Both me and my man lead a very active lifestyle, he as a runner and a lifter of heavy things and me as a yoga-addict, and in addition to this we both choose cycling as our main method of transport around London (my bicycle especially gives a good workout as it weighs 22 kg all alone…).
We both eat a mainly plant-based diet with a small amount of dairy and eggs interspersed in between and we have both been subject to many a concerned, but of course well-meaning, speech about the dangers of exercising without eating enough meat.
This, in addition to the fact that Edward is currently training for a half-marathon, prompted me to look into plant based nutrition in relation to exercise.
What are the main food groups the body needs in order to regenerate after exercise? What foods best repair muscle? And are there any particular foods that give accessible energy before/after exercise?
Actually, eating a whole food plant based diet when exercising (of course not just when exercising, I should perhaps say EVEN WHEN exercising) comes with numerous benefits.
The antioxidants found in plants reduce the oxidative stress imposed on the body when exercising (which again leads to less inflammation of for instance stressed joints) and they help flush out lactic acid which makes your muscles sore.
Also, when eating a whole food diet there are no need for vitamin supplements as the macronutrients, minerals and vitamins naturally found in plant foods will keep the body happy, healthy and able to heal itself and regenerate quickly.
The food groups that are most important in relation to exercise are carbohydrates taken in combination with healthy fats (such as saturated fats, see my previous post) and protein.
A diet higher in carbs on training days results in approximately the same amount of fat loss as a low carb diet, but on a low carb diet it is impossible to gain muscle and strength.
How can a high carb diet make you loose fat? Well, studies have shown that eating a low carb diet for extended periods of time will cause a decline in the hormones that are responsible for metabolism. For instance a hormone a hormone called “active T3”, a thyroid hormone that is vital for energy production, muscle gain and fat-burning (i.e. all the reasons you train) will decline when there is not enough readily available energy in the body – energy in the form of glucose derived from carbohydrates.
Another hormone that thrives in a carbohydrate-heavy post-workout environment is leptin, responsible for the production of the already mentioned T3 as well as neuropeptides, epinephrine and T4 which are all hormones that affect metabolism. The insulin spike (insulin is also a hormone) caused by eating large amounts of carbs will aid in shuttling nutrients to the muscles which is necessary for muscle gain and muscle recovery.
The best time to eat carbohydrates when exercising is right after training as this will help you gain or lose weight depending on what your body needs.
The carbohydrates help you negate the metabolic hormonal issues and keep your fat gains to a minimum as you put on lean mass. If you ingest carbohydrates right after a workout you replenish the body’s glycogen (glucose) stores which is what fuels the muscles during intense workouts. If it is not spent it will be stored as fat.
When you train you spend this stored glycogen which means that you afterwards should eat a sufficient amount of carbs to “charge your batteries”. When your batteries are charged, there is no need to continue to eat high carbohydrate meals throughout the day and your post-workout meal should be your carb-heaviest meal that day.
It is, as with every food group, important to make sure that you eat the best and healthiest source of carbohydrates.
Before exercise it is a good idea to avoid too fibrous carbohydrate foods as these stay in the stomach for longer and can make you feel a little queasy when exercising. Of course, high carb foods with low fibre are often processed foods such as white bread and white rice, but there are some wholesome alternatives too.
Bananas and dates are good options just before a workout.
Sweet potato is also a good idea as it is high in sugars, but with little fibre. Bake a couple on the day before training and eat them as they come or even add to a smoothie.
After the exercise, feel free to aim for heavier and more fibrous carbohydrates. Oats are wonderful as a morning meal after training as they are high in carbohydrates as well as fibre, iron and magnesium (I will look at minerals and exercise later in the assignment). If soaked overnight in almond milk, this gives an extra carbohydrate boost as well as protein and good fats.
Buckwheat is also a fibre rich carbohydrate alternative which even contains protein and at home we mill fresh buckwheat flour to make vegan soda bread as a post-workout meal.
Quinoa is a very versatile “pseudocereal” which can be made into a sweet or savoury meal depending on what you feel like. Quinoa, in addition to being high in protein is also very high in minerals.
After a workout, aiming for a protein carbohydrate ratio of 1:4 is ideal (I mean, approximately: It's not as if I weigh everything).
Protein is the material that your body uses to build and repair muscle fibres and is therefore a very important. How much you need depends on the intensity of your training: heavy weight lifters need more protein than long distance runners, for example. On a plant-based diet, this is the thing that people fret most about: “You’re vegan? But how do you get enough protein?!”
The answer is that although animal-derived protein is the most easily accessible protein for humans, there are many wonderful sources for plant based protein out there. It is also important to remember that carbohydrates, not protein, is the main food group that will keep you going during a run and if you eat a varied plant-based diet chances are that you are getting enough protein.
Also, meat is highly acidic and this forces the body to alkalise by drawing minerals out of the bones to reach a neutral PH. Osteoporosis is no joke for anybody, but it is especially important to maintain bone health running as you are repetitively forcing high impact on your joints.
Many gym heads are prone to over-consumption of protein as clever marketing makes protein out to be the one thing that will help you gain Popeye-biceps (see: protein shakes), but most people don’t know about the dangers that come with too much protein in the diet.
Eating more protein than you need can lead to weight gain, dehydration, stress on the kidneys and loss of bone minerals. If you eat too much protein it will be converted to sugar and fat and the increased blood sugar levels can lead to yeast overgrowth (such as candida albicans) and tumour growth – just look at how Max Gerson’s alternative cancer treatment is based on limiting protein intake.
When there is too much protein in the body, the kidneys work overtime to remove excess nitrogen waste from the bloodstream that is created when protein is processed in the body. This can lead to dehydration and kidney problems.
To make sure that your protein intake is healthy it is important to balance your amino acids and this is a good example why meat based protein isn’t the best option.
Varied plant based protein sources ensures that you get a range of amino acids to choose from.
Avocados, for instance, contain 18 amino acids and are also a great source of healthy fats.
Chia seeds are great as they are incredible versatile in making jams, in porridge or on their own as a pudding. In addition to their high protein content they are also full of minerals.
Seeds in general, especially when sprouted, are perfect protein filled additions to the diet.
Pulses such as chic peas, black beans and lentils offer carbohydrates as well as plenty of protein in one neat package and can be added to any kind of dish, from salads to tortillas to soups.
Superfoods such as spirulina and wheatgrass are excellent sources of easily accessible protein. Spirulina, an algae that is sold in powdered form, contains loads of protein that is even more accessible to the body than that of meat and a lot easier to digest. Wheatgrass also contains plenty of protein and both of these foods are high in minerals.
As for minerals, bone health is key when exercising a lot and calcium is the number one bone mineral. It is found in dairy products, sure, but it is also found in high quantities in chia seeds, tofu and nuts and their milk, for instance my favourite nut milk almond milk.
Although sodium is listed as the bad-boy of minerals, we do need that too.
Many people get far too much sodium in their diet as this is the main component of common table salt (which nobody should ever eat, by the way), but it is found in good salts like my favourite himalayan pink salt too.
However if you are on a low-salt or salt free diet or cleanse, you need to make sure that you get sodium from somewhere as you will lose a lot of sodium when you sweat. There are sodium sports drinks to be found, but I prefer to look to natural “supplements” instead. Raw beetroot, carrots, celery and chard all contain a fair amount of sodium, as does cooked spinach and sweet potato, so if you sweat a lot (like me – yay!) and are on a low-salt diet you may want to take extra care with your sodium intake, for instance by juicing or eating raw salads.
Finally, magnesium is a trick to have up one’s sleeve when exercising.
Magnesium plays a part in muscle contraction and endurance performance as it is essential for delivering oxygen to the muscles as well as releasing muscle tension and reduce muscle cramping. Kale, spinach and other dark leafy greens are high in magnesium content, as is tofu, oats and brown/wild rice.
As you see, many of the foods overlap in nutritional benefits as rice and oats are great carbohydrate sources, tofu is excellent protein and dark greens contain a variety of minerals.
Lastly, healthy fats are extremely important in a balanced diet and as the body fat content consist of 97% saturated fats this is the main fat that should be going into the diet so that the body can rebuild itself properly.
Saturated fats are the building blocks of hormones which control metabolism; the lining of the lungs is 100% saturated fatty acids; saturated fat is required by the bones for them to incorporate calcium; white blood cells function better with sufficient saturated fatty acids and saturated fatty acids provide the main building blocks from which anti-inflammatory chemicals are made in the body – key to reduce muscle soreness, inflammation and to aid muscle recovery.
Vegan sources of saturated fatty acids include nuts and coconut oil and one can also add raw butter and eggs from free-range (REAL free range) hens.
Happy workout and happy replenishing, dear people!