Growing up, I knew I wanted to be an athlete. There was just one problem: I wasn’t good at sports. I wasn’t born with enough fast-twitch muscles fibres for speed and I didn’t have enough endurance to go far. I was average at best and realized I’d have to work harder and smarter than others to reach an elite level. I quickly learned that recovery is a huge factor in performance and that 80% of recovery has to do with quality nutrition.
I define clean eating as plant-based with a focus on whole, unprocessed foods that are free of artificial ingredients. Whole, unprocessed plant-based foods are nutrient dense and full of vitamins, minerals, quality macronutrients and antioxidants to keep your body healthy. Artificial foods, heavily processed foods and genetically modified foods have the opposite effect, causing stress on your body.
Eating more plant-based foods has a wide range of benefits, especially for athletes. Here are some reasons why:
High net-gain nutrition
Training breaks down muscle tissue and food provides the materials (nutrients) to rebuild it. The quality of muscle and amount of strength you gain is directly related to the quality of food you eat. Consuming more foods that are high net-gain has allowed me to reach performance goals that I once thought impossible.
The typical North American diet is acid-forming (meat, bread, and dairy). Your body will always have a natural alkaline pH, but when it is filled with acid-forming foods, it pulls minerals from your bones to maintain an alkaline pH balance. Adding more alkaline-forming foods from a clean, plant-based diet can help you combat inflammation, reduce stress and protect bone health. In general, the greener the food, the better.
Better for the environment
Did you know that diet affects the environment even more than your commute? It takes more water, energy and fuel to produce animal products. Switching to plant-based foods saves water, reduces carbon emissions and protects arable land.
It’s not hard to adapt to this kind of healthy eating. Start by adding more plant-based foods to your cart at your next trip to the grocery store. Besides adding more leafy green vegetables, you’ll want to focus on a variety of foods that offer a balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants.)
While eliminating carbohydrates is trendy, minimally processed carbohydrates are nutrient dense and provide instant energy for your body. Look for fresh, whole food sources like raw and dried fruit, whole grains and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash. One of my favourite carbohydrates for athletes is buckwheat—a pseudograin that is gluten-free and high in protein. It has all essential amino acids and is rich in vitamin B, E and calcium.
Plant-based proteins provide all the amino acids necessary for building muscle but they are also alkaline-forming and low in saturated fat. Eating a variety of plant-based proteins from beans, nuts, and seeds will provide enough complete protein for your body. Try adding hemp seeds to your smoothie or beans to your salad. If you would like to supplement your intake with a protein powder, look for one that combines more than one plant-based protein source, is minimally processed and free of artificial colours, preservatives or sweeteners.
Newsflash: Eating fat will not make you fat. Healthy fats are necessary for hormone production including the hormone that increases muscular strength. Heart-healthy unsaturated fats are found in cold-pressed oils, avocado, nuts and seeds. Look for sources of essential fatty acids like Omega-3s in chia seeds, ground flaxseed and hemp seeds.
Clean eating doesn’t have to be all or nothing. As you transition to eating plant-based foods, focus on foods that you’d like to add to your diet such as smoothies based on hemp, chia, kale and quinoa, rather than thinking about foods you’d like to reduce such as dairy, refined sugars and fast food. Once you start to include more good foods, they will begin to crowd out the room in your stomach (and your life!) for not-so-good foods. Focus on adding one food a day (or a week). Starting your morning with a nutrient dense smoothie is one of the best ways to ensure you take on the day on the right foot—for both energy and nutrition.
Perfection is not the goal—constant improvement will get you further. Head to FuelYourBetter.com and learn how to overcome your training weaknesses by fuelling better with clean, plant-based nutrition.
Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian 50 km Ultra Marathon Champion. He is now a performance nutrition consultant, bestselling author of the Thrive book series, formulator of the award-winning line of plant-based Vega nutritional products and creator of Thrive Forward, an online video series designed to inspire and educate people about plant-based nutrition. Visit brendanbrazier.com and follow Brendan on Twitter.