More and more athletes are adopting a plant-based diet to help reduce inflammation, improve athletic performance, and speed up recovery time. The growing list of plant-based athletes includes tennis stars such as Novak Djokovic and sisters Venus and Serena Williams, football players such as Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Griff Whalen, and 320-pound offensive tackle Trent Williams. Also included on this list are endurance athletes Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, free runner Tim Shieff, and UFC fighters Nate Diaz and Mac Danzig.
Although a diet centered on whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds is a great starting point for improving athletic performance and overall health, I’ve decided to make a specific list of power foods that all athletes (whether plant-based or not) should include in their diet. Here are my four power foods for athletes:
Like all legumes, lentils are an extremely healthy food. What sets them apart, and why I chose to feature them, is because they are extremely high in plant-based protein and iron. Protein is essential for muscle recovery and iron helps transport oxygen throughout our body. Consuming both of these nutrients from plants is the preferred route for good overall health. One cup of cooked lentils contains 230 calories, 18 grams of protein, over one-third of your daily requirement of iron, 40 grams of carbohydrate (our body’s primary fuel source), and 16 grams of fiber. Choose from brown, green, red, beluga, or any other variety. They are cheap, easy to cook, and can be snuck into a dish or eaten on their own with a little seasoning.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential in our diet. Hemp seeds contain both, with a ratio that appears ideal for human health. Their fat content, along with a fair amount of protein, make them a calorie-rich food that many athletes need in their diet. Three tablespoons of hulled hemp seeds provide around 170 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 10 grams of protein. Hemp seeds are also a good source of iron, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc. You can add them to your oatmeal, throw them in a smoothie, sprinkle some on top of a salad, or eat a handful raw, as they have a great nutty flavor.
Potatoes are often considered an unhealthy food that should be avoided. But this is only because they tend to be fried in oil, covered in salt, or topped with sour cream and bacon bits. When boiled or baked, and eaten plain or included in mixed dishes, the exact opposite is true—potatoes are healthy and should be included in our diet. They are cheap, filling, and have been a staple food for many of the healthiest populations in the world. One large baked potato provides about 275 calories, 7.5 grams of protein, and a good amount of B vitamins, potassium, and vitamin C. Choose from any of the white varieties, or go with orange or purple sweet potatoes for an added nutrient boost.
Staying hydrated while exercising is essential to maintain optimal performance. Yet hydrating before and after your workout is equally important. Eating your water is a great way to boost hydration. Although most fruits and vegetables contain a fair amount of water, watermelon, as its name implies, contains one of the highest concentrations, at around 92%. Other nutrients in watermelon may provide additional post-workout benefits beyond just hydration. One small study found that consuming watermelon (as opposed to a placebo) improved recovery and reduced muscle soreness after exercise (1). Watermelon is a good source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that enhances the absorption of plant-based iron (from all those lentils you’re eating). It also contains a decent amount of lycopene, a pigment that may help protect against prostate cancer and promote good heart health.
Whether you’re a 100% plant-based athlete, or just looking to boost your athletic performance a bit, these four power foods will provide the nutrition you need to fuel your workouts and recover afterwards. Include them in your diet on a regular basis and your body will thank you!