By Darren Don, MD, MPH
“So my energy is up. My body feels amazing.” —Kyrie Irving, NBA
“You just feel really good, lighter. And there is a lot more energy you have throughout the day,” —JaVale McGee, NBA
Are these professional athletes referring to a magic pill? Not quite. But by switching to a plant-based diet, they are reaping the health benefits and are also helping our planet. Climate change, with impacts accelerating in the future, is already fueling droughts, wildfires, and heat waves and is one of the top concerns of our youth. Raising meat produces far more greenhouse gas emissions compared to producing plant-based foods.
Choosing what you eat is a powerful way for adolescents to take a stand on climate change while also promoting good personal health.
You may be inspired by plant-based athletes such as:
Kyrie Irving, NBA All-Star
Alex Morgan, U.S. women’s soccer star
Venus Williams, American tennis champion
Hannah Teter, Olympic medalist in snowboarding
Here are key tips to help you transition to a plant-based or plant-forward diet.
· First, you can get appropriate energy and nutrition from a plant-based diet if you focus on eating a balanced diet of different types of plant-based foods and eating enough.
· Here is a simple formula for an adolescent athlete: Get most of your calories from complex carbohydrates, a moderate amount from protein, and a low-to-moderate amount from fat. Your diet can include whole grain breads and pastas, veggie burgers, green vegetables, fruits, beans including hummus, and nut butters. Many plant-based foods are easily prepared and obtainable.
· What about complete proteins? When preparing meals, eat a varied type of plant proteins. It is not necessary to plan specific protein combinations. While protein is important, remember that many Americans easily exceed the daily recommended amount of protein.
· With a varied diet, you can easily meet nutrient requirements; however, it is also important to pay attention to specific nutrients, like vitamin B12. It can be found in fortified foods, including vegan milks, cereals, and nutritional yeast. You can also take a supplement.
· Bone density is determined in adolescence, so consume daily sources of calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is found in fortified plant milks, tofu, leafy vegetables, tahini, orange juice, and almonds. Vitamin D is in fortified foods such as soy milk and ready-to-eat cereals, and can be received from 15 minutes of sunlight daily on the face and hands.
· Iron requirements of teenagers are relatively high. Foods high in iron include tofu, spinach, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, pinto beans, potatoes, cashews, and watermelon. Female athletes should consider monitoring their iron intake and can also take an iron supplement.
· Focus on the big picture. You can simply make a rough estimate of your protein, fat, carbohydrate, and calorie intake while watching your energy level, weight, and athletic performance. You can also take it to the next level by logging what you are eating and determine macronutrient and calorie counts on an app like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer. Logging these daily trends and asking yourself how you feel can help you make small dietary adjustments.
· Making the transition to a plant-based diet can be done gradually. If you eat meat daily, a flexible first step could be to incorporate ‘Meatless Mondays’ or ‘Green Mondays’ once a week. From there, add a few more veggie-only days to your routine; it will get easier as you become more familiar with preparing meatless dishes. Many sites (like this one) provide great beginners’ tips for those with an active and athletic lifestyle. You can also celebrate “Veganuary,” a campaign encouraging plant-based eating during the month of January. Be sure to consult with your doctor about your nutritional planning. Finally, remember that the goal is to incorporate more plant-based foods in your diet to keep you healthy. Whether or not you become completely plant-based is your own decision.
With these tips, you can join the ever-increasing number of plant-based athletes that are thriving in their sports while supporting a leaner, greener lifestyle. Maybe one day it will be you promoting this diet to your legion of fans!
Darren Don, MD, MPH is a physician dedicated to improving the health and well-being of his patients and the planet. He wants everyone to feel the energizing and nourishing benefits of plant-based foods and is a regular contributor to Acterra’s Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet food program.