Training on a Meatless Diet
People tend to always want to find a simple fix for their diet. Every “diet” goes has it’s time, as people like to simplify their diets some “bad” group of foods (vegan/vegetarian = eliminate meat, keto = eliminate carbs, paleo = eliminate processed foods, etc.)
I’ve had a number of athletes ask me about going plant-based. As noted above, I don’t think any particular elimination is a panacea for health, as you should place equal consideration towards what you are putting into your body as what you are restricting. There are “dirty vegan”, “dirty keto”, and bad versions of every diet out there – so it’s important to learn your body and find the best way to implement each diet.
As it relates to plant-based diets, here are some of the points I tell our fighters to consider and address as they adapt to training on a meatless diet:
Recurring theme: Lower bioavailability of plants. A recurring theme here is the lower bioavailability of nutrients when consuming plants that are not properly prepared (soaking, sprouting, fermenting when necessary). Consider this an evolutionary adaptation for plants to survive, while animals have been adapted to survive by fighting or fleeing, plants have their own defense systems and are often indigestible. It’s still possible to maintain a healthy diet, but I would be extremely aware of the following:
Deficiencies to consider:
- 4 C’s:
- Choline: Good for cognition. A common source of choline is from egg yolks.
- Creatine: Can help with reaction time, memory, and strength
- Carnitine: Carnitine helps us use our fat stores for energy and is also associated with lower rates of depression
- Carnosine: An antioxidant that helps reduce the formation of dangerous AGEs, or advanced glycation end products
- Iron absorption: Eat more natural sources of Vitamin C!
- Heme iron found in animals is more bioavailable than non-heme iron found in plants. Pairing non-heme iron with Vitamin C sources (swiss chard, spinach, etc.) can help increase absorption.
- Consider supplementing vitamins B, A, K, D3, and Taurine.
- Lower B12 levels is a risk factor for cognitive impairment
- The bioavailability of Vitamin B6 is much lower in plants than in animal foods
- Plant-based sources for Vitamin A are really just beta-carotene, which is a precursor to Vitamin A, requiring 21x the dosage to retain the equivalent amount of Vitamin A
- Plant-based diets provide vitamin K1 as opposed to vitamin K2 from eating meat. Vitamin K2 is necessary for bone density and arterial health.
- Plant-based diets tend to get more Vitamin D2 than D3, which isn’t as effective.
- Taurine is crucial for a number of important functions, such as brain development, healthy blood pressure, blood glucose stability, fighting free radicals and protecting your vision.
- Omega 3’s:
- Consider a good omega 3 (high EPA/DHA) supplement. Note that vegetarians only get ALA fatty acids in their diet, which has a very poor conversion into EPA/DHA (less than 10%). ALA from soybean and canola oils should be avoided entirely.
- With vegetarians typically having low Omega 3’s, they are also more likely to have a poor Omega 3:6 ratio. Omega 6’s are inflammatory (measure with a blood test for C-reactive protein). Most people (vegetarian or not) have a poor ratio of omega 3 to 6, so going vegetarian without being aware of this may pose problems.
It’s easy to eat a poor vegetarian diet as well, avoid the following:
- Processed foods (including heavily processed fake meats)
- Foods that spike blood sugar (plant based should actually be plant based, so carb sources should have fiber), or
- Foods high in antinutrients/lectins/oxalates.
Read “The Plant Paradox” for more info on making more of your veggies bioavailable (fermenting soy, sprouting seeds and grains, peel veggies, eat fruit in season, minimizing high lectin foods, etc.)
I often also recommend getting bloodwork done more frequently when experimenting with a new diet. In particular, look at inflammation (C-reactive protein, which you may have to request) and, believe it or not, making sure that your cholesterol levels do not get too low. I wrote more extensively about the misconception that LDL cholesterol is bad, and the importance of functioning cholesterol here. In general, extremely low cholesterol numbers are a bad sign for cognition and overall health – cholesterol is needed by every cell in your body and is necessary for the production of hormones and vitamin D! Also, as always, I recommend going for an NMR test or advanced lipoprotein test that gives LDL particle count as the standard lipoprotein test is pretty useless.
Finally, it’s important to test a1c or HOMA-IR levels – going “plant-based” definitely shouldn’t mean loading up on bagels and enriched flour. Instead, opt for high-fiber source of carbohydrates that do not spike blood sugar or insulin. I’ve written more about what to look for in your bloodwork here.