During a recent trip to Florida, I stopped for dinner at Fresh Kitchen. It’s a small regional chain focused on healthy food, served in bowls. Customers choose bases (rice or potatoes generally), vegetables and proteins, plus sauces.
“Are you a pescatarian?” my server asked when I ordered fish and tofu as my two proteins.
“Why, yes, I am,” I said, confirming my new lifestyle approach publicly for the first time. “I just started it about a month ago.”
The bowl, pictured above, was delicious — fresh vegetables and rice accompanied my protein choices. I have been gluten-free for about five years after discovering that my sons have Celiac Disease so we have been big fans of these types of dinners, though chicken has generally been the protein of choice.
That weeklong business trip did pose the most significant challenge to my lifestyle change — not a diet — where I have eliminated eating red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, etc. Basically it’s a plant-based diet with eggs and fish several times a week. One thing is for sure: that tofu will take some getting used to when I am dining out.
While I had been thinking of such a switch for a while, I made the commitment earlier this year while reading Scott Jurek’s book, Eat and Run. If one of the greatest ultra runners can perform at such a high level as a vegan, surely I can make my approach work for me.
My biggest concern in adapting this eating game plan was getting enough protein and iron, especially during peak training and racing times. That was part of the reason why I continue to have eggs and fish, instead of going straight to a vegan or vegetarian diet.
But I needed more information about how to get the proper nutrients so I reached out and posed questions to Sarah Koszyk, registered dietitian and sports nutritionist. She is also the founder of Family. Food. Fiesta.
Getting the right balance
Question: For endurance athletes who choose to go vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian, what would you recommend for supplementing protein and iron?
Answer: Dietary protein is an essential macronutrient with important functions in the body, such as maintaining muscle and bone mass and helping support the immune system. Protein is found naturally in animal and plant-based foods.
A healthy, well-planned, balanced diet with a variety of whole plant foods can provide an adequate amount of protein to meet one’s nutritional needs. Plant proteins often provide other key nutrients such as fiber, heart-healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Great plant-based protein sources: edamame, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, adzuki beans, lentils, black beans, pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, ground flax meal, quinoa, walnuts and almonds.
Tips to increase protein:
Tofu or tempeh scrambles are a great way to combine your favorite protein-rich vegetables to make a delicious and satisfying breakfast.
Give your salad an extra boost of flavor and texture by adding beans and whole grains such as quinoa.
Variety is key. Make sure to get a diverse source of protein. Try to incorporate many different types of beans into your weekly plan. For example, ½ cup of adzuki beans contains 9 grams of protein and is also a good source of calcium.
Make a protein-packed smoothie with soy milk, spinach, chia seeds, ½ cup of pichuberries and ½ cup of blueberries.
Iron is one of the most abundant minerals on earth and is essential for normal cell functioning. Iron is naturally found in animal foods such as red meat, fish, poultry and in plant sources such as lentils and beans. Iron plays an important role in oxygen transport throughout the body as well as immunity and DNA synthesis.
Endurance athletes — and others following these types of diets — should know that consuming iron with vitamin C increases its absorption level. Iron absorption can be inhibited by calcium and natural plant compounds called polyphenols, which are found in tea and coffee.
Note that a deficiency in iron may result in fatigue and poor performance.
Great plant-based iron sources: spinach, edamame, lentils, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, ready-to-eat fortified cereal, fortified instant oatmeal and tofu.
Tips to increase iron:
Look for iron-fortified products like cereals and instant oatmeal. These can contain up to 100 percent of the daily value. Iron also occurs naturally in whole wheat products.
Edamame and lentils are excellent plant sources of iron. Other beans such as kidney, pinto, navy and black beans are also high in iron. Try a bowl of bean chili for an iron-packed lunch.
Vitamin C helps with absorption of iron from plant sources, so make sure you are getting adequate amounts of this immune-boosting vitamin as well. Add bell peppers to chili, have some orange segments or any red berries for a light dessert after any iron-packed meal.
If you are feeling more tired than usual, ask your doctor to check your iron level. You may need a supplement if you are found to be iron deficient, which is most common among women during child-bearing years. Be sure not to exceed your doctor’s recommendations when taking a supplement as too much iron can be dangerous.
Question: There are many options for those who don’t consume regular or cow’s milk. Let’s talk about some other ways to get enough calcium in one’s diet.
Answer: Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and is essential for good bone health. Calcium is found naturally in some foods (like dairy), added to others (like cereal), available as a dietary supplement and present in some medications (such as antacids).
Calcium is absorbed best if your intake of calcium-rich foods is spread out during the day. Absorption is highest in doses of 500 mg or less. I always recommend getting calcium in your FOOD (rather than supplements) but if you need a supplement look for Calcium Citrate, which is easiest to absorb.
Getting regular, weight-bearing exercise is also very important for bone health since it builds bone density and strength.
Great vegan calcium sources: rhubarb, kale, bok choy, okra, spinach, black-eyed peas, edamame, pinto beans, tahini, almond butter, fortified ready-to-eat cereals, dried figs, oranges, papaya, tofu made with calcium, calcium-fortified orange juice and fortified soy milk.
Tips to increase calcium:
When shopping, read food labels and select foods that contain 10 percent or more of the daily value for calcium.
Fruits and vegetables reduce calcium loss in your body. Dark leafy greens are also a great source of calcium.
Soda, caffeine and alcohol consumption increases calcium loss in your body, so consume these beverages in moderation.
Be sure to get enough Vitamin D, which is obtained from food and produced by your skin when it is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D improves calcium absorption.
Question: Let’s continue on with Vitamin D. It can be especially challenging to get enough Vitamin D during winter and for those who live in cloudy climates. What do you recommend?
Answer: Vitamin D is found naturally in a small amount of foods (fatty fish, mushrooms), added to other foods (cereal, orange juice) and available as a supplement. Research suggests that Vitamin D might play some role in the prevention and treatment of Type I and Type II diabetes, hypertension, Multiple Sclerosis and other medical conditions.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus which are critical for building bones. Research suggests that Vitamin D keeps cancer cells from growing and dividing, especially with prostate, colon and breast cancer.
For endurance athletes, Vitamin D is crucial as studies suggest that it plays a role in controlling infections and controlling inflammation.
Great sources of Vitamin D: maitake mushrooms, portobello mushrooms, fortified almond milk, fortified orange juice, ready-to-eat fortified cereal.
Tips to increase Vitamin D:
Look for Vitamin D fortified products like cereal.
Aim to get five to 30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs or back without sunscreen. This usually leads to sufficient Vitamin D synthesis. Remember that the season, time of day, geography, latitude, level of air pollution, color of your skin and your age all affect your skins ability to produce Vitamin D.
Try eating a portobello mushroom burger for dinner or adding maitake mushrooms to your stir fry.
Question: For pescatarians, omega-3 fatty acids aren’t as challenging as they are for those who do not eat fish. What should vegans or vegetarians do to get a proper amount of omega-3 fatty acids?
Answer: Omega-3 fatty acids are found naturally in foods (fish, nuts, and seeds), added to other foods (milk and eggs) and available as a supplement. Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may be associated with heart health, central nervous system development and relief from joint stiffness.
Most omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that our body cannot make on its own therefore it is important to consume them as part of a balanced diet. Plant-based diets may be low in the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. However, plant-based diets are typically rich in the omega-3 acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, ALA can be found in food sources such as soy, flax, walnuts and hemp.
Great sources for plant-based omega-3: ground flax meal, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, flaxseed oil and sacha inchi oil.
Tips to increase omega-3 fatty acids:
Add walnuts to salads, cereals, yogurt and baked goods.
Ground flax meal, chia seeds and hemp seeds taste great sprinkled on top of oatmeal, cold cereal, yogurt, or added into your favorite smoothie.
You can also use one tablespoon of ground flax meal and three tablespoons of water to replace one egg in recipes.
Try sacha inchi oil in a salad. It is best used when not heated.
Question: Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that is not commonly found in plant-based foods. What’s a vegan or vegetarian to do?
Answer: Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal food sources, added to other foods (cereal, plant-based milks) and available as a supplement. Vitamin B12 plays a key role in many functions such as metabolism, red blood cell formation and central nervous system maintenance.
It’s true that those who follow plant-based diets should pay careful attention to their Vitamin B12 intake due to its limited availability in plants. Vitamin B12 deficiency in not uncommon. Most vegans should take a supplement and consider getting screened for Vitamin B12 deficiency.
Great vegan Vitamin B12 sources: fortified breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast and fortified soy milk.
Tips to increase Vitamin B12:
When shopping, look at food labels and choose Vitamin B12 fortified foods such as cereals, almond milk or soy milk.
Nutritional yeast is extremely versatile. Sprinkle it on top of soups, salads, breads, rice cakes, popcorn and raw vegetables to give an extra boost of flavor.
Question: Among the recommended ways to supplement these types of diets are chia seeds, hemp seeds and flax seeds. What are the differences in these and do you recommend one or a combination?
Answer: Let’s start out by looking at each of the three:
Chia seeds provide fiber, protein, calcium, omega-3s, magnesium and phosphorus.
Hemp seeds provide fiber, protein, omega-3s, Vitamin E, electrolytes such as phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, in addition to iron.
Ground flax meal provides fiber, protein, omega-3s, lignans, manganese, thiamine and magnesium.
I recommend using a combination of all three. They all provide different health benefits, different textures, and different flavor profiles to enhance the dish. You don’t have to consume all three seeds in one day. However, over the course of the week, enjoy chia seeds one day and hemp seeds another day. Variety in one’s diet is recommended because each food offers different benefits to enhance one’s health, performance and recovery.
Question: Any last words of advice?
Answer: Periodically review the above recommendations for vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are essential for a vegan athlete. I highly recommend a multi-vitamin and B12 vitamin for anyone considering going vegetarian or vegan. Other than that, no supplementation is necessary, unless recommended by one’s physician, assuming the person is eating a well-balanced diet containing all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients recommended above.
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