By Annie Bothma, 5 October 2022
There is no doubt that a plant-based diet offers a lot of health benefits and the opportunity to increase your dietary intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, although plant-foods are very nutrient-dense they are not always as energy-dense as their animal-based counterparts. This may be problematic for an athlete with a high energy demand making it harder to reach the required caloric intake to sustain peak performance and support their health.
NUTRIENT-DENSITY VS. ENERGY-DENSITY
The nutrient density of a food is the ratio of essential nutrients in the food to the energy content of the food for the amount generally consumed. Plant foods typically have a higher nutrient-density, since they contain a higher level of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients with little or no added sugars or fats that raise calories. While energy-dense foods contain a higher number of calories per serving. These foods will give you more bang-for your buck when it comes to fuelling your training.
Remember as athletes you sometimes need those energy-dense foods to fuel your workout and power your day. When you are training hard and have high-calorie demands you need to fuel with energy-dense foods! You won't have enough fuel in the tank if you just focus on nutrient-density alone.
Let's put it this way: greens have a high nutrient-density, but you can't get enough calories from broccoli alone!
There is a time and place for both energy-dense foods and nutrient-dense foods in an athlete's diet. Heavy training demands energy-dense foods, but you can have the best of both worlds. Make sure you top off your tank in the hours before training and then refill your tank immediately after training with energy-dense foods. While in the days or weeks in which you are not training as hard, you can have a little bit more freedom to include nutrient-dense foods to your diet.
For most athletes, a well-constructed diet (omnivorous or otherwise) should provide sufficient energy in order to achieve energy balance. However, data suggests that a negative energy balance is common in endurance athletes and athletes participating in weight-making and aesthetic sports (such as gymnastics, skating and dancing).
“Energy availability is defined as the difference between dietary energy intake and the energy expended during exercise and can be understood as the amount of energy that remains for physiological processes after deducting the energy cost of exercise.” - Koehler et al. (2016).
Being in a low energy-availability can result in a host of adverse health and performance consequences that may lead to very serious problems in the long-term like Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-s). Additionally, high intensity training can reduce appetite, and hectic travel schedules, poor food availability (whilst abroad or away from home), as well as gastrointestinal discomfort might mean that some athletes find it difficult to meet their energy requirements. With insufficient energy intake, immunity might also become compromised, leading to illnesses and time off from training and competition. Weight loss can lead to the loss of muscle mass, reduced strength, lower work capacity and a lack of satisfactory training adaptation. As an athlete you need to make sure you maintain an appropriate energy balance which is important if you want to stay healthy and perform at your best.
ENERGY-INTAKE ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
Managing energy balance is important for all athletes, but this issue is likely to be compounded further when a habitual diet promotes early satiation and reduced appetite, which may occur on a vegan diet.
Data indicates that vegans consume less energy than omnivores, and research suggests that vegetarian diets generally appear to be lower in protein, fat, vitamin B12, Riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc when compared to an omnivorous diet.
Some vegan diets promote the consumption of raw foods only, and data suggests that these diets might lead to poor macronutrient absorption and weight loss when consumed ad libitum. Vegetarian and vegan diets can also lead to very high fibre consumption, and plant-based foods therefore tend to have low energy density and promote early satiety. While these factors might be helpful for weight-loss purposes, these factors might lead to problems when trying to achieve a high calorie diet.
Thus, to meet your energy requirements on a plant-based diet, you are going to have to eat larger volumes or understand how to best combine these foods to get enough energy. Some might find it difficult eating these larger amounts, since a diet rich in dietary fiber will also make you feel full for longer than a low-fiber diet. If you have a high energy requirement or a hard time eating large servings, a potential solution is to add extra healthy fats to your meals. This increases the energy amount with lower volumes of food.
SOME TIPS FOR MEETING YOUR ENERGY REQUIREMENTS ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
Add more energy dense foods such as nuts, seeds and oils to meals and snacks.
Swap the greens in your salads for grains like rice, quinoa, buckwheat or pasta.
Choose starchy vegetables like sweet potato or potato instead of low-calorie vegetables like celery and cucumber.
Avoid consuming too much fiber in your meals, since it will increase satiety and may reduce absorption of essential minerals like iron, magnesium and zinc.
Eat frequent snacks between main meals composed of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats.
Fuel your workouts and long training sessions with energy dense foods like dates or other dried fruit, bananas, nuts or nut butter, breads, pasta, rice, and sports products like bars, gels and drinks.
Pack a lot of nutrients and energy into a blender by making a smoothie with bananas, soy milk, dates, nut butter and your favorite plant-based protein powder.
Each post in this series will also include a recipe from Leozette Roode's new cook book: THE SOUTH AFRICAN VEGAN COOKBOOK to inspire you to bring more color into your plate.
FEATURED RECIPE: CHOC-NUT QUINOA BREAKFAST BOWL
By Leozette Roode
Prep Time: Under 30 minutes
1/2 cup white quinoa
1 cup water
1/2 cup to 1 cup almond milk
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons peanut butter powder
1 tablespoon maple syrup (or another sweetener of choice)
Chocolate chips, peanut butter, cocoa nibs, coconut flakes, fresh berries, nuts...
Rinse the quinoa until the water runs clear.
Place the quinoa in the pot with the cup of water and the pinch of salt. Bring to boil.
As soon as bubbling, lower the heat and simmer the quinoa for 15 minutes, with the lid on.
Remove the lid, add the almond milk, cocoa, peanut butter powder and maple syrup and stir through. Let it cook for 5 minutes.
Transfer the quinoa porridge to your breakfast bowl, add your toppings, some peanut butter, and more almond milk, if you desire.
WHY I LIKE THIS RECIPE:
This delicious recipe is packed with energy dense foods like peanut butter, coconut, cocoa and nuts. The base of this breakfast bowl is quinoa; a grain rich in carbohydrates and protein, plus several other key vitamins and minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, and folate. This recipe will not only satisfy your sweet tooth, but also help you meet your energy requirements as an athlete with a demanding training schedule.
The key take-away here is; if you chose to follow a plant-based diet make sure you get enough energy. What the general public portrays as healthy, may not always be healthy or appropriate for athletes if it pushes them down the negative spiral of low-energy availability or RED-S. For example eating a salad is not the best choice for an athlete the night before a long run or after a hard workout - it simply won't provide you with enough energy or carbohydrates to perform at your best. So maybe rather swap those greens for some rice or pasta, add a bit of olive oil or sprinkle on some roasted nuts. Making sure you meet your energy requirements will not only allow you to perform better in training and competitions, but also help you recover faster and reduce the likelihood of getting injured or sick.
Always make sure you still fuel for the work required, regardless of what diet you choose to follow - plant-based or omnivorous!
Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers, (2017), By David Rogerson
Sport Nutrition, Third Edition. (2019) by Asker Jeukendrup, Micheal Gleeson