The following is adapted from The No Meat Athlete Cookbook: Whole Food, Plant-Based Recipes to Fuel Your Workouts and the Rest of Your Life © Matt Frazier and Stepfanie Romine, 2017. Photographs copyright © Ken Carlson, Waterbury Publications Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment.
We can finally say it: “plant-based athlete” is no longer an oxymoron. Heck, these days it’s not even a rarity.
When Matt Frazier started his blog, No Meat Athlete, in 2009, stories were out there about the rare athlete who excelled in spite of his or her vegetarian or even vegan diet (almost nobody dared to say “because of”). But the story of plant-based diets in competitive sports lacked adequate examples and any semblance of organization.
This was just two years after the publication of Thrive, by Brendan Brazier, a former professional Ironman triathlete who credited a vegan diet with shortening his recovery time. A few years later, the documentary Forks Over Knives highlighted Mac Danzig, a mixed martial arts fighter who also chose this diet to aid recovery, giving him an advantage over opponents who required more rest between workouts.
Then Scott Jurek’s (Eat & Run) and Rich Roll’s (Finding Ultra) books exploded onto the scene within a month of each other in 2012, both documenting the authors’ incredible stories of success in ultra-endurance sports—and how that success was not in spite of but because of their plant-based diets.
In both the 2012 and 2014 Olympic games, vegetarian and vegan athletes won medals, and in the 2016 games, the only male powerlifter on the United States’ team was plant-based Kendrick Farris. NFL players such as defensive lineman David Carter have experimented successfully with a plant-based diet. The Tour de France, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball have all produced stories of athletes adopting plant-based diets to get a leg up. Venus Williams even turned to a plant-based diet after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
But perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of the myth that athletes need animal protein to be strong came courtesy of Patrik Baboumian, a German strongman who broke the world record in 2013 by carrying 1,216 pounds on his back for a distance of 10 meters! And, you guessed it, he eats a plant-based diet. No meat, no dairy, no eggs.
So why are the athletes who choose plant-based diets doing so? Aside from ethical, environmental, or long-term health reasons, recovery seems to be the big one, and the nutrient density and anti-inflammatory nature of a plant-based diet are the most likely explanations.
While many animal products cause inflammation, phytonutrients and compounds in many plant foods actually fight it. You’ve probably seen ginger, turmeric, and garlic on lists of anti-inflammatory foods, but did you know that berries, nuts, greens, and even soy have anti-inflammatory properties as well? Because tough workouts break down muscle fibers, a process that naturally creates inflammation, foods that help curb inflammation allow for faster and more complete recovery—and the foods that do this best are whole plants.
The whole food, plant-based philosophy
A simple formula for health, as much as there is one, comes from Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live: Health equals nutrients divided by calories (H = N/C). In other words, the more micronutrients you can get in the fewest number of calories, while still eating whole foods, the healthier you’ll be. As a strong advocate for plant-based diets, Fuhrman points out that whole plants score dramatically higher on this scale than do animal products or processed food such as refined grains or oils.
Although “health” in this context typically means remaining at or moving toward your ideal weight in the short term, and protection from (or even reversal of) disease and inflammation in the long term, it might just explain why so many elite athletes are turning to plant-based diets to speed recovery from workouts.
From a health perspective, lots of micronutrients in relatively few calories means your body gets lots of the raw materials it needs to repair and protect itself, without having to do excessive work (and creating excessive waste) in the way of metabolizing calories. The same reasoning applies from an athletic perspective, where the focus is on repairing your body from tough workouts: When you feed your body a micronutrient-dense diet, relatively little work (or time) is required to use those micronutrients. The result is your ability to complete more workouts per week than the competition—or for those of us who don’t necessarily want to increase our workout frequency, it simply means showing up to your next one fully recovered and ready to do it all again.
Of course, just because a food doesn’t contain any animal products doesn’t mean it’s healthy. There’s plenty of vegan junk food in the world these days, and while that’s a fun change of pace compared with even just a few years ago, it’s not going to help your body stay healthy or recover quickly from workouts.
But what about protein?
We know what you’re thinking: Where am I, an athlete, going to get my protein? In a world hell-bent on getting its protein (and spurred on by advertisements and big-agriculture lobbyists), we know this next bit is going to be hard to believe.
If you eat whole foods, you don’t need to worry about getting enough protein.
Take a look at the elite athletes who excel on a plant-based diet. Ever heard of Michael Arnstein, the Fruitarian? Among his many ultrarunning accomplishments is a 12-hour, 57-minute 100-miler—a scorching-7:45-minute-mile pace, then the seventh-fastest time ever by an American. In Arnstein’s diet of raw fruits and vegetables, only about 10 percent of the calories are protein. Other plant-based athletes such as Brazier and Jurek have said that they get roughly 15 percent of their calories from protein.
What type of diet gets you in this range? You guessed it: a whole food, plant-based one. Over 25 percent of the calories in most beans comes from protein, with chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans being more than 30 percent protein. Almonds are 15 percent protein; whole wheat is 14 percent. Most fruits contain less protein than these foods, but take a look at some common vegetables: 34 percent of broccoli’s calories are protein; kale is 35 percent protein. And Popeye was onto something with spinach: Over half of its calories are from protein.
So you can see that it’s not just tofu, beans, and nuts that pack the protein in a plant-based diet. Indeed, just about everything else in whole food, plant-based diets—grains, veggies, everything except most fruit—has a protein content at or above 12 to 15 percent of the total calories. Put it all together, and you get a diet that provides you with plenty of protein—even as an athlete.
The trick here, of course, is to eliminate most processed foods from your diet. These foods have much of their protein (not to mention fiber and valuable micronutrients) removed. Sugar and oil won’t give you any protein, and the more of these foods you include in your diet, the more you bring down the average amount of protein. But if you base your diet on whole foods, you’ll likely consume an adequate amount of protein with little effort.
Recipe: Lentil-Mushroom No-Meat Pasta (Bolognese)
Serves: 2 to 4 / Makes about 6 cups (1.4 kg) sauce
Time: 1 hour
Lots of people have fond childhood associations with spaghetti and meat sauce, and there’s no reason you can’t get that same comfort from a plant-based version! The combination of lentils and mushrooms (vegan-ese, if you will) contributes plenty of flavor and a hearty texture to this simple pasta sauce. Serve over whole-grain pasta or polenta. It freezes well and can easily be multiplied to serve a crowd. Leftovers can be served atop simple oats in the morning, too.
• 2 tablespoons olive oil (OF: 1/4 cup/60 ml mushroom stock)
• 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
• 2 portobello mushrooms or one 10-ounce (283 g) package cremini mushrooms, trimmed and chopped fine
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste
• 3 garlic cloves, chopped
• 1 teaspoon oregano
• 2 1/2 cups (600 ml) water
• 1 cup (200 g) brown lentils
• One 28-ounce (794 g) can pureed or diced tomatoes with basil (with juice if diced)
• 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
• Salt and black pepper
• Chopped basil
1. Place a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the oil. Once the oil is hot (or the broth starts to simmer), add the onion and mushrooms. Cover and cook until both are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste, garlic, and oregano and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
2. Stir in the water and lentils. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes, covered. Add the tomatoes (and juice if using diced) and vinegar. Replace the lid, reduce the heat to low and cook until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.
3. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions.
4. Remove the sauce from the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with the basil and serve atop the pasta.
Make it fast: Use precooked lentils, which are available in cans or in sealed packages in the refrigerated vegetable cooler. Omit the water in the recipe if you take this route, and cook the sauce over medium-low for 20 minutes, stirring in the lentils at the end just to heat them.
Note: Always examine your legumes—lentils, beans, and their brethren—before using them in a recipe. If they are cracked, wrinkly, or otherwise weird-looking, they may take longer to cook. In some cases, they may not soften at all. (Skip them and open a can of beans for dinner instead!)
Variation: Substitute 1/2 cup (50 g) finely chopped walnuts for the mushrooms.