Plant Based Nutrition for Active Living - Elevate Your Performance to the Next Level
First Step - Build Your Plant Based Sport Nutrition Foundation
I have seen numerous clients looking for strategies to help them elevate their nutrition when it comes to athletic performance and exercise. Often many are confused due to the overwhelming marketing and information available claiming all sorts of miraculous benefits from quick fix nutrition schemes. Athletes, whether novice or elite, are vulnerable to the mega marketing campaigns of many companies.
The first principal I emphasize to my clients, or anyone looking for a better nutritional advantage, would be to build your nutritional foundation. When you exercise your body is simply using more body fuel sources to help you achieve more physical work. So naturally the main focus of a well implemented sports nutrition program is to ensure adequate food fuel energy to meet the increased energy load, while optimizing hydration.
The major macro-nutrients that afford food energy include complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein. Coincidentally plant based foods provide great sources of these macro fuel based nutrients, especially healthy carbohydrates and lean protein. The primary macro-nutrient, or super fuel nutrient is known as complex carbohydrates. Carbs are the high octane fuel that our bodies thrive on for physical work.
Complex carbohydrates provide 4 Kcals/gram. Kilocalories (Kcals), or simply calories, are the fuel of food quantified. Some of my favorite plant foods with exceptional high quality carbohydrate profiles include whole grains, root vegetables, legumes and lentils.
The reason I love these guys is because they are low in unhealthy fats, they mostly provide healthier glycemic carbohydrates, are satiating, and are great for your overall health and wellness. The healthy glycemic factor of whole plant foods provides for sustained blood sugars, which may equate to better energy for both your brain and your body.
Most expert panels of sport nutritionists agree that whole plant based foods are rich in high quality carbohydrates - that are at the forefront for enhancing physical performance and recovery for athletes; and should therefore comprise the majority of calories of a well designed sports nutrition program. Similarly this may be applied to those people that are engaged in more active living, with mindful attention to keeping the carb intake in perspective.
In other words, elite athletes typically require the higher levels of intake of high quality carbohydrate plant foods - while those people engaged in more of an active living lifestyle, may optimize performance and recovery with a more moderate level of carb intake. Ultimately, your level of plant food carb dietary requirement is directly influenced by your level of physical activity.
The Side Benefits to Plant Based Foods for Your Activity
The side benefits to whole plant based carbs are the very high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, lean proteins, and naturally occurring electrolytes they contain. You see when you exercise you burn more calories, utilize more cellular oxygen, and usually sweat more. This is associated with extra circulating free radicals, with greater losses in body electrolytes and fluids.
So a diet richer in plant foods will naturally help build your electrolyte reserves, your glycogen stores, and your antioxidant stores to keep free radicals at bay. Keeping the exercise induced free radicals at bay will particularly help to support better athletic performance, regulate immunity, reduce inflammation, and foster recovery.
Another great benefit is that whole plant based foods are generally healthier for your blood sugar response, meaning they help to stabilize your blood sugars and sustain healthy levels for longer periods - thereby better fueling your body for better performance.
Conversely, high glycemic carbs such as processed white bread products, or sweets, and cakes - will generally spike your blood sugars which may affect your moods, your appetite, and compromise your energy levels. High glycemic carbs usually contribute excessive empty calories, which may lead to the risk for unhealthy weight gain for everyone, including athletes. Instead, moderate glycemic carbs are kind of a healthy compromise, meaning it will help support pre exercise energy stores, and glycogen repletion after exercise.
Examples of ideal fuel rich plant foods include whole wheat breads, whole wheat pastas, brown rice, rice pastas, rice noodles, quinoa, oats, rye, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, and yams. Various beans, split peas, and lentils also contain healthy carbs, while offering much more concentrated sources of plant based proteins.
Legumes and lentils are usually low glycemic foods, meaning they may be the best at sustaining healthier blood sugar levels for longer periods; with some preliminary evidence even showing small but significant benefits to athletic performance.
If opting to include more pulses in your daily diet, be sure to include a variety of beans or lentils throughout the day, with whole grains, and you will get plenty of complete protein, along with high quality carbs - to support your activity and overall nutritional balance.
Allow Time for Your Digestion to Adapt
It is very important to allow adequate time to digest your meals before exercise. As a general rule, allow 3-4 hours to digest larger meals, and 1-2 hours to digest smaller snacks. If you are not used to eating plant based meals then allow time for your digestion to adapt as your body becomes more accustomed to the extra fibers, inulin and plant sugars.
Start slow with high fiber plant based foods and build up your tolerance over time. Taking plant enzymes just before your meals may also help, such as papaya enzymes or dietary full spectrum plant enzymes including alpha-galactosidase (the bean and grain digesting enzyme).
Alternatively, drinking herbal digestive teas like ginger root tea or fennel tea may also help alleviate much of the bloating. Drink 1 cup of tea with or right after your meals for best results. Also, when trialing more plant foods, it's best to do this during your off season periods, or at a time when you are not required to perform at your best.
This way you may evaluate your digestive response and allow time to adapt for better dietary tolerance. Last but not least, take time to eat your meals, and chew each mouthful well, this will help to mechanically grind the plant foods better and allow the amylase (one of your bodies starch enzymes) to be released in your saliva to start the first stages of starch digestion.
Plant Based Active Living Supplements - Innovative Concepts Moving Beyond the Norm
When it comes to sport specific nutritional supplements, also known as ergogenic supplements, there are some products in the market that may be of particular benefit for active living. One such brand that stands out is Niyama Yoga Wellness. Niyama Yoga Wellness is a Canadian company that offers some very innovative products that work well for complimenting a balanced active living nutrition program.
What I really like about their formulas are that they are very well thought out, with mindful attention to using ingredients that are plant based, non-GMO, dairy free, gluten free and soy free. Their active living products think outside the box for exercise performance, moving beyond the norm to address some other very important nutritional needs when exercising.
Unlike the majority of known pre workout supplements, which mostly emphasize caffeine containing extracts, sodium, and processed sugars; Niyama Yoga Wellness emphasizes nutrient dense plant ingredients to nourish the body for a more organic sort of energy kick.
For instance, Niyama Yoga Wellness has a very clean pre workout powder blend called Green Energy - Pre Vinyasa Energizer. This formula is rich in super green plant foods such as wheat grass, barley grass, spinach, alfalfa, and berries. These super foods are very alkalizing in nature, rich in essential nutrients, many carotenoids, folate, magnesium and potassium. The alkaline forming nutrition support of Green Energy is in line with what many preliminary sports nutrition studies are suggesting.
Preliminary research shows that alkalizing your body with alkaline forming foods may help limit exercise induced metabolic acidosis. It has been suggested that many athletes consume diets far too rich in protein with not enough alkaline forming foods - setting the stage for an acid base imbalance (exercise induced metabolic acidosis) possibly leading to poor recovery and increased fatigue. Many integrative sports nutritionists are therefore suggesting more alkaline forming diets from plant based foods to help naturally improve the acid-base balance for athletes.
However, more well designed clinical studies are warranted to further evaluate the exact role an alkaline forming diet may play for ergogenic effects. Although it may be somewhat premature to say that an alkaline forming diet definitively helps with enhancing exercise performance; what I really like about shifting the diet towards better alkalinity is that it has been shown to offer possible benefits for improving bone mineral density, and cardiovascular wellness. Many female endurance athletes may have an elevated risk for bone mineral density loss, a concern for Osteoporosis, so any help with reducing this risk is greatly welcomed.
To date, the majority of studies in the area of alkaline ergogenic supplements have used supplemental forms of sodium bicarbonate, which may increase the risk for excessive sodium intake, a concern for many obvious untoward effects. Ideally future studies should look more at the use of whole plant foods and or plant food powders, which provides for extra nutritional support while alkalizing without the excessive dietary sodium. Above and beyond the alkalizing effects is that they are also a source of naturally occurring phytochemical antioxidants. Food sourced antioxidants show many health potentials for those that exercise more.
Innovative Active Living Supplements - Mindful of Phytochemical Antioxidants
Green Energy Pre Vinyasa Energizer contains substantial amounts of the red-purple phytochemical (proanthocyanidin) rich foods including beets, grape seed and pine bark extract. Preliminary research shows that these purple pigments significantly help with antioxidant status during and after activity; thereby supporting exercise performance and recovery. Furthermore, these pigments along with its content of the amino acid L-arginine, helps the body naturally produce the vasodilator nitric oxide - supporting overall circulation throughout the body, and blood vessel health; all supportive of cardiovascular wellness.
Another important ingredient of Green Energy is its content of high quality cocoa extract, known to be high in cocoa polyphenols - with potentials to help with athletic performance. Interestingly, preliminary studies with professional soccer players show that the consumption of cocoa helps significantly reduce markers for exercise induced muscle damage by up to 39%, while reducing oxidative stress by up to 32%; with an increase in total antioxidant capacity and exercise performance by 16% and 4%, respectively.
Adaptogenic Plant Foods - An Added Advantage with Possible Merit for Exercise
Many athletes and exercise enthusiasts claim that the use of certain super foods such as Maca root, helps them perform and recover better. Maca root, a medicinal plant native to Peru, has been touted to act as an adaptogen, and has been used as a food and traditional medicine for centuries. Adaptogens are considered to enhance the bodies resistance to both physical and mental stressors, with a belief that it will likely increase energy levels and recovery from physical activity. Ginseng is a well known adaptogen that is used widely in traditional Chinese medicine. Maca is believed to be the Peruvian equivalent.
Although studies are somewhat limited, a relatively recent pilot study found some interesting food for thought. A small group of male cyclists were randomized to take either Maca root or placebo for a 14 day supplemental period, with those taking the Maca experiencing significant improvement in their 40 km cycling time, with a noted enhancement in self-rated sexual desire. The authors concluded that Maca does offer promise as an ergogenic aid warranting larger scale clinical trials to further explore its effects for athletic performance.
Historical use and recent studies have shown that extracts of Maca helps improve quality of life parameters including mood, energy, chronic mountain sickness and health status, with no reports of safety concerns. For this reason, many well designed pre workout supplements may include Maca. Another perk that I like about Green Energy - Pre Vinyasa is that it contains a high quality Maca root powder thereby adding these adaptogenic nutritional benefits to the formula.
Your Take Home Message for Plant Based Active Living
So whether you are an elite athlete, novice athlete or just trying to become more active with your daily living; a strong nutrition foundation emphasizing high quality carbs is considered invaluable. Including more plant based foods are a great way to bump up your intake of alkaline forming nutrition, high quality healthy glycemic carbohydrates, lean protein, vitamins, minerals, potassium, natural sodium, and antioxidant phytochemicals; which may collectively support better performance, recovery, and overall wellness. Be mindful of your hydration, while eating enough to sustain and optimize your body fuel stores so you may compete, exercise and recover at your best.
Ideally when using sport supplements, you should opt to select supplements that emphasize nutrient and antioxidant rich whole plant based extracts, to top up your pre-exercise nutrition. If you have a medical condition, or if you are taking medications, always check with your doctor, dietitian, naturopath, or pharmacist to ensure no interactions or contraindications when taking supplements. Don't forget to allow adequate time to digest your meals before exercising. If you would really like to bring your performance to the next level, seek out the services of a professional sports nutritionist such as a registered dietitian, for a customized nutrition plan that will meet your unique weight, height, gender, dietary intolerances, and medical history.