Overcoming the challenges of a plant based diet
I have recently transitioned to a more plant based diet within the last 9 months or so. I had always considered doing so but had always thought it would be very difficult to achieve optimal health and performance whilst eating this way. But after seeing a lot of top sports people making the switch, I started to do some research and thought I’d give it a go finally. So below are some of the issues that I thought were problems and how I overcame them.
My before and after photos above show a 6 week plant based cut. Obviously this was in conjunction with exercise (and some hair clippers!).
Where is the protein?
This is always the first thing I get asked “where do you get your protein from?” So I still eat some animal products like yoghurt and eggs which are high in protein but I try not to rely on these foods too much. Maybe 10-20 percent of my overall protein comes from these foods. The rest I get solely from plants such as legumes, (tofu, kidney beans, chick peas and baked beans etc.) wholegrains, (rice, bread, oats and quinoa) mushrooms and also greens like spinach and broccoli.
Now it is often a concern that these are not all “complete proteins” but that is a non-issue as long as you vary your protein sources. I usually, almost accidentally, get my complete essential amino acid profile. For example oats in the morning and legumes at lunch will cover virtually the whole spectrum and easy meals like beans on toast do so on one plate (about 30 + grams of protein).
But there’s too many carbs!
Now almost all plant based protein sources also contain considerable carbs. This can put people off as we are often told to go high protein low carb to lose fat and maintain muscle. But there is more than one way to skin a cat! As long as you are in a calorie deficit you will lose fat and you need only a moderate amount of protein to maintain muscle. I achieved the fat loss and muscle maintenance in my picture on as little as 1.6 grams per kilo of bodyweight of protein a day. Absolute exercise newbies may need a little more around 1.8 grams per kilo. There are studies showing that these amounts are sufficient in both resistance-trained (Walberg et al 1988, Garth et al 2011) endurance-trained (Pikosky et al 2008) and deconditioned individuals (Hill et al 2015) in a calorie deficit.
The higher recommendations are mainly to aid in satiety or feeling full (or to sell protein shakes!) but high fibre and water are also powerful satiety aids and these are available in abundance on a plant based diet. So don’t fear the carbs as long as they come with plenty of fibre and fit into your overall calorie goals.
But you need to supplement, right?
I don’t really supplement at all, no protein shakes or fat burners etc. I only really supplement vitamin D3 in the winter and use fortified plant milks to top up my vitamin B12. I make an effort to add linseeds or chia seeds to my oats in the morning to get some omega 3 fatty acids. If you do supplement with shakes (you can go with hemp or pea protein shakes to keep it plant based) it would just make things easier but I preferred whole plant foods for the fibre and micronutrient content, which gives plant based eating its benefits.
If you do however want to cover all your bases a vitamin D3 supplement , B12 supplement or fortified foods and an algae based omega 3 supplement would just give you a safety net if didn’t get all the right food varieties in.
So… In conclusion if you have ever wanted to go more plant based but have been worried about not achieving fat loss or muscle gain in conjunction. Don’t worry it’s not an issue as long as you keep an eye on your calories, have high fibre and hit a moderate protein goal. I recommend slowly increasing your plant intake to give your body and gut flora time to adjust. In the end we could all do with more veggies so why not give it a go a few times a week. If you have any questions or want meal ideas give me a shout.
Macronutrient content of a hypoenergy diet affects nitrogen retention and muscle function in weight lifters. Walberg JL, Leidy MK, Sturgill DJ, Hinkle DE, Ritchey SJ, Sebolt DR. Int J Sports Med. 1988 Aug;9(4):261-6.
Garthe, I., Raastad, T., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2011). Long-term effect of weight loss on body composition and performance in elite athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 21(5), 426–435.
Increased protein maintains nitrogen balance during exercise-induced energy deficit. Pikosky MA, Smith TJ, Grediagin A, Castaneda-Sceppa C, Byerley L, Glickman EL, Young AJ. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Mar;40(3):505-12.
Type and amount of dietary protein in the treatment of metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled trial Alison M Hill, Kristina A Harris Jackson, Michael A Roussell, Sheila G West, and Penny M Kris-Etherton. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition October 2015 vol. 102 no. 4 757-770