It’s a sad statistic that seventy percent of vegans go back to eating animal products of some kind. Health concerns are among the highest cited reason for this lapse.
On the other side of the coin, there are athletes achieving peak health and optimal performance on a vegan diet. Serena William’s recent plant-based Wimbledon victory and Scott Jurek’s Appalachian trail record are shining examples.
Even in the rough world of professional fighting, vegans are dominating. This past week Nate Diaz put a stop to the formidable Conor McGregor’s winning streak. While there is some debate as to whether or not Nate occasionally includes fish in his diet, he vocally upholds the virtues of the vegan diet.
What makes these athletes able to thrive? As a thirteen year long thriving vegan athlete, I think I know. Here are my top tips to go vegan, stay vegan, and kick ass like Nate!
Fear not the carbs!
Fact: In general, whole plant foods contain 80 percent carbohydrates. Any way you slice it, a whole-foods centred vegan diet is a high carbohydrate diet.
No wonder vegan athletes perform so well! Carbohydrates are used to provide energy to every single cell in the body. When an athlete runs out of carbohydrates, he or she “hits the wall”. High level performance becomes impossible without this crucial fuel.
The biggest mistake I see vegans make is avoiding carbohydrates or trying to cut back on them because they think they cause weight gain. The reality is that whole food sources of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, brown rice and fruit are not particularly high in calories. You can eat them until you are full, without overeating.
There are also metabolic factors that keep carbs from converting to fat. Rather than store as fat, excess carbs are either stored as glycogen, or burned off through increased metabolism, known as dietary thermogenesis.
Consuming enough carbs means that you can work, exercise and train intensely. It’s a fact that eating enough carbs will not only keep you slim, it will help you build fitness.
Eat Less Fat and Protein
Fat and protein are all the rage these days. But have you ever stopped to consider that the most overweight and diseased nations on earth eat the most fat and protein?
Fat and protein are both required nutrients, but our requirement is actually quite small. In fact, when protein or fat intake creeps up to twenty percent of overall calories, disease risk starts to increase.
Plants are 80 percent carbs on average and they are naturally moderate in protein and fat.
When vegans avoid carbohydrates, they must either starve or replace the missing calories with fat and protein.
When the former happens, you end up drastically dropping weight, muscle and energy, like many so called “ex-vegan” bloggers out there touting the dangers of being vegan.
If you replace the calories with large amounts of proteins and fats, you will not perform particularly well. You will be lacking your main fuel source and likely to gain weight while increasing risk for chronic diseases. It also stands to reason that you are relying heavily on unhealthy processed foods to do it, since whole plant foods are naturally lower in these two macronutrients. The only exceptions are nuts and avocados which are very healthy foods, but should be eaten in moderation.
When in doubt, stick to eating enough calories every day from starchy vegetables, beans and whole grains. Fruit smoothies, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, bean burritos and no-oil baked fries are all great options. If you are still hungry, go for more of the same!
Eat More Fruit
Along with starches, sugars in the form of of whole fruits are valuable sources of energy.
I’ve often had clients tell me that they avoid fruit because it has too much sugar. True, fruit contains sugar, but it is packed with water, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Just because fruit contains sugar, does not mean it is the same as table sugar.
Many people fail to realize that fruit consumption is associated with lower body weight and chronic disease rates, even at extremely high levels of consumption. I personally love fruit, and have been known to consume up to twenty servings a day. My fasting blood sugars are in perfect range.
If you want to perform at your best, fruit is great before a workout It digests quickly, which makes its energy readily available.
It is also great as a snack any time of the day, especially when working. Brain cells cannot store glycogen, which means that they require a constant supply of glucose to function optimally. Next time your concentration wavers at work, try drinking a glass of water and eating a ripe banana. Watch what happens!
With these three tips in mind, absolutely make sure you are eating enough calories. Remember, whole foods are less calorie dense than processed foods and plant foods. The portion control paradigm needs to go. You need to eat like a champ if you want to be one!
It is my experience that most people underestimate their calorie needs. Use this online tool to find out how much you need. When in doubt, eat more, not less. Keeping track with a nutrition tracker like Cronometer can be extremely helpful.
Eat abundantly, stay vegan, conquer!