This year has been a banner year for vegans. It may have taken the reality of climate change to get the message across, but the rest of the world is finally waking up to what plant-based eaters have been saying all along – humans don’t need meat to thrive. Case in point: Earlier today, I was biking through Toronto’s rain-soaked streets when I saw, for the first time in my life, a giant billboard promoting tofu.
While the ethical and environmental arguments in favour of plant-based eating become further entrenched, the myths surrounding its effects on health and athleticism persist. I still read articles by well-respected trainers and coaches who all but insist there are magical qualities to meat. This decade’s rise of the vegan athlete – as documented in the new Netflix movie The Game Changers – puts that notion to bed.
Yes, it turns out you can get plenty big and strong (not to mention fast and powerful) eating nothing but plants. The proof is everywhere; plant-powered athletes have been kicking ass and taking names at the highest levels of every major sport, from weightlifting and martial arts, to basketball and tennis. So compelling is the evidence that two of the most massive men on the face of the Earth – bodybuilding legend Kai Greene and Game of Thrones star Hafthor (The Mountain) Bjornsson – have said they’re going to give the vegan diet a shot.
If, as with Greene and Bjornsson, you, too, are considering making the switch to Team V – or even if you’re already a member in good standing – there are a couple of things to consider to maximize your success (this advice is mostly for gym rats and athletes, but all plant-based eaters should take note).
Make your calories count
Plants are low in calories, and that’s why plant-based diets are often so successful for those looking to lose weight. But what if losing weight is the last thing on your mind? The answer is easy: think beyond the produce aisle.
When people hear the word “vegan,” they think green, when really there’s a whole rainbow of high-calorie foods that will keep you satiated and help to add lean muscle to your frame. Sweet potatoes, quinoa, red lentils and buckwheat are just a few examples. Other calorie-dense staples include avocado, dried fruits, pumpkin seeds, tahini, nut butters, cashews and coconut oil. When planned properly, a plant-based diet is anything but restrictive, allowing for indulgences in starchy carbs and delicious fats.
Mind your micronutrients
Our cultural obsession with protein is amplified in the plant-based world. It’s the No. 1 question every vegan gets – “Dude, where do you get your protein?” – yet in reality, protein abounds in nearly every food source. Shift your focus instead on micronutrients, specifically vitamins D and B12.
Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health and nerve function. Found commonly in seafood and eggs, plant-based sources of vitamin D include mushrooms and fortified non-dairy milks. Of course, you can also swallow a pill – just make sure you choose vitamin D2 or D3 sourced from lichen if animal rights are your main concern.
As for B12, our bodies need this vitamin to make red blood cells as well as as DNA and RNA. B12 is made by bacteria microbes; because of the mineral depletion in today’s soil, it’s found mostly in animal products. Smart vegans quickly make friends with nutritional yeast – a B12-fortified condiment not unlike Parmesan cheese – sprinkling the stuff on just about everything they eat.
Nutrient deficiencies can be devastating and are a legitimate concern, but the thing is they exist in most meat eaters, too. Don’t let naysayers give you cause for doubt; just take a multivitamin and opt for fortified foods when possible.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.
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