A couple months ago I outlined my return to a plant-based diet, starting back in early September. I am happy to report that I am progressing nicely in my dietary changes. As a pretty athletic guy, I wanted to make sure my nutrition was solid. The many years I was vegan before, I think I never had my nutrition dialed in. Now I’m older, probably more active in some ways and, as such, it’s more important than ever to ensure my nutrition is solid. I also want to try to correct (and determine if it’s true) a suspected deficiency of electrolytes in my diet.
Thus far, I’ve removed all animal products from my diet, with the exception of cream in my morning coffee and, in the interest of absolute disclosure, I did cheat a little with some of my wife’s Christmas baking. With those exceptions, by the time December rolled around, I’d killed off most processed sugar (and the cravings for it), some processed grain and my afternoon coffee fix.
Targets and tracking
To track my nutrition, I searched for a quite a while for an application that I could update with either my mobile or through a browser. While it didn’t meet all my needs I decided to use an online tool. It didn’t do nearly everything I wanted, but it allowed me to easily track what I ate, it has a good database of user-submitted and verified foods and allowed me to set caloric goals and track what I burn through typical types of exercise. Plus, I really just wanted to get an idea for a few weeks and I’m now finished using it.
For setting targets, I consulted a number of resources to determine the best way to eat, based on being a recreational athlete and a vegan. I have read many other books on vegetarianism over the years, but they weren’t focused on sports nutrition. The sources I’ve been consulting lately include The Thrive Diet, Thrive Fitness, Vegetarian Sports Nutrition and a good sports nutrition research meta analysis from Coventry University, General Sports Nutrition & Dietary Guidelines & Recommendations (found via academic database that presently eludes me).
I wanted to start with some caloric, protein, fat and carbohydrate goals. Using some of the sources above, the best general approach is to use daily caloric goals and body weight to determine targets for protein, fat and carbohydrate intake. The targets and formulas below are based on all my reading as opposed to one source.
A year ago, in the midst of my Masters thesis and still dealing with numerous physical issues, I was 174 pounds when I weighed myself January 10th. About a decade ago, when I was routinely running 50-60 miles a week and getting some pretty decent race times, I weighed 140 pounds. While I feel my ideal racing weight is in the 140’s, I told myself I would like to drop 20 pounds in a year and get to 154 by January 10. I’m pretty much exactly there as I write this. I expect I’ll keep eating for gradual weight loss until I get to about 145 and then tweak my diet to stay there.
Without going into too much detail, based on a formula from Vegetarian Sports Nutrition, I calculated that I needed to net about 2300 calories (after exercise is accounted for) to maintain weight, and would need to net about 1800 calories per day to drop about 1.5 pounds per week. Over the December days on which I tracked my eating fairly accurately, as you can see by the graph below I was below 1800 calories often, though several days below are not complete. 11/26, 12/03, 12/05, 12/11, 12/12, 12/19, 12/22 and everything from 12/24 onward should be ignored. However, that still leaves 25 days with pretty good data.
Carbs, protein and fat
Using both the research paper and Vegetarian Sports Nutrition, recommendations for macronutrients range as follows:
- 4.5 – 6 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight
- .9 – 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight
- fat intake should essentially make up the remainder of target caloric intake
At the time I did these calculations I weighed about 71kg and, as such, my targets for a net 1800 calorie diet were as follows:
- 300 grams of carbohydrate (1200 calories or 67%)
- 65 grams of protein (260 calories or 15%)
- 38 grams of fat (340 calories or 18%)
What I found interesting is that, without ever looking at percentages, using this approach to determine calorie sources for my diet, the percentages end up being pretty close to some of the older percentage-based nutrition recommendations. It’s also important to note that these are targets for active people and not necessarily ideal percentages for heavy training.
In the interest of space I won’t include a graph for each of these macronutrients (as that’s the only way the online tool will let me output them), but I ended up being in pretty good shape for my calorie sources. Keep in mind that, while these numbers will look a bit high, unlike the calorie graph above, they are raw and not adjusted for calories burned through exercise on any given day.
- Daily carbohydrate intake was generally between 300 – 500 grams (recommended range = 300-420).
- Daily protein intake was generally between 60 – 80 grams (recommended range = 63-71).
- Daily fat intake was generally between 40 – 70 grams (target = 38 grams).
It’s kind of interesting that my fat intake has generally been higher than my target. However, since it’s calculated as the calories left over after carbohydrate and protein are calculated I’m not too worried. Plus, almost all fat I eat (now) is from very healthy sources and unsaturated. Since this tool does allow tracking of cholesterol and saturated fat, it’s nice to see that I take in almost none of either.
I’m far more interested in select micronutrients than I am in raw calories or protein, fat and carbs, as they are key determinants of, in particular, muscular contraction and other elements of athletic performance. Unfortunately, with this software I could not get a complete picture. However, I was able to see enough to get a sense of where I stand and take some educated guesses as to where I still need to make improvements.
While all nutrients are important, as a runner who has dealt with some significant muscle cramping in longer races, I’m paying more attention to electrolytes (and B12 as a vegan). According to several sources, while there is no definitive cause of muscle cramps, they most often happen at the point where dehydration sets in. In the past three marathons I’ve run, the evidence I’m seeing supports this, as cramping has typically started between the 17 and 20 mile mark and continued through the rest of the race. The nutrients below are the key ones in which I’m interested.
Disclaimer – given how you track some foods and equate what you eat to foods in the online database, these graphs are likely a fairly inaccurate representation of actual amounts, but can be used as a rough guide.
I drink a lot of water on a daily basis and, while it can’t be accurately reported through the software, I easily consume 10 or more cups a day in addition to what I drink related to training. I’m sipping all day long at work. However, I know I also don’t drink enough during races, where fluid loss can run anywhere from .5 – 1.5 litres. What I’ve begun doing on my longer runs is taking a hand bottle of Vega Sport with a little extra electrolyte powder, and this seems to really be giving my longer workouts a solid kick.
A positively charged mineral ion and key to maintaing fluid balance, blood pressure and muscle contraction capability. I’m not sure if I’m low or simply erratic. While the graph below shows several days with sodium intake well above 2000 mg (a decent target for active people, even though FDA recommendations are lower) it also shows several days below this amount and this report includes the extra sodium consumed on active training days as a natural part of eating, so some of the higher days aren’t really that high. While I don’t tend to see the evidence of excessive salt loss during training (white crust on my face and clothes), my cramping suggests I should pay more attention.
A major electrolyte inside all body cells, potassium works primarily with sodium and chloride to generate electrical impulses in the nerves and muscles. I’m definitely low in potassium intake. FDA recommendations are 4700 mg/day and I barely ever hit 3000 while I tracked my nutrition.
While most of us are aware of the importance of calcium to our bones, it’s also key to muscle contraction and nerve impulses. The y-axis on the report graph below is showing the % of the RDA of calcium. Most days I’m approaching or higher than 120%, so I’m pretty good on this nutrient. You definitely don’t need dairy, despite what the lobby organizations would have you believe. I will touch on how I’m going to change my sources of calcium a bit at the end.
Iron is extremely important in getting oxygen to all the tissues in your body (hemoglobin) and, further, holding and storing oxygen for use during exercise (myoglobin). On a plant-based diet, iron intake is very important because plant sources of iron are not as easily absorbed by your body as the iron found in red meat. The chart below indicates that I’m doing OK, but probably not great. Most days I’m near or above the RDA of 8000 mg (and some days, spiking waaay above), but given absorption issues of plant-based iron, I’d like to shoot for averaging well over 120% and higher and being more consistent. As lethargy is one of the key symptoms of low iron intake and I haven’t consumed red meat in twenty years, I’m not worried about it too much.
B12, magnesium – and everything else
I have no way of tracking these nutrients through the software. Since my electrolyte intake is inconsistent at best and possibly low on the nutrients I can track, magnesium will definitely be of interest to me. B12 is not necessarily an issue, particularly for someone who has, at times, eaten a fair bit of dairy. Plus, it’s a nutrient that is stored, so daily requirements are very small.
Most trace vitamins and minerals are in plentiful supply by eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, seeds and nuts. That pretty much describes my daily approach. The software couldn’t track or report on much other than what I’ve highlighted above, with the exception of vitamins C and A. I have no problems on either of those.
The charts and analysis above are a very small snapshot from a very small period in time. However, they are enough to show me that, for the most part I’m OK, but that there is some room for improvement. About mid-way through the month I began having a shake for one of my meals comprised of mixed berries, soy milk, Vega Whole Food Optimizer, orange juice, Udo’s Choice EFA blend and a banana. It’s interesting to note that this corresponds in the graphs with a reduced calorie and sodium intake, and an increase in some of the micronutrients I was tracking. I intend on continuing to do this, as it’s a healthful and easy way to get a solid boost of vegan nutrition.
B12 is a bit of a unique beast, as it’s not found in sufficient amounts in anything but animal products. If you eat dairy, eggs, meat or any combination thereof, you don’t need to think about it. Fortified non-dairy milk, meat analogues, fortified cereals and nutritional yeast are all good sources. In other words, doing nothing more special than what most of us do and I’ll be fine.
I’m not comfortable with too much soy or too much gluten and I find both of these in too many of the foods I consume. I have already switched to rice and almond milk from soy milk and will continue to reduce the number of meat analogues and gluten-based products I consume. I’m also pretty sure, based on my reaction to eating these things, that I’ve probably got intolerances. This is easy to fix by consuming a wide variety of the right grains, seeds and nuts. The protein, iron and micronutrient profiles are very good and the gluten and soy issue becomes moot. In particular, I’m going to focus on integrating more amaranth, kamut, buckwheat, spelt and quinoa.
In general I will be adding electrolyte powders and tabs (Nuun is a very good choice) to my drinking water once a day to ensure more consistent intake. Coupling that with better pre and post training/racing nutrition, I am hopeful that my next endurance race will see a reduction or elimination of the calf cramps that have plagued me in the past. Since I only experience this past the 17 mile mark when I’m racing it’s difficult to gauge my success until I go hard and long on an event. Anecdotal evidence on mid to longer runs suggests this may work. I’ll also continue to look for solid race nutrition strategies.
Nutrition and health is always a journey of sorts and my experimentation won’t end any time soon. Based on how I feel, my energy level and how I’m starting to run again I’m pretty hopeful for steady improvement.