Eating a plant based diet is easy. Doing it correctly though, especially as someone who trains in a demanding sport such as MMA, football or marathon running, is really difficult. It need not be though, you just need to know that you are consuming the healthiest foods you possibly can, eliminating the ones you shouldn’t eat and are making sure that you are getting a good ratio of daily macronutrients into your system.
Macronutrients are defined as a “class of chemical compounds which humans consume in the largest quantities – carbohydrates, proteins and fats”. Get them right and you are efficiently fueling your body, but get them wrong and a whole host of issues can occur.
This is a guide on what the 3 macros are, what they do and what the best type of plant based foods to eat from each is.
Do you remember in the early 2000’s when the Atkins diet was really popular? It is not a coincidence that anyone that followed that diet has either died or gone insane. I tried it once for a week and it was the worst week of my life!
Your body needs carbohydrates to function. Your muscles need carbohydrates for protection and growth and your brain needs carbohydrates to operate efficiently. Most of all though, you need carbohydrates for energy, especially if you train in any sport that requires more than a little effort, carbs will fuel your workout.
When you eat a food containing carbs, your digestive system breaks down the digestible part into tiny units of sugar, which are then sent back out into your bloodstream, to your tissues and organs. Your bodies’ first choice for energy is carbs and a huge part in the importance of carbs, is that it prevents the body from using your valuable protein intake as fuel (also a reason why fat is important). Therefore when training in sport, you use carbs as your main source of energy and then protein to replenish the damage the exercise has done to the body.
Simple, right? Unfortunately, no…
As your blood sugar rises, your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that instigates the absorption of blood sugar to be used as energy or to be stored for use later. As this process takes place, the blood sugar that has been absorbed leaves the bloodstream and so the pancreas begins the process of making glucagon, a hormone that tells the liver to start releasing stored sugar. It is the constant combination of insulin and glucagon that ensures the cells in your body and brain have a steady supply of blood sugar.
Because of this process, it is the type of carbohydrates that you consume that are so important and they all fall into two categories – simple and complex.
The general rule of thumb is that the most efficient fuel for your body is complex carbs. However, of course, it is not that simple, in fact it’s quite complex…
Simple Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, such as glucose and fructose, which have a “simple” chemical structure, containing only one or two sugars per food. They are processed and ready to be used as energy very quickly, so unless they are used as energy quickly, they will be stored for use later. This also means that simple carbs can lead to a rise in blood sugar and insulin secretion, which over a number of years can cause extreme problems with your body, such as Type 2 Diabetes. Simple carbs include white bread, sugary drinks, processed fruit juices, cookies, pastries, chocolate etc and if it hasn’t been made extremely clear, should largely be avoided.
Complex Carbohydrates on the other hand have a more “complex” chemical structure, made up of three or more sugars and can also include fiber and extra vitamins and minerals. They take longer to break down in your digestive system, resulting in a much slower release of energy and far less of an impact on your blood sugar. Complex carbs are by far the better choice for energy and include whole grains like brown rice or quinoa, beans and legumes, vegetables and confusingly, fruit. I say confusingly because technically a simple carb if juiced, fruit is considered a complex carb if eaten whole, because of the added fiber content. Fruits are highly nutritious and should definitely make up a large part of any plant based diet. It is not as easy as that though (I bet you are surprised). For example white bread, a complex carb, has been heavily processed and contains very little fiber or minerals, pushing it into the ‘eat minimally’ section.
Use these as your main source of vegan energy:
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Lentils / beans
- White potatoes
- Wholemeal bread / pasta
- Brown rice
- All fruits and vegetables
The Bottom Line on Carbohydrates:
Although definitely a confusing topic, I like to simplify carb consumption by imposing a simple rule. If it grows naturally and man hasn’t come along and messed with it too much, it is safe to eat. Avoid anything with white flour and added sugar and if you do want to eat bread or pasta, make sure you are eating the whole wheat variety, but my body works a whole load better without them. Eat the whole fruit instead of juicing and if making a smoothie, include as much fiber from the fruit as possible.
But, and I REALLY mean this, eat a pizza every now and then. It won’t kill you.
Strap yourselves in, this is the long one.
Here is where things get complicated as nothing will spark a debate (or fight) more than the old protein requirement discussion. What your activity is will depend on your protein requirement, but even then it is hideously exaggerated as to what you need to consume. Bodybuilders for example, will need a LOT of protein. 150 years ago in the 1970’s and 1980’s a terrible myth was born that if you want to build muscle, you need to consume 1 – 2 grams of protein for every lb of bodyweight. That is a LOT of protein and far more than your body can actually process, with the excess being turned into fat storage to be used later as energy. A 250 lb man would need minimum 250g of protein. That is a lot of lentils!
Luckily for the rest of us, we need far less, almost to the point where we don’t have to think about it at all. There has never been a case of protein deficiency in someone eating enough daily calories. Think about that. I am 6 foot and weigh 180 lbs and find 110 – 130g of protein to be more than enough. This is for training in MMA, a sport where your body is put through intense pressure and muscle replenishment is needed a lot more than in other sports, but of course, you don’t want to build too much muscle as it slows you down. We leave the big muscles to the bodybuilders! The same rule will apply for nearly every other high impact sport, from rugby to football to sprinting to basketball to swimming.
The problem for most vegans then is not the amount of protein that is consumed, it is the quality of protein consumed. To understand this, you have to have at least a small understanding of amino acids. Amino Acids are the basis of muscle and to build, or rather re-build broken muscle tissue, it is important to vary your protein intake.
Amino Acids are the different compounds (acids) that form together to create protein. These acids are the building blocks of muscle, tissues, skin, intestines and bones and therefore it is obviously vital that a good portion of your diet is made up of them.
Every food you eat that contains protein, and that is nearly everything you will ever eat, will be made up of amino acids. These are different to the amino acids that make up the tissues in your body though. Your digestive system, once the food has been consumed, will break these foods down into the amino acids that can be absorbed into your bloodstream. There are 21 amino acids and the human body is capable of producing 12 of them by itself. The other 9 are “essential amino acids” and are essential because they have to be consumed in the way of food. Any animal product, whether it is a steak or an egg, has a full amino count. This is a definite advantage for meat eaters when building muscle, however this is also where a lot of the confusion lies with what you should eat. It is becoming common knowledge that you need to eat a mixture of foods to create a “complete protein”, this is a combination of foods that together will contain all 9 amino acids. Examples are rice and beans or whole wheat bread and peanut butter. Whilst this is true, what is not usually understood is that you DO NOT have to consume the foods at the same time. If you eat rice and then beans in a different meal (I don’t know what kind of monster would do that), your body is processing the exact same amino acids and as a result, the outcome is identical to eating them at the same time. So make sure that you do eat a good portion of protein, but what it more important than eating 1 gram per lb of body weight, is eating a wide selection of protein in order to consume all essential amino acids.
As vegans we also get a choice of foods that already contain the full amino acid profile. These are quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seed, amaranth, chia and soy.
Use these as your main source of plant based protein:
- Hemp Seeds
- Nuts and Nut Butters
The Bottom Line On Plant Based Protein:
Protein is as essential as anything you eat, especially for an athlete. Protein is the main building block of muscle, however too much emphasis is put on how much protein you consume (if you are not a body builder). Choose quality sources of vegan protein and if possible, ones with a full amino acid count, but don’t stress too much about that, by eating a wide variety of protein you will reach your amino acid count naturally. If you consume enough quality plant based foods with a good variety of grains, fruits, legumes and vegetables, it is impossible to have a protein deficit. Eat smart and your body will be more than catered for. Maximum Vegan has enough recipes on here to have you covered.
The third macro, fat, is probably the most confusing out of all three as there are so many conflicting sources of information, especially online.
Before we get into the types of fat, the one thing that you have to fully understand when building your vegan diet is that your body needs fat. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. It is as vital as carbohydrate and protein, perhaps even more so.
Fat is required for a functional brain, is the bodies second “choice” of energy source after carbohydrate, is an essential part of the production and maintenance of the bodies hormones which are produced in glands such as the thyroid and kidneys, is a contributor to the condition of your skin and hair and perhaps most importantly, fat must be consumed at the same time as foods with vitamin A, D, E and K for the vitamins to be absorbed successfully into your body. There is also research conducted that shows that eating the right amount of the right types of fat can lower the risk of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
They are the benefits, but more so than any of the other macros, consuming too much fat, particularly certain types of fat (more of that later) can have a detrimental, even deadly effect on your body. Too much fat will lead to weight gain (as will too much anything), raise low-density lipoprotein, otherwise known as bad cholesterol, which will eventually lead to a stroke or a heart attack and your overall risk of type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, coronary heart disease and gallbladder disease raises dramatically.
In other words, make sure you understand what types of fat to eat and how much of it.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) can help reduce the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise the good (HDL) in your body and therefore, help reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke . Polyunsaturated fats are made up of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, both of which contain vital nutrients, when consumed in small doses.
Good Sources of vegan monounsaturated fats:
- Plant cooking oils, such as olive oil or canola oil – I like to consume oils as rarely as possible and obtain my fat nutrients through whole foods, but you might be normal.
Good Sources of vegan polyunsaturated fats:
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame Seeds
- Chia Seeds
- Canola / Avocado / Olive oils – as above
Trans Fats are widely accepted as the devil when it comes to food. They are tempting, taste great and make you feel good for 20 minutes and then bring you down, make you fat and leave you diseased.
Trans fats are actually an unsaturated fat and unsaturated fats are usually the good guys, but trans fats are created by an industrial process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils, making them more solid and easier to add to junk food. Trans fats do the opposite of Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated and raise the bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the good (HDL). They are found in small doses in animal products, but in the vegan world, they are nearly always added to processed foods like doughnuts, cookies, pie crusts, cupcakes, muffins, cakes, margarines etc.
If you are serious about improving your cardiovascular health, you want to cut these out as much as humanly possible. It is easy to do as they do not exist in natural foods, simply make sure that what you are eating was not created in a factory and you are good to go. If you are eating something processed, check the label and make sure they are listed as containing as close to 0g of trans fat as possible.
Saturated fatty acids (SFAs) contain carbons that are said to be “saturated” with hydrogen.
As with all dietary guidelines, there is always the conflict and saturated fat is the current topic of debate. Generally accepted as something you should avoid, there are case studies that have recently been carried out that suggest that it could not be as bad for you as once thought. Coconut oil for example has studies that suggest that the medium-chain triglycerides (the main constituents of body fat in humans, animals and vegetables) may actually boost metabolic rate and reduce calorie intake.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat though and until the evidence is totally clear, I recommend limiting it too. Whereas monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fats lower the bad cholesterol and raise the good, saturated fat raises both of them, so consuming large doses can definitely have a bad effect on your heart health. Therefore eat food that contains saturated fat if you wish to, but make sure you limit it.
The American Heart Association recommends consuming 5 – 6% of your daily diet to be saturated fat. Therefore if you are consuming 2000 calories a day, you want no more than 120 calories to come from saturated fat. That works out to be about 13g a day.
Nuts, tofu, seeds, oils, avocados, coconuts, rice, spinach etc all contain saturated fat. My main piece of advice is to track your macros in a program like www.myfitnesspal.com and monitor how much you are going to consume before consuming them and then make any changes accordingly.
The Bottom Line On Plant Based Fats:
Fats are essential to your health and provide vital nutrients for the running of an efficient body, especially if you train in sport. However consume too much and the negative effects far outweigh the good, so make sure you consume fats in moderation and are whole food wherever possible. Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, avoid trans fats completely and keep an eye on your intake of saturated fat by getting as little as possible and make sure you don’t consume more than 13g in a day.
I hope this has cleared up some confusion for you or helped you plan your diet. Stick around as I will be doing a post in the future on micronutrients.