In the CrossFit World “I’m a CrossFitter” is synonymous with “I live a paleo lifestyle”, which in summary is a diet with high-quality protein, lots of nutrient-dense vegetables, healthy fats, some fruit, a little starch and no sugar... But while I am a CrossFit, I have not officially committed to going Paleo. Instead, I like to test out how my body feels on different eating regimes. After a few of the health and wellness stars I follow on IG boasted about how GOOD they feel on a plant-based diet, I decided to get some information from wellness queen and co-founder of GOOD Fest and B-YND, Jennifer Clark, about what exactly it means to eat plant-based and if it’s possible to eat plant based and be a CrossFitter. Here’s what she had to say:
What Even Is A Plant Based Diet?
You may have heard the term, “Plant-based” but are you confused about what it exactly it means? I asked Jen to clear up some common misconceptions about the lifestyle, and to explain exactly what the label “plant-based” means. “‘Plant-based’ is often thought of as synonymous with ‘vegan’” says Jen, “But in reality, it’s both a little more, and a little less, than veganism. A plant based diet is what is sounds - a diet focused primarily on foods derived from plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds) but more importantly, it focuses on the WHOLE form of foods. So while, yes, Oreos are void of animal products and therefore vegan, they are nowhere near plant based. A plant based diet eschews all the processed stuff we see all too often in the standard american diet; think - no highly refined flours, sugars, or oils. And while not all plant based diets are 100% animal free, they all focus on plants as the star of the show and minimize the consumption of meats, fish, and dairy”.
According to Jen, following a plant-based lifestyle doesn't necessarily mean fully avoiding animal products (like a vegan or vegetarian). Instead, for some plant-based eaters, animal proteins can happily fit into the lifestyle, as long as they serve more of a supporting role to the veggies and whole grains. Likewise, while a paleo diet focuses on high-protein and minimal fat, plant-based eaters believe that it is HARD not to enough enough protein because it's simple and, and so instead, they focus on the quality of their vegetables. But there is a lot of common ground between a plant-based diet and Paleo lifestyle: food quality is key, nutrient-dense veggies should make up the base of any meal, food should be natural and minimally processed, and generally speaking, micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are just as important as macronutrients.
Wait… What About Protein?
Protein is essential for repairing muscle tissue, the formation of enzymes, and recovery after exercise, which is why it's important an athlete makes sure they are getting enough protein. According to Jen, “depending on your training level, you may have to be more careful in your initial plant-based meal planning to fill your protein needs. Promoters of a plant based lifestyle, however, argue that the amount of protein the human body needs is much lower than what we are generally taught (only about 5-10% of your daily calories), and it's nearly impossible to eat regularly and be deficient in protein”. There are plenty of nutrient rich plant based protein sources, for example legumes (like chickpeas, black beans, and lentils), grains (like quinoa, brown rice, and buckwheat), nuts (like almonds, cashews, and walnuts), seeds (like hemp seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds), and vegetables (like mushrooms, spinach, and kale).
“Variety and awareness in meal planning is extremely important. A day of kale salads may sound healthy, but plant based athletes need complex carbs like potatoes, oats, and squash as well as fruits for energy. But hey - this is something we LOVE about this lifestyle. You’ll never be hungry!” says Jen. If you still feel like you need a protein boost, The GOOD Fest team confessed that they are fans of Epic protein powder because it's organic, vegan, GF, and packed with superfoods.
What Are Some Of The Deficiencies That Plant-Based Eaters Need To Be Conscious Of?
“B12. There’s no way around it”, says Jen. B12 is essential to a functioning metabolism and is vital to the production of energy. Unfortunately, B12 is typically only found in animal products, and so Jen recommends that we get this from a supplement or fortified nutritional years. Another deficiency, notes Jen is Omega Fatty Acids, "If you don’t like sea veggies like algae (the best source, and where fish get theirs!) you can run the risk of an omega fatty acid deficiency”. This means if the seaweed in your sushi is giving you the creeps, you’d be wise to hit up the vitamin aisle for a bottle of omega 3 and omega 6.
Jen expands, “Some plant based eaters worry about things like vitamin D, iron, and zinc - but these are different for everyone and can easily be supplemented. The GOOD Fest teams FAVORITE tool for checking vitamin levels is an online 'food calculator' - cronometer.com. Add in what you’re eating and you’ll get to track not only calories, fats, and protein, but you can see the breakdown of all your vitamins, minerals, and amino acids - it’s seriously amazing for figuring out what’s working for your body and where your nutritional gaps may be.” The food calculator is a tool that useful not only for people going plant-based, but for any of us health-nuts curious about what we’re putting into our bodies.
Okay, But What Are There Benefits?
“The health benefits of going plant based are astounding. It can reduce and prevent disease, especially chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer”, says Jen. And she’s right, recent research has shown that eating plant-based can generally improve the health of any active or inactive person. One study in particular showed that adhering to a plant-based diet helps to improve blood glucose levels in those who have diabetes or are prediabetic. This means a lower risk of diabetes-related medical conditions.
A plant-based diet “also helps athletes maintain a healthy weight, improves skin because of increased consumption of phytonutrients and antioxidants, and improves gut health through increased consumption of fiber” says Jen. But athletes in particular would benefit from a plant-based diet because plant based foods are alkaline forming (as opposed to acid forming); “creating an alkaline environment in the body reduces inflammation, which in turn increases your body’s ability to recover, heal, and ultimately become stronger,” Jen explains.
YES! It’s totally possible to be a plant-based CrossFitter, but it’s going to take some pre-planning and body-awareness. Jen says, “Don’t be afraid to try it. It’s hard to shake the idea that athletes need tons of meat protein to be successful - and a plant based diet may not be ideal for everyone - but you may surprise yourself with how amazing you feel. And if you’re feeling skeptical, check out the stories of mega plant based athletes like Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier. You’ll be inspired for sure!”.