Plants Get Athletes Where They Want To Be

As a registered dietitian and sports dietitian it is my job to help my athletes SHOP- Safeguard Health and Optimize Performance. My athletes want my help to focus on more than just their health. They are concerned about their physique and performance as well as the practicality of their eating plan and palatability of their food choices. I need to address the physiological needs but do that through a focus on the following:

  • Consistency with meals
  • Adequacy of food and fluid
  • Quality of food/fluid
  • Quantity of food/fluid
  • Eating for performance
  • Eating for recovery
  • Eating to optimize body composition
  • Eating to decrease the risk of injury

Athletes need to be mindful of their calories and salaries and need to choose foods that are:

  • Affordable
  • Shelf stable
  • Versatile
  • Palatable
  • Available

In addition, they are looking for foods that help them to stay on the field of play every day.

In the past few years, I have had many athletes express interest in plant-based diets. The popularity of smoothies, acai bowls, veggie based snacks, and veggie burgers has added more plants to the menu. In addition, some athletes are choosing a vegetarian eating pattern for health, environmental concerns or preference. No matter the reason, they still need to meet their nutritional needs for sport. So, time for a #plantchant, The Produce for Better Health Foundation initiative, #haveaplant encourages consumers to make plants part of their eating game plan every day in every way.

So why should an athlete consider a plant-based diet?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020  recommend plant based diets as one of the top three healthy eating patterns and in addition, a plant-based diet may have a significant impact on lowering the risk of diseases/risk factors including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL-C)
  • Elevated total cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Type II Diabetes Mellitus
  • Elevated Body Mass Index
  • Cancer

Having worked with athletes over the past 30 years, some of them do have diabetes, some are at increased risk for heart disease, all are concerned about injury and strategies to support the supporting structure and decrease inflammation, and many are trying to gain muscle or lose body fat or both.


Many of us are already eating a plant based diet even though there may be animal protein on our plate, or in our bowl or glass. The components of a plant based diet include:


  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn
  • Beans
  • Grains
  • Nuts
  • Seeds


  • Macros: carbohydrate, protein, fat, fiber
  • Micros: vitamins and minerals
  • Phytos: antioxidants and phytonutrients
  • Hydros: fluid

All of these nutrients are essential for health, well-being and sports performance. In addition, athletes and active people are concerned about their core. If your gut doesn’t feel good, you don’t feel good. Core training is more than doing ab work, it is making sure that one is optimizing intake of plant-based foods that support a healthy gut, such as polyphenols, oligosaccharides, lignans, short chain fatty acids among others.


Regular intense exercise does stress the body. As a result, athletes are at increased risk for a compromised immune system, increased risk of upper respiratory infection, increased oxidative stress, increased inflammation. To decrease the risk athletes must strategize to optimize and maximize intake of calories, macro and micronutrients.

Optimizing protein intake is essential for muscle protein synthesis and muscle maintenance. The quality, quantity and distribution of protein throughout the day is critically important for health and body composition so plant based proteins such as edamame, soy milk, tofu, beans, grains and vegetables all have a place on the plate. Some athletes find that when they limit animal protein, their fat intake decreases which may result in unintentional weight loss necessitating adequate intake through foods such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and oils . The omega-3 fatty acids have a role to play in decreasing inflammation and can be obtained in foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia and algae in a supplemental form.

Athletes that are plant-based or plant exclusive,  need to emphasize the following nutrients:
Pesco-vegetarian: adequate calories, iron, Vitamin D if levels are low
Lacto-ovo and lacto vegetarians: omega-3s, iron, zinc, B vitamins, iodine
Vegan: adequate calories, protein, fat, omega-3s, B12, calcium, zinc, iodine, iron


Calcium 1000 mg 1000 mg
Iron 8 mg M, 18 mg F 14 mg M, 32 mg F
Zinc 11 mg M, 8 mg F 16.5 mg M, 12 mg F
Iodine 150 µg 150 µg
Vitamin B12 6 µg 6 µg
Vitamin D 400 IU but more if 25 (OH) D levels are < 30 nmol/L 400 IU but more if 25 (OH) D levels are < 30 nmol/L
Potassium 4700 mg 4700 mg


Here are food sources of nutrients of concern for plant based athletes.

  • Omega 3 – leafy greens, flax/chia, hemp, walnuts
  • Iron – iron cookware, leafy greens, asparagus, tofu, lentils, sesame seeds, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, fortified oats, black beans
  • Zinc – pumpkin & hemp seeds, chickpeas, almonds, cooked oatmeal, fortified cereals
  • Iodine – iodized salt, kelp, seaweed, prunes, Lima beans, Raisin Bran
  • Calcium – fortified soymilk, collard greens, Bok choy, kale, nuts, seeds
  • Vitamin D – supplementation if necessary, fortified plant “milks”
  • B12 – nutritional yeast, fortified plant-based “milks”, Shiitake mushrooms, fortified meat alternatives, some fortified cereals
  • Riboflavin – fortified grains
  • Potassium – potatoes, bananas, citrus, tomatoes, kiwi


Plants are a powerhouse of nutrients. Carbohydrate from produce and grain is essential for optimized training and performance. The phytonutrients, antioxidants and dietary nitrates combat inflammation and oxidative stress and contribute to improved blood flow. The water content of fruits and vegetables contributes to the daily fluid requirements to ensure adequate hydration. In addition, plant based foods can provide the necessary protein with the added benefit of fiber and phytonutrients.

And plants don’t have to be a high price point purchase. Foods such as beans, canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables, seasonal fresh produce, potatoes, salsa, spaghetti sauce and bean soups are affordable, ready to use, easy to prep with great taste and minimal waste. For athletes on a budget, low cost plant based proteins include: TVP, beans, lentils, split peas, quinoa, tofu, nuts and seeds.

At the end of the day, if the food does not look or taste good, it does not get eaten. Familiarity rules in getting athletes to eat more plant based foods.

Here are some suggestions:

INSTEAD OF                                        TRY

Animal protein based Burgers            Blended burgers: meat+ mushrooms/ veggie burgers

Meat stir-fries                                     Veggie, tofu, edamame or bean based stir fries

Chili with few or no beans                  Bean based chili or chili made with meat alternatives

Meat based tacos                                Tacos made with meat alternatives and add veggies, salsa and beans

Pasta with meat sauce                        Pasta with marinara sauce with pureed cannellini beans

Ice cream based shake                        Frozen fruit, nut butter, vegetables to boost produce

Give me  a P-L-A-N-T- plants get my athletes where they want to be!
Produce for the win and to nourish and flourish form within.

#producetoperform #haveaplant

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