Think you can’t fuel your workouts on plants alone? These women prove otherwise.
We’re thankfully well past the point of believing that you can’t build muscle or be fit when eating a vegan diet. The plethora of plant-based athletes and coaches proves that, and it’s now commonplace to find many people in the fitness world opting out of animal proteins. That’s largely down to the popularity of shows like The Game Changers that have showcased incredible athletes doing incredible things while fuelled by plants alone.
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That doesn’t mean, however, that you can simply cut out all meat and dairy products and never think again about nutrition. If you’re regularly exercising, you do need to consider your nutritional needs regardless of what eating style you follow. If it’s veganism you’re interested in, who better to ask than those who manage to mainly eat plants and maintain their performance?
It’s about quality as well as quantity
Yes, eating enough protein is important. Yawn. But it’s not just about how much you eat, says Nicola Adams. The now-retired Olympic boxer has turned towards plant-based eating over the past few years and her adaptation has come with quite a few lessons. “It’s easy to forget that the quality and consistency of your intake is just as important as the quantity,” she tells Stylist. “When it comes to milks, soya is my go-to because it’s ‘nutritionally complete’ meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein – that can’t be made by the body and must be obtained in a healthy diet.”
Micronutrients are as important as macronutrients
This goes for everyone – not just vegans. The truth is that our bodies need more than protein and carbs to rebuild after a workout. “We need minerals like iron and magnesium as well as vitamins, especially vitamin B, to give our body the best chance to adapt and thrive after our training,” says strength coach Alice Miller, who has been vegetarian all her life and vegan for five years. “The best way to do that is to focus on eating the rainbow – different coloured vegetables are your friend as they’ll be packed with different micros. My hack for B12, which vegans can’t easily get in their diets, is to add nutritional yeast – a cheese-flavoured flaked food that you can sprinkle onto virtually any meal.”
Adams, who is now an ambassador for plant-based brand Alpro, found that one of the most important things to consider is fortification. “When choosing plant-based alternatives, it’s good to go with those with added vitamins like calcium and vitamins D, B2 and B12.”
Listen to your cravings
“Over five years ago, I had my gallbladder removed and I couldn’t stomach meat after the surgery. That’s when I started eating a plant-based diet,” explains Team Jamaica Olympic lifter Chloe Whylie. Staying this in tune with her body has been crucial to her vegan journey: “I know if I’m craving something, there’s a reason why. We are very good at ignoring what our body wants, but listening to what I want means I can actually satisfy myself on a plant-based diet.”
While veganism may feel strict, Adams has actually found more ways to nourish her body than when she was on her Olympic diet plan. “Moving from a constantly strict diet and training regime to a much more balanced, healthy lifestyle has been a real adjustment for me, but I’ve found that adopting a largely plant-based diet is the best way for me to fuel myself. If I’d known about it before, I’d like to think that I’d be able to maintain this style of eating during my Olympic run, too.”
Make it simple
Being vegan doesn’t have to mean expensive supplements and wellness powders. In fact, it’s best to keep it simple, says Adams. “The easiest way for me to do that is to not overcomplicate things. I’ve swapped meat for tofu and added a load of veg to pasta which has meant that I’ve been able to create delicious and nutritious plant-based foods and add them to my meals day to day.”
Consistency is key
While post-workout protein is important, you can’t just down a shake when you leave the gym and be done for the day.
“I try to have a protein source with every meal and snack,” says Miller. That means she gets through the day without worrying about her intake. When it comes to maintaining muscle and strength, little and often is actually proven to be better: a 2018 paper from the International Society of Sports Nutrition journal found that 0.4kg-0.55kg of protein per body weight at each meal is the most effective way to hit your needs. “I find it’s actually more effective to have several smaller protein-rich meals or snacks spread throughout the day, as opposed to just one big protein hit in one meal,” agrees Adams.
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As athletes, many of these women work with experts who can help them figure out what their body needs. “I’d always suggest talking to a nutritionist so you can learn how to fuel your body in the correct way,” says Whylie. Plant based eaters may need to supplement some elements of their diet but this needs to be tailored to individuals, so read up on what you need on sites such as The Vegan Society or Veganuary..com.
We’ve also got a whole host of information for those wanting to try out plant-based lifestyles while getting strong, including the best type of milk for vegans and a roundup of our favourite vegan protein shakes.
Images: Alpro/Alice Miller
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).