These days, there is so much nutrition information available, it isn’t easy to discern what’s best for you. And the stakes are high! Diet plays a key role in how we feel and perform, as well as in long-term disease prevention.

The main theme of this article is that plant-based nutrition doesn’t rely only on specific foods for specific nutrients, contrary to what we’ve been taught and to conventional wisdom. You probably grew up learning that milk is the best source of calcium and meat is the best source of protein from the successful advertising campaigns associated with these foods. These campaigns were so effective that people are now mistaking food for nutrients. It’s such a pervasive idea that even proponents of plant-based diets sometimes fall into this trap and compare soymilk directly to dairy milk, or beans directly to meat, to prove their nutritional value.

But there’s no need to make these comparisons. Why? Because in plant-based nutrition, the focus is on eating a variety of whole foods that contain many nutrients in varying amounts. We don’t need to get 30 percent of our calcium from any single source because we can get calcium from half a dozen different sources.

The Benefits of Getting Nutrients from a Variety of Sources

Plant-based whole foods are incredibly rich sources of the vitamins and minerals we need. Traditional nutrition information assumes that people eat only small amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. In plant-based nutrition, the emphasis is on variety and significant amounts of these nutrient-dense foods. This variety is beneficial for our taste buds and is the basis of a solid nutrition plan that will meet your needs. As you learn more about plant-based nutrition, consider the following key points:

In plant-based nutrition, the emphasis is on variety because there are so many nutrient-dense plant foods.

1. You absorb more nutrients when you consume them in smaller amounts. Your body is not an empty bucket that collects extra nutrients. It only absorbs and uses the nutrients it needs at the time; if you eat more than needed, your body discards them. For example, if you take an 18 mg iron supplement all at once, it will be poorly absorbed. Iron absorption is highest when only small amounts are consumed at one time. This is true for most nutrients.

2. When you have variety in your diet, you have more opportunities to get the nutrients you need. The average person’s diet has very little variety. When you eat only a few types of foods, you have fewer opportunities to get the nutrients you need. In plant-based nutrition, the emphasis is on variety because there are so many nutrient-dense plant foods.

For example, what if you don’t want to consume dairy products? Does that mean you’ll be lacking in calcium? Of course not. You can get calcium from kale, broccoli, collard greens, and tofu, among other foods. Don’t like leafy greens? Then there’s soymilk. Don’t like soymilk? Try almond milk. Once you open the door to variety, your opportunities to get the nutrients you need are near limitless.

3. A varied diet acts as insurance against nutritional deficiency. On one hand, if you eat the same ten foods day after day, week after week, there’s a chance you’ll eventually become deficient in a certain amino acid, vitamin, or nutrient that happens to be lacking from that small selection of foods. On the other hand, if you eat a huge variety of whole foods each week, it’s far less likely that you’ll be missing any specific nutrient for long.


If you look at the nutrition facts for fruits and vegetables, you may be surprised to see very low numbers. Why? Because the serving sizes of these foods are small compared to what plant-based athletes eat.

The serving size for cooked broccoli is only half of a cup (36 g). That’s only a few florets! When broccoli becomes the focus of your dinner, it’s easy and reasonable to eat three cups (213 g), especially if you’re adding it to a stir-fry, where vegetables cook down when heated thoroughly. In those three cups (213 g) of broccoli, you get six servings and six times the nutrients you would if you were to eat only one serving. This adds up to 10 percent of the daily requirement for calcium and iron in only sixty calories.

The same is true with fruit. My favorite breakfast is mashed up bananas with almond butter and diced apples. I use four ripe bananas or even more when I have a hard training day ahead. Bananas are mostly carbohydrate, but in four servings, you get five grams of protein. Not enough to recommend bananas as a source of protein, but it is slightly more than the amount of protein in one small egg!

Macronutrients: Getting the Calories You Need from Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat
There’s a scene in the terrific documentary Super Size Me in which people on the street are asked what they think a calorie is. The responses are mostly about how they are bad for you or that they should be avoided. This scene demonstrates just how confused most people are when it comes to nutrition.

Calories are nothing more than units of measure for energy—they’re neither good nor bad until we view them in a particular context. Calories are found in all foods in the form of carbohydrate, protein, or fat. Collectively, these sources of calories are called macronutrients; they always have calories and are the only sources of calories.

Below, I’ve outlined how carbohydrates are the absolute best source of fuel for your workouts, how plant protein is more than adequate, and how fat in a plant-based diet is both essential and beneficial. I want you to understand this information well to be the best athlete possible and a smart advocate for vegetarian or vegan eating.

Carbohydrate: Make It Your Fuel of Choice

Carbohydrate is the calorie that’s most readily turned to energy to fuel our activities. Research shows that carbohydrate, which closely resembles the glucose and glycogen our cells use for energy, helps athletes perform their best and should be the base of a healthy diet for active people.

Carbohydrates break down into two groups: complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates are long chains of glucose found in the starch and cellulose of plants. In addition to being a preferred fuel source, complex carbohydrates are a rich source of fiber. Complex carbohydrates are the fuel of choice for athletes, and plant foods like whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes are high in complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates are those found in fruits and refined wheat and sugar products. They are short-chain molecules and are very rapidly digested and turned to energy.

Between 50 and 70 percent of your calories should be from carbohydrates. Starchy vegetables and whole grains are the most nutritional sources of complex carbohydrates. Legumes also contain significant amounts of carbohydrate, which should be taken into consideration when building meals.


From the Atkins to the Paleo diet, it seems like many people are avoiding carbs these days. And the most confusing part is that people who actively reduce their carbohydrate intake appear to lose weight, get strong, and feel healthier. Why is that?

A common thread among low-carb diet plans is that they considerably reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrate products like white bread and rice, soda, and highly processed baked goods. Does this sound familiar? Our plant-based recommendations, which are in no way low-carb, suggest making the same changes! Refined sugar and refined grains contain calories but have very little, if any, other nutritional value. These are known as empty calories. As you probably have experienced, it is very easy to eat too much of these foods.

These processed foods are significantly different than the whole foods we recommend throughout this article. Whole grains, legumes, fruits, and starchy vegetables contain the carbohydrates you need for fuel, protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals to boot!

Fiber—you can have too much of a good thing

For most people, making the transition to plant-based foods from the standard American diet involves seriously increasing the grams of fiber consumed per day. One benefit of fiber is that it promotes the movement of material through your digestive tract. In other words, increased bathroom breaks. Your body will adjust better to an increase in fiber when you add it slowly.

Also, some athletes report problems with fiber, such as stomach distress and increased bowel movements during exercise. If this is the case, reduce your fiber intake leading up to and during a competitive event or long training day. As a result, you might need to eat some extra refined carbohydrate to meet your caloric needs, and that’s okay.

Any adjustment should be based on a balance of what your own body prefers and what you are comfortable eating. If most days your diet is very healthy, consisting of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, then a few days eating lower-fiber foods will not affect your overall health. Some athletes look forward to these days to eat special foods they normally avoid, while others do not have to make any changes at all.

Protein: Building Muscles with Plant Foods

Oh, protein. It’s the topic many amateur athletes think they are experts in, and one of the first targets of criticism in any discussion involving plant-based diets and sports. Many people believe a plant-based diet doesn’t provide enough protein, but this isn’t true. Protein is easy enough to obtain without eating meat. Let’s start with understanding the science behind protein.

When we talk about protein, what we are really discussing are amino acids. These amino acids have specific roles in metabolism, muscle development, and wound healing. Nine of them can’t be created by our bodies or from other amino acids and are therefore called “essential” amino acids.

When you hear about one protein source being better than another, it’s in reference to the amino acid makeup. Some animal foods contain all of the amino acids in the amounts we need. If you ate only eggs and nothing else for months and months, for example, you would not develop an amino acid deficiency (but probably a host of other deficiencies!). Do the same with only lentils, however, and you may not get enough of the amino acid methionine.

Fortunately, no one eats like this. When we eat a variety of foods, most of which have some protein, at the end of the day we get all of the amino acids we need. The measure by which animal and vegetable proteins are usually compared is inadequate and outdated.

If you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. For example, lentils and soymilk are made up of more than 30 percent protein. Even some foods we usually think of as purely carbohydrate sources contain a fair amount of protein—15 percent of the calories in whole-wheat pasta are from protein, and even brown rice is about 8 percent protein.


Between 10 and 20 percent of your total daily calories need to come from protein. High-protein foods include beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

There are a few different ways to make protein recommendations. One is by grams based on your body weight. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), for example, recommends consuming 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight (or 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight). This is useful for calculating out the number of grams of protein you need for each day. For example, if I weigh 175 pounds and need 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, my daily protein need is sixty-three grams.

Another way to calculate protein requirements is as a percentage of the calories you eat each day, aiming for 10 to 20 percent of your total calories to come from protein. For example, if the calculations in the “Calculating Your Daily Calories” box tell you that you need 2,400 calories per day to meet your protein needs, then you should shoot to get 240 to 480 of those calories from protein. Every gram of protein is four calories (each gram of carbohydrate is also four calories; a gram of fat is nine calories), so this equates to between 60 and 120 grams of protein each day. This range, of course, will vary depending on your particular daily total caloric needs.


Sure, athletes need more protein than non-athletes. But we also need more carbohydrates and fat. In fact, our overall caloric needs are much higher because we burn so much energy in our training.

Because we’re eating more calories, we’re automatically consuming more protein if we stay at 10 to 20 percent of our total. Let that sink in for a minute: as your caloric needs increase from the exercise you are doing, your intake of protein increases as well.

For example, I weigh about 175 pounds, and I need 2,500 calories most days. If I’m striving for 10 percent, then 250 of those calories need to be from protein. Dividing by four (the number of calories per gram of protein), this amounts to about sixty-three grams of protein as my recommended daily intake.

When I’m training hard, I need more energy to fuel my longer, tougher workouts, and my total caloric needs can easily double (see how to calculate your daily caloric needs shown here). Therefore, in order to maintain the proper protein/calorie ratio, so does my protein consumption.

Because athletes burn more calories than sedentary people and therefore require more calories, I tell the vegan athletes I consult to shoot for 0.45 to 0.55 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight).


If I am going to rid the world of ignorance about plant proteins, I’m going to start by eliminating the phrase “incomplete protein.” It is misleading and biased, and we should stop using it. When people say a protein is “incomplete,” they are implying it is completely devoid of some amino acids. But here’s the catch—all sources of protein have all of the essential amino acids! Some plant foods just don’t have them all in the right amount if you were to only eat that one food forever.

The problem with the idea of ​​complete and incomplete proteins is simple: suppose we only eat one type of food! This is an example of a common nutritional mistake – focusing on specific nutrients in a food without seeing them in the context of a complete diet. To say that a protein is incomplete ignores the big picture and is often used to criticize plant-based diets.

While it’s tempting to want to combine these “incomplete” proteins as a whole, the truth is, you don’t have to combine protein sources in a given meal. Really. I know you’ve heard it many times, even the college book that I teach is compulsory! But trust me, you don’t need to make complete protein in a meal. Our bodies collect the amino acids we need when we ingest them over a 24-hour period and use them as needed.

Some combinations of complete proteins occur naturally – think beans with rice, chickpeas with couscous, or granola with soy milk. But this is not a requirement for us to get all of the indispensable amino acids. Combining proteins was popularized in the 1970s by the influential book Diet for a Small Planet, by Francis Moore Lappe. Although combining plant proteins has been deemed unnecessary for decades—Lappe even added a statement in later editions about there being no need to combine proteins—the idea still lives on.

Fat: A Beneficial Component of a Plant-Based Diet

Dietary fat is an important part of a solid nutrition plan, from the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids required by our bodies to the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that can lower our cholesterol levels. Whole foods, as we’ve learned, are more than single sources of nutrients, and most foods contain all three sources of calories: carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

Fat contains nine calories per gram, more than twice as much as carbohydrate and protein. These calories can add up fast, which is what led to the low-fat craze of the 1990s. For example, one tablespoon (15 ml) of olive oil has 120 calories. Now compare that to broccoli: it takes six cups (426 g) to reach 120 calories! One-hundred and twenty calories of broccoli is chock full of nutrients like calcium and phytochemicals like lutein, while olive oil, for example, is almost 100 percent fat with few other nutrients.


Some newer studies have called into question the link between saturated fat (found in many animal products, especially dairy, but also in some plant foods like coconut) and heart disease. But these new studies don’t overturn decades of research that shows saturated fat does indeed raise cholesterol levels and increase risk of heart disease. The new evidence shows the importance of what you replace the saturated fat with. If it’s highly refined carbohydrate, then there’s little or no reduction in risk. But when saturated fats are replaced with plant-based fats, there is a definite reduction in risk.

Additionally, overall diet patterns are much more important than single nutrients or factors. Should you eliminate saturated fat? If you are eating lots of whole plant foods, getting plenty of exercise, and don’t smoke, my suggestion is to be mindful of saturated fats and limit them to less than 10 percent of total calories.


Certain advocates within the plant-based diet movement say that oil should be avoided because it’s not a whole food. They are certainly correct that it’s not a whole food, and there’s no doubt that eating an olive is inherently more nutritious than just eating the oil that has been extracted from it—it’d take a lot of olives to get as many calories as you do in just a few tablespoons of oil.

As we’ve learned, some fat is beneficial. Olive oil, for instance, has a very good profile because it’s high in monounsaturated fats, but it’s still only one component of the bigger health picture. Oil plays several key roles that aren’t directly related to its nutrition profile: it’s required for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, it may help with joint health, and it is a concentrated source of energy that can help athletes meet their high caloric needs. It’s also beneficial in preparation and cooking because it can improve the texture and palatability of food and function as a flavor-carrier (it’s why we add garlic and onions when we sauté foods).

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether oil has a place in your particular diet. Almost all of the recipes in this article can be modified to create oil-free versions, and guidelines are given later.

If you decide to use oil in your cooking, it’s important to do the following:

  •  Use high-quality, expeller-pressed oil, instead of generic corn or soy vegetable oil that may be genetically modified (GM) and contain only small amounts of omega-3 or monounsaturated fats.
  •  When using oil to sauté vegetables, first heat the pan and then add the oil. When added to a hot pan, oil expands, allowing you to cover the pan in a thin layer of oil without using a lot of it.
  •  Consider whole food alternatives for recipes. Olives and nut butters are whole foods that can be blended to make sauces or dressings. In addition to the benefits from their quality fat content, these foods provide more micronutrients than the oil alone.


Omega-3 fatty acids are nutritive—our bodies require them for growth and metabolism. The reason most people know about omega-3s is because this is the type of fat found in fish that is also associated with lower cholesterol levels. Fortunately, there are plant-based omega-3 sources, including flaxseeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, kale, and other leafy greens. That’s right—leafy greens have some fat, and it’s the good kind! Kale is about 12 percent fat, a significant amount of which is omega-3 fatty acids. The reason leafy greens are not commonly recommended as sources of fat is because they are so low in calories. One cup (67 g) of raw kale has only thirty-three calories and a half gram of fat. Put another way, you would have to eat two uncooked cups (134 g) of kale just to get one gram of fat!

There are a few technicalities regarding omega-3s that make recommendations difficult. Some evidence says that what’s most important is your ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. The ratio in the standard American diet is about 10:1, which is considered too high. There’s no consensus yet on the ideal ratio, but it is definitely lower than 10:1. Oils like soybean and corn oil are high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s and therefore skew your fatty acid balance in the wrong direction. In the United States, most people have a less-than-ideal ratio because of the overconsumption of refined oils—more evidence that a whole foods diet is best!

To make sure you’re getting a healthy amount of omega-3s, be sure to regularly consume flaxseeds, hemp seeds, or walnuts and don’t hesitate to eat big portions of leafy greens like kale. For many people, though, whole-food plant sources won’t be enough: there are three important types of omega-3s—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—and of these, only ALA is provided in abundance by plant foods. Some people’s bodies are able to convert ALA (assuming they’re getting enough) into DHA and EPA, but many people cannot. A blood test can determine whether you’re one of these fortunate people, but if you don’t know, I recommend taking a DHA/EPA supplement derived from algae.

Don’t Forget These Other Necessary Nutrients

For your diet to be nutritionally adequate, you need to eat enough calories, as discussed previously, and also get all of the nutrients your body needs. By definition, nutrients are substances that provide nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life. In addition to the essential amino acids, fatty acids, and carbohydrates we’ve discussed so far, nutrients include vitamins and minerals. Each vitamin and mineral has very specific functions at the cellular level. Consider the additional nutrients below.


If you are eating a plant-based diet, you need to know about vitamin B12 because it is crucial for our brains and nervous systems, red blood cells, and a host of other functions. Longtime deficiency can have irreversible health implications, including blindness and dementia. It’s no joke! And you cannot get B12 from plant foods. It’s not in tempeh, seaweed, or spirulina, despite what some individuals say.

Fortunately, B12 is available in prepared vegan foods, like fortified nondairy milks, cereals, nutritional yeast, meat alternatives, and energy bars. Check the label though, because not all prepared fortified vegan foods are fortified with B12. If you are not consuming a source of B12 every day, take a supplement or make sure your multivitamin contains B12. Symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, numbness, nausea, impaired memory, and even depression. The FDA’s recommended daily intake for healthy adults is 2.4 micrograms. This is a very small amount, but nonetheless crucial. For more information on B12, I recommend reading the article “B12: Are You Getting It?” ( by Jack Norris, R.D.


Our bodies activate vitamin D in reaction to sun exposure, but our modern way of living limits our natural ability to soak up the sun’s rays. Even those who spend a lot of time outdoors may become deficient in vitamin D, since most of us cover large amounts of our skin with clothing on sunny days, and some live too far from the equator to get enough direct sun. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: we now know that too much sun exposure is linked to skin cancer, a problem that evolution never had to correct for since most people don’t develop skin cancer until after reproductive age.

As a result, many people—regardless of dietary pattern—are deficient in vitamin D. If you can’t ensure adequate and safe sun exposure, it’s a good idea to supplement with some form of vitamin D. Some foods and plant supplements now provide a form of vitamin D derived from algae or fungi, and many plant milks are fortified with it. Look for D3, the type synthesized by the human body that is more effective than other means of increasing vitamin D levels. Most experts suggest 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day as a supplement.


Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in North America, with symptoms such as fatigue, pale skin, weakness, and inability to maintain body temperature. And as vegetarians and vegans, it’s worth paying extra attention to make sure we’re getting enough of it. How Much Iron Do We Really Need?

In 2001, the Institute of Medicine revised its Dietary Reference Intake (RDA) for iron, especially for vegetarians, making it 1.8 times greater than for the general population. As my colleague Jack Norris points out, this increase is not based on research with vegetarians, but simply because iron in plant foods is not absorbed as easily as iron in animal products ( we’ll talk about that in a minute). Many vegetarian nutrition experts believe these recommendations are much more comprehensive than necessary.

My take on this: if you eat a varied, healthy, plant-based diet that includes a balance of grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and you follow them. recommendations from this section, you can get all the iron you need. vegetable food.


To better understand what we need to do to make sure our bodies are getting enough iron, we must first accept two facts about iron, as painful as vegetarians and vegans hear them:

1. There are two types of iron: heme, which is found in foods of animal origin, and non-heme, which comes from plants. Heme iron is better absorbed than non-heme iron.

2. Vegetarians and vegans may have less iron stores than omnivores.

But do not worry! We will see that in fact, it is not that difficult to get the iron you need from a plant-based diet. As for the second fact, although vegetarians have lower iron stores than omnivores, they do not have higher rates of anemia. According to the research review conducted for the 2009 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Review Paper on Vegetarian Diets, many vegetarian stores are “normal,” but that doesn’t mean it’s less than ideal. ! In fact, there is some evidence that low normal iron stores are beneficial because they can improve insulin function and lower rates of heart disease and cancer.

To get enough iron from a plant-based diet, start by eating foods that contain significant amounts of iron. Some of the best plant sources of iron are:

  • Vegetables: lentils, soy, tofu, tempeh, beans and peanuts
  • Cereals and pseudograins: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice and oats
  • Nuts and seeds: inshell pumpkin, pumpkin, pine, pistachio, sunflower, cashew and sesame
  • Vegetables: tomato sauce, chard and cabbage
  • Others: black molasses and plum juice

But here’s the secret: it’s not about how much iron you consume, it’s about how well you absorb it. Fortunately, there are four great ways to increase the absorption of non-heme iron:

1. The less iron you take at a time, the better it is absorbed. When consuming large amounts of iron at a time, the percentage that our body absorbs is actually lower than when the food contains only a few milligrams. Eating small amounts throughout the day is a great way to increase absorption.

2. Eat foods that do not contain heme iron along with foods containing vitamin C and absorption can increase up to five times. Five times! Culturally, these combinations are already happening: think of beans and rice in sauce, falafel with tomatoes and hummus with lemon juice. The iron in beans, grains and seeds is better absorbed when combined with vitamin C found in fruits and vegetables. Bonus: Some sources of iron, like green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and tomato sauce, already contain vitamin C.

3. Avoid coffee and tea when eating foods rich in iron. Coffee, even decaffeinated, and tea contain tannins that inhibit the absorption of iron. I recommend avoiding them an hour before or two hours after a meal.

4. Cast iron pans increase iron absorption. Cooking with a traditional cast iron skillet increases the iron content of foods, especially when cooking foods containing vitamin C in the pan. Better yet, purchasing a cast iron skillet puts you in the realm of a serious official cook. I bought mine almost ten years ago for $ 8 and it’s one of my most valuable assets.

Eating good sources of iron throughout the day using these absorption principles will make it easy to get enough iron in your diet as a plant-based athlete.

All of that said, iron is one of the few nutrients where a deficiency both immediately affects your health and is detectable, so if you have any iron-deficiency symptoms, I recommend getting blood work with your doctor—it is affordable, reliable, and easy to interpret. And iron levels bounce back quickly when using the methods above or taking a supplement.

Phytonutrients, Phytochemicals, and Antioxidants

Phyto (meaning plant) nutrients, often referred to as phytochemicals, are chemicals found in many plant foods that are believed to confer protective effects on health. They are different from vitamins and minerals in that they are not essential nutrients, like amino acids and carbohydrates (for example) are. There are literally thousands of phytochemicals that have been identified! Often foods with high amounts of phytonutrients are labeled as superfoods.

Phytonutrients are found in almost all plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, spices, herbs, and cacao, as well as in beverages like tea and coffee. Many act as antioxidants and protect the body from free radical damage to cell membranes, DNA molecules, and other important areas and processes in the body. When oxygen interacts with cells of any type, damage can occur—like an apple that browns after being cut. The same damage, called free radical damage, can occur to our cells. Antioxidants that we eat help reduce the overall damage that is done by this oxidation.

For athletes, consumption of phytochemicals may aid in recovery and reduce overall recovery time. Plant-based diets contain high levels of phytonutrients because all whole foods contain phytonutrients. Studies looking at differences between omnivores and vegetarians have reported that vegetarians have higher intakes of antioxidants and phytochemicals and greater plasma antioxidant levels than omnivores, which may partly explain the lower incidence of some chronic diseases in vegetarians and vegans.

Phytonutrient research is the future of nutrition and one can only hypothesize that as we learn more about these extraordinary compounds, the benefits of plant-based diets will continue to be proven.

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