The active person’s guide to eating a plant-based diet

November 20, 2019 Catherine Conelly

Veganism — it’s in. Need proof? You could turn to The Economist, which deemed 2019 the year of the vegan. If you’d prefer more tasty evidence, hunt down McDonalds’ McVegan patty or head to Burger King for the Impossible Whopper.

There’s even a meal delivery service, Thistle, dedicated to vegans. With plant-based diets going mainstream, heavy gym hitters might be wondering, is this for me? Answer: Don’t rule it out. From powerhouse athletes like Venus Williams and Tom Brady speaking out about plant-based diets to some pretty compelling scientific research, plant proteins have gained serious street cred.

“The biggest misconception about following a plant-based diet is that you’re hindering your potential,” says Shannon Ehrhardt, a registered dietitian at EXOS. “If done correctly, you can certainly get enough protein along with other necessary nutrients from plants just as you do from animals.”

One study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition included 161 males and tested their bicep size and strength before and after 12 weeks of resistance training. Some consumed pea protein, and some consumed whey protein. Both groups achieved similar results. Another study measured the exercise capacity of recreational runners — some were vegan and some meat eaters. All participants had the same training habits and researchers found no major difference in their power.

So plants are good — not a total shock there. But you might still be wondering what to expect when you ditch meat and how to do so without hurting your next race time, impacting your next personal record in the weight room, or tapping out during spin class. Here’s a starter guide that’ll help you go plant-based the smart way.

1. Do your research and make a plan.

Ehrhardt always recommends two things to any client who changes their diet. The first is to do your research. “Understand what it will take to be successful, identify your goals and macronutrient needs, and study the various plants and what each one offers,” she says.

You’ll want to make sure you get a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day to ensure you're eating an adequate amount of the nine essential amino acids. Healthy fats and carbohydrates are important as well. “Healthy fats like avocado, oils, nuts, and seeds can help provide sufficient energy,” says Paige Crawford, a performance dietitian and solutions manager at EXOS. “So make sure each meal contains a healthy fat in addition to protein and carbohydrates.” You can always look up the nutrient content of the plant protein and other ingredients you’re eating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food database.

Aim to get all of your nutrients from food but consider the fact that you may have to fill gaps with supplements. “A purely plant-based diet may benefit from krill or fish oil for omega-3s, a vitamin B complex, and a multivitamin that contains calcium, iron, and zinc,” says Crawford. That’s because animal products often contribute those nutrients so it’s easy to accidentally cut or dramatically decrease them from your diet when you stop eating meat.

A purely plant-based diet may benefit from krill or fish oil for omega-3s, a vitamin B complex, and a multivitamin that contains calcium, iron, and zinc.

Before you go any further, know this: You shouldn’t get comfortable with the idea of eating only one or two favorite plant protein sources and ignoring the others. “It will be very difficult to consume enough amino acids and the variety of nutrients you need this way,” says Crawford. That’s because plant proteins tend to be less complete than animal proteins, meaning they have less of the essential amino acids. So you need more of them and more variety to be successful on a plant-based diet.

2. Ease into it and assess how your body reacts.

The second point Ehrhardt always makes with clients is to take it slow. Anytime you’re trying new foods your body isn’t used to, exercise caution. Best-case scenario, your body isn’t phased. Worst-case scenario, digestive stress strikes on a long run or mid-hike with no restroom nearby.

Ehrhardt recommends starting with just one to two plant-based meals a week and working your way to one to two full days, and eventually the entire week. “The biggest thing is to listen to your body and recognize how you’re feeling with the switch,” she says. “If you don’t think it’s working for you by completely cutting animal protein out and your energy level is suffering, or you’re feeling weak during your workouts, then don’t continue.”

Instead, take a step back and try to find a balance. Just because it works for Tom Brady doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s secret sauce. “I’ve heard both sides of the story. Some athletes feel great and wish they’d been doing it the whole time, and others had negative experiences,” explains Ehrhardt. In the latter cases, they pulled back and found a balance of animal protein and plant protein that made sense for them.

The biggest misconception about following a plant-based diet is that you’re hindering your potential.

3. Avoid common mishaps.

If you’re not careful, you can wind up eating less protein and more carbohydrates. “There are limited plant-based options that provide as much protein as animal proteins without the added carbs or fat,” says Crawford.

She explains that soy-based foods can be a good option for this reason, while protein sources like beans and grains may come with extra carbs. That doesn't mean you shouldn't eat them because they contain other nutrients you need. Just limit the other carbs on your plate when eating a plant protein that’s high in carbs. You can balance your plate with a low-carb vegetable; Crawford suggests leafy greens, peppers, broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, cucumbers, or Brussels sprouts.

Because several plant-based proteins are also high in fiber, you may find yourself feeling fuller more often, which can lead to eating less protein and nutrients overall. Fiber is good for your digestive health and heart health, according to Crawford. So don't avoid it. Rather, aim to increase the amount of fiber-rich foods you eat slowly so you don't surprise your system and find yourself eating insufficient amounts of protein. That could lead to muscle loss and malnourishment.

According to Crawford, you need somewhere between 20 and 40 grams of protein per meal, depending on body mass and age. “To ensure you reap the benefits of your workout, consuming 20 to 25 grams of protein following exercise is a great practice to support the muscle protein synthesis process,” she says. “Up to 40 grams of protein after exercise may be required for similar effects in older adults.”

Plant-based diets aren’t just about eating pasta all the time but understanding which foods are going to give you the most nutrient bang for your buck.

4. Edit your shopping list.

If you haven’t stocked up on protein-based foods, you may resort to carb-heavy snacks when your stomach starts rumbling. So what are those quality plant proteins you should have on hand to avoid this?

Here’s a quick shopping list courtesy of Ehrhardt:

  • Beans and legumes like lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and pinto beans
  • Whole grains such as quinoa, kasha, rice, oats, couscous, kamut, teff, buckwheat, and cornmeal
  • Nuts such as hemp hearts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, and pine nuts
  • Seeds such as chia, flax, sunflower, or pumpkin
  • A good vegan protein powder (more on that later)

5. Be prepared to expand your horizons.

The key to sustaining any change in your diet is to be prepared. So if you weren’t a meal planner before, now’s the time to start. It’s the best way to make sure you’re eating a well-rounded diet. “You’ll have to expand your taste buds,” says Ehrhardt. “Plant-based diets aren’t just about eating pasta all the time but understanding which foods are going to give you the most nutrient bang for your buck.”

Here are a few meal ideas from Ehrhardt to get you started:

  • Overnight oats for breakfast: Mix 1/2 cup dry oats, 1 tablespoon hemp hearts, 1 tablespoon chia seeds, 1 scoop of plant-based protein powder, a dash of cinnamon, and water or a milk alternative of your choice. Let it sit overnight (425 calories: 43 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams protein, 14 grams of fat, and 13 grams fiber)
  • Power bowl for lunch: 1/2 cup cooked edamame, 1/2 cup cooked black beans, 1/2 cup diced red peppers, half of a small avocado, 1/2 cup cooked kasha, and 2 tablespoons of hummus (600 calories: 80 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 25 grams of fat, and 26 grams fiber)
  • Loaded sweet potato for dinner: 1 medium baked sweet potato with 1 cup of cooked lentils (any kind), 1 ounce of chopped peanuts, and a 1/2 cup of sliced oranges. Top with 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of olive oil (600 calories: 80 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 24 grams of fat, and 28 grams fiber)

6. Switch to a vegan protein powder.

So, about that protein powder. As you start shopping for a whey replacement, always check the amino acid profile. “If you’re choosing a plant protein for post-workout recovery, aim for 20 grams of protein per serving with at least 2 grams of leucine included in that serving,” says Ehrhardt.

Crawford also says that it’s all too easy to overlook the carb and fat composition in protein powders. “Some plant-based protein powders aren’t an easy replacement for a whey isolate as they can contain less protein and more carbs,” she says.

And that’s why we’re fans of Onnit’s new vegan protein powder, which Ehrhardt helped develop. It’s meant to be a recovery protein and doesn’t go overboard on carbohydrates or fat. Pea protein is the base, which has a 90% protein digestibility corrected amino acid profile (or PDCAA). This represents how much of the amino acids your body uses after digestion, and it’s score is comparable to whey protein. “A blend of watermelon, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds helped to round out the amino acid profile,” she says.

In general, when shopping for a vegan protein powder, read the label. “Watch for ingredients like artificial sweeteners and added sugars,” warns Ehrhardt. Since texture and taste can be a challenge to get right when making these powders, companies often take the easy way out and add extra sugar and unnecessary ingredients.

Bottom line, whether you’re considering a plant-based diet for health, environmental, or performance reasons (or all of the above), the pull to get in on the vegan lifestyle has never been stronger. Competitive athletes and active adults are challenging the idea that you need meat to stay active, strong, and healthy. And survey says, they’re not wrong.

EXOS believes in using safe, high-quality supplements. That’s why we recommend Onnit foods and supplements. To learn more, visit

About the Author

Catherine Conelly

Catherine Conelly is a California-based health, fitness, and lifestyle writer.

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