From fast-food chains to high-end restaurants, it seems like everywhere you turn, there are meat alternatives or ‘mock meats’ to accommodate vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians. Plant-based eating may have started as a trend but it is now a lifestyle for many, including professional athletes. And for good reason: Reducing meat consumption and incorporating more plant-based foods is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Not to mention that a plant-based diet is also more environmentally friendly and ethical when it comes to animal welfare.
If you’re a boxer who is interested in eating more plant-based foods, you are likely wondering whether you can build muscle or maintain workout stamina when replacing meat with plant proteins. The short answer is yes. In fact, some studies suggest that plant-based eating may improve athletic performance. However, transitioning to a plant-based diet does require special attention and planning to ensure you meet your protein needs as a boxer.
How a Plant-Based Diet Supports Exercise Performance
Plant-based diets have been shown to support exercise performance in a variety of ways.
Research suggests that plant-based diets are linked to reduced blood pressure and blood viscosity, all of which may improve blood flow and oxygenation to muscle tissues. In addition, whole-food plant-based diets are free of cholesterol and often low in saturated fat, giving this diet its heart-protective effects. In fact, one small study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that a single high-fat meal consisting of animal proteins, eggs, and sausage, impaired arterial function for several hours.
Similarly, plant-based foods — especially fruits and vegetables — have potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, thus helping reduce systemic inflammation and oxidative stress. When inflammation goes from acute to chronic, it can damage DNA, proteins, and cells, contributing to aging, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. Anti-inflammatory and high antioxidant diets can be especially beneficial to athletes, who are regularly exposed to exercise-induced oxidative stress and inflammation.
Energy and Body Composition
Plant-based diets have also been shown to effectively reduce body weight, BMI, and body fat, thus helping individuals achieve their optimal body composition and improve endurance. Contrary to popular belief, it is absolutely possible to build muscle while on a plant-based diet. Additionally, a plant-based diet supports energy levels as it is high in complex carbohydrates, which are essential for an athlete’s glycogen storage and performance.
How About Amino Acids?
Amino acids – building blocks of protein – are needed for growth, tissue repair, and hormone production and can also be used as an indirect source of energy. There are nine amino acids that are considered essential, meaning the body cannot make them, so they must be ingested through foods. Animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids in sufficient amounts and are considered ‘complete’ proteins, while plant-based proteins may contain lower amounts of one or more essential amino acids.
Historically, it was believed that plant proteins needed to be combined to make up a complete amino acid profile, which was known as “complementary proteins.” However, we now know that the body is able to obtain all essential amino acids from plant-based foods and people can meet their protein needs as long as calorie consumption and total protein intake are adequate. It is also recommended that plant-based eaters consume a variety of plant protein sources.
OK, This Sounds Great. But Where Do I Start?
Transitioning to a plant-based diet can seem challenging at first, but it is in fact quite simple. Here are a few important steps to get more plants into your diet.
1. Know Where to Get Your Protein From
Plant-based foods are a great source of protein, but in general, they contain smaller amounts than animal-based foods. Therefore, it’s important to know the best sources of plant proteins and to incorporate a variety of them into your diet. A benefit of plant-based protein is that they also provide an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, different from animal proteins.
Plant-Based Protein Source & Protein Per Serving Size
Pea Protein Powder (2 scoops) = 27 grams
Tempeh (½ cup) = 15 grams
Pumpkin Seeds (¼ cup) = 10 grams
Tofu (3 oz) = 10 grams
Edamame (½ cup) = 9 grams
Lentils (½ cup) = 9 grams
Hemp Seeds (3 tbsp) = 9 grams
Beans (½ cup) = 8 grams
Peanut Butter (2 tbsp) = 8 grams
Chickpeas (½ cup) = 7 grams
Chia Seeds (2 tbsp) = 6 grams
Sunflower Seeds (¼ cup) = 6 grams
Quinoa, cooked (½ cup) = 6 grams
Oatmeal (½ cup) = 5 grams
2. Know the Best Plant-Based Sources of Essential Nutrients
Although plant-based diets can be nutritionally adequate, they do require proper planning as some essential nutrients are not as well absorbed when coming from plant sources. Knowing where to obtain these nutrients from and incorporating these foods into your daily routine is essential for meeting nutrient requirements.
Calcium: Tofu, almonds, chia seeds, white beans, leafy greens, broccoli
Iron: Leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens), legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (fortified cereals, oats, quinoa, amaranth)
Omega-3: Chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans
Vitamin B-12: Although some foods, such as nutritional yeast, are fortified with vitamin B12, this is not enough to meet nutrient needs. Therefore, B12 supplementation is required for those following a strictly plant-based diet.
Zinc: Legumes, soy products, whole grains, nuts, and seeds
3. Set Small, Realistic Goals
Trying to go fully plant-based overnight is a recipe for disaster. Instead, be realistic with your expectations by setting small, achievable goals. Take into account your routine, your time, and your resources. For example, one goal may be to adopt “Meatless Mondays” for a few weeks, and then work your way up to having at least one plant-based meal a day, and so on.
4. Seek Guidance and Advice From Professionals, Such as Registered Dietitians
Finding information on nutrition is quite overwhelming. The internet is saturated with misinformation and non-credentialed individuals who stir up confusion. Working with a registered dietitian can be helpful for the transition period to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs. It’s also helpful to have a “buddy” to go through the journey with you, whether that is a friend, a family member, or a support group online.
5. Don’t Aim for Perfection
If you have a setback, keep moving forward. Most people have an “all-or-nothing” mentality which can only set them up for failure. By acknowledging that there will be setbacks and bumps in the road, you will be able to accept them when they happen and keep working to reach your goals. Keep your plant-based diet exciting by making plant-based versions of traditional recipes that you enjoy, experimenting with new ingredients, and find plant-based individuals who have had success in their transition.
The Real MVP
A well-planned plant-based diet is nutritionally adequate for all life stages and beneficial for the health of humans, animals, and the planet. It can also be advantageous for boxers by potentially improving exercise performance through its anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, and antioxidant effects. The evidence-based benefits of plant-based diets have won over world-renowned athletes, including heavyweight champ and FightCamp family member Mike Tyson, who advocates for this type of eating as a benefit to his physical health and training routine, in and out of the ring. In the end, it’s important that boxers find what works best for their individual diets, keeping in mind that incorporating more plant-based foods can have a significant positive effect on their training performance and overall health.
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