibly supplementing with a good multivitamin).
Vegetarian diets eliminate meat and seafood, but they do sometimes consume animal products such as eggs, dairy, and honey. Though their food choices are less plant-focused than a vegan’s, they’re still plant-based eaters.
You get solid variety, which helps simplify your meal plans. You’ll also enjoy some of the health benefits a vegan diet might provide, since plant-based foods are still the majority source of nutrients (take that, cardiovascular disease!)
Thanks to the rise of plant proteins, plant-based recipes, and new ways of processing food, there’s a ton of heavily processed food that qualifies as vegetarian, but could actually carry the same health risks as animal-based foods. Take a cue from vegans, and aim for minimally processed plant foods; whole grains, whole foods, think “whole” as much as you can.
Also known as semi-vegetarians, or part-time vegetarians, this is a vegetarian diet that consumes meat and seafood occasionally (or just in small amounts). But because they eat more plants than meat, they still fall into the plant-based bucket.
Flexitarians get to balance the lowered risk of chronic diseases that vegetarians get with a wide culinary variety.
I don’t know about you, but for me, allowing too much variety in my diet sometimes creates pressure to make hasty decisions when I shop; analysis paralysis is a real thing.
You also may find yourself “falling off the wagon” slightly more often, which of course could minimize (or even cancel out) the many health benefits of a more strictly plant-based diet.
This is an easy one: A plant-based diet also rich in fish or seafood. Dairy and eggs are optional, and many pescatarians opt to keep them in for variety’s sake. The bulk of their diet, though, is still plant-based.
It’s been established that fish can be a significantly healthier alternative to red meat. Some studies also indicate that the gut microbiome—the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut—help ward off obesity when they digest polyunsaturated fatty acids; the kind you find mostly in fish!
The biggest con here is ethically sourcing your fish and seafood. If you watched Seaspiracy or read The Outlaw Ocean by Pulitzer prize winner Ian Urbina, you’ll know the health of our ocean ecosystems is reaching critical mass. There are also studies on the horizon detailing how microplastics in the ocean are affecting nutrient levels in fish.
#5 Mediterranean Diet
People who follow Mediterranean (or Paleo) diets might eat meat as often as every day. But they also tend to also eat a lot of whole plant foods. These are low-carb diets and focus on eliminating processed foods and refined sugar and replacing them with healthy fats.
As long as plants make up a significant portion of what they eat, we can consider them plant-based too.
It’s not just buckets of olive oil; this plant-based diet offers a ton of variety. I include Paleo because the macro ratios (percentages of fats, proteins, and carbs) are similar. By focusing more heavily on healthy fats, Mediterranean and Paleo diets can also help regulate hormone levels.
Also, strict Mediterranean diets are associated with a significantly lower risk of cognitive impairment with age.
Honestly, your mileage can vary. I’ve had clients try both Mediterranean and Paleo diets, and while they enjoyed the variety, the higher fat intake seemed to be hard on their digestive system.
In addition, many of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet are also tied to a Mediterranean lifestyle (aka walking in a hilly environment, getting a lot of sun, etc.) which may not be as easy to achieve where you live.
Link to more in-depth research here
What I Chose
What I found that fits with my philosophy best is #2, a vegetarian diet. This means I intend to occasionally include eggs and cheese but stay away from red meat, poultry, and fish.
Eggs have been a consistent item in my nutrition program because they are the most closely related protein to what the human body produces to repair muscles after a hard workout.
Bonus, the choline found in egg yolks is a building block of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential for memory.
And cheese? Don’t get me started.
So I did the research, I chose the plant-based diet to try, I have a wonderful partner to help hold me accountable on the journey. All that is left is to get cooking and see how I feel!
And after a week of exploring the culinary side of a vegetarian diet, I learned a few more lessons.
Lesson 3: Plant-Based Diets Don’t Have To Be Bland!
I’ll admit that when I started this adventure, my (and my partner’s) mental image of a plant-based diet was pretty bland.
Sure, I had my nutrition training to help us understand all the health benefits, but when it came time to actually cook, we had never fully explored my options.
Our plan was to begin by choosing plant-based or vegetarian recipes the next time we cooked together, which is usually Thursday and Saturdays each week. On Thursday, it is my night to select the recipe, shop for the ingredients, and set us up for success.
Along the way, we made some adjustments to the cooking recipe to make it fit our preferences better. We chose to swap out the soba noodles for rice noodles and add in tofu for extra protein.
It turned out great! The egg and the nut butter (yes, you read that right) give it richness, and the sriracha gives it kick. So satisfying.
Here’s a pic of the result of our efforts!
The only drawback to the recipe is how long the prep time was. The rice noodles needed to rest in cold water, which added another 30 minutes to our prep time. Nevertheless, it was not a difficult recipe.
I thought at first the dish wouldn’t make enough food to be filling, but the fiber in the vegetables filled us up quickly. The original recipe has 18.5 grams of protein per serving, but the extra tofu bumped that up, making for a dish that was satisfying as it was tasty—and nourishing for the body.
We had plenty for leftovers which you can see portioned out below for easy grab-n-go lunches!
Later on in the first week, my partner chose “The Best Vegan Chili Ever”, a recipe from It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken. And, with gluten-free cornbread to compliment the dish! We both agreed that this was one of our favorite dishes we’ve had together; vegetarian, vegan, or not!
Again, time was the only real drawback. The tofu takes 45 minutes to cook, and the chili itself once brought to a boil was another hour simmering on the stove!
That being said, the effort was totally worth the wait, as we both loved the chili with cornbread. Honestly, with all the other great flavors dancing in this chili, it’s impossible to tell the difference between baked tofu and ground chicken.
Here is the recipe with images below of how it turned out!
Plant-Based Eating: How Do I Feel?
It is all well and good to write about science, recipes, plant-based meals, and how amazing baked tofu is. But we still have not covered the final piece of the puzzle: How have I been feeling?
I Feel Great
With 100% adherence to a new plant-based, vegetarian diet, I genuinely feel a lot of energy while performing my best. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a slump in the mid-afternoon.
This first week, I powered through two intense jiu-jitsu classes. Near the end of the second class, our coaches opened up the mats to students who wished to spar more. I powered through 3 more 5-7 minute rounds with teammates with energy to spare!
I’m going to be 100% honest: I wasn’t expecting to have the energy to do that!
Final Thoughts On Week One
Overall, my first week of eating plant-based was a wonderful experience, with the boost in energy I was looking for while filling in the gaps in my previous nutrition program with fiber, nutrient-dense carbohydrates to fuel performance, and recover from workouts better than ever.
I’ve also discovered it’s a diet rich in variety and flavor, even if things take a little longer to cook.
Healthy habits can be hard to maintain though, so I am looking forward to seeing what challenges, questions, and successes the next week brings.
And as always, if you’re looking for support in your own journey toward a plant-based diet, sign up for free emails below. I’ll be happy to share what I find with you!