Most people are aware, at least to some degree, that what we eat can affect our health. But when it comes to performance, it’s surprising just how much people neglect their nutrition. Some athletes spend 20 hours a week training, or more, but invest very little time in learning about how best to use their diet to support recovery, and boost energy and power in training and competition.
It’s important to remember that recovery from exercise, supported by your nutrition, is at least equally as important as the training itself. Because it’s during the recovery, not during the training, that your body and muscles are repairing, growing and adapting.
So if you’re regularly spending even a few hours a week training, then taking the relatively short amount of time to learn about the foundations of nutrition and hone your diet could make all those hours much more productive and even more enjoyable, and ultimately lead to huge progress in your sport or activity.
It can be useful to look at your nutrition like a pyramid. The fundamentals of healthy eating makes up the base of the pyramid and this will make the biggest impact, by far, on your performance and recovery. Only once you’ve honed that should you start thinking about fine-tuning the diet to make the final few percent improvements in performance. Too many people focus on the fine details without getting the basics right!
- Eat at least five portions of fruit and veg each day
We all know that we should eat more fruit and vegetables, but most people simply don’t eat enough. The 5-a-day recommendation is a good start, but we know that the powerful health benefits continue adding up beyond that, even up to 10 portions a day7.
It’s good to aim for a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables, because we know the various pigments that give these plants their bright colours have different nutritional and antioxidative properties. A portion is 80g or a palm-sized amount, and while fresh is great, frozen and even canned definitely count too. Dried fruit can be healthy but for most people, they should only count towards one portion (30g) a day.
- Include plenty of starchy carbohydrates
Please don’t be afraid of carbohydrates! Starchy foods are a really important part of a healthy diet and should make up just over a third of what we eat. Some people worry that carbohydrates are fattening, but gram-for-gram, they contain the same amount of calories as protein, and less than half the calories of fats. They provide an important fuel source so you can get the most out of your training, and whole grain varieties are rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Higher fibre, whole grain varieties also help to fill us up more and slow the absorption of energy from our food, so aim mostly for foods like whole wheat breads and pastas, quinoa, brown rice, whole oats, other whole grains, and potatoes cooked with their skins on.
- Include some fortified dairy alternatives
Plant-based milks and yoghurts are a good alternative to dairy foods and fortified varieties can be a useful source of vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and vitamin D. Healthy plant-based milks include soya, oat, rice, cashew, and almond, and it’s a good idea for most people to avoid the varieties that are high in added sugar. There is an increasing variety of fortified plant-based cheeses and spreads, but these are highly processed foods, often high in fat and salt, so should only be eaten occasionally in smaller quantities.
- Include some higher protein plant foods
Beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils (which are all types of legumes) are healthy choices because they are naturally low in fat, and high in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. Other high protein plant-based foods include tofu, tempeh, seitan and mycoprotein (Quorn); all of which are widely available in most retailers. Nuts and seeds (including nut and seed butters) are excellent sources of protein too, and research shows significant health benefits of including a range of unsalted nut and seed varieties regularly in the diet.
- Smart fat choices
Good news – plant-based diets tend to be much lower in saturated fats (the type of fat that’s linked with high cholesterol and heart disease). However, there is still a lot of saturated fats in palm and coconut oils, added to many vegan cheese alternatives and heavily processed vegan foods, so it’s a good idea to try and limit these.
However, some fat in our diet is essential and there are several fat-soluble vitamins which rely on fats for absorption. So, opt for healthier unsaturated fats, which come predominantly from plant foods. Nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, and avocados all provide healthy fats, and these whole-food fat sources provide extra fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants compared to refined liquid oils. Remember that all types of fat and oils are high in energy/calories and should be eaten in moderation.
- The supporting acts
Some foods we eat in much smaller quantities but can still have a big impact on our health. Many herbs and spices can help make our food delicious but are also packed with a wide range of important antioxidants and polyphenols that can benefit health, performance and recovery. Aim to include a variety of herbs and spices every day – this will keep your food exciting and flavour-packed too!
- Processed foods
This includes products such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits, full-sugar soft drinks and ice-cream. These foods are not needed in the diet and so, if included, should only be eaten infrequently and in small amounts. Food and drinks high in fat and sugar contain a lot of calories and limited nutritional value, so they either contribute to weight gain, or they replace more nutritional foods. Check the label and avoid or limit foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar. If you feel you need to snack between meals, try opting for whole fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetable sticks, toast, cereals, or rice cakes.
Aim to drink at least 6-8 glasses of fluid every day. Most of which should come from water, but plant-based milks, tea, coffee and sugar-free squash all count too. Fruit juice and store-bought smoothies with a high sugar content can count towards your fluid intake, but because they’re high in free sugars should be limited to 150ml a day.
Sugary drinks are one of the main contributors to excess sugar consumption in the west, so should be avoided where possible. Alcohol can damage health and contains lots of calories, so should be avoided or limited to a maximum of 14 units a week for men and women.
Healthy plant-based diets have been shown to provide better dietary quality scores than non-vegetarians8. This means they are better for providing a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which is one of the reasons behind the associated health, performance and recovery benefits. Having said that, there are a few key nutrients for those on a plant-based diet to keep in mind to make sure you’re getting the most out of the diet:
Vitamin B12 is needed to make healthy red blood cells and for nerve function. It’s produced by bacteria and so isn’t found reliably in plant foods. It’s therefore strongly recommended that people following a plant-based diet take a B12 supplement. The recommended daily intake for adults is 2.4μg, but the ability to absorb B12 varies with age and frequency of supplementation, so taking a 25-100μg daily or 2000μg weekly supplement is suggested. Higher doses may be needed if over the age of 65 years. If you choose to obtain B12 from enriched foods, like fortified milks, cereals, yeast extract or nutritional yeast, then at least 2-3 servings every day will need to be eaten.
Vivo Life’s vitamin B12 contains a blend of the most active forms of B12 in a liquid form for rapid absorption. It provides a potent dose of 500μg and so can be taken daily or every other day.
Vitamin D plays many important roles within the body, including maintaining healthy bones, keeping our immune systems strong, and controlling inflammation. Low vitamin D levels have even been linked with mental health issues. So it’s really important to make sure we get enough.
It’s often referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, because vitamin D can be made in the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. However, in countries furthest from the equator, such as northern Europe (including the UK), the sun isn’t strong enough during the winter months to trigger this process. Also, various factors affect vitamin D synthesis, such as levels of exposure, skin colour, and age. So Public Health England recommend everyone, regardless of diet, consider taking a vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter months.
Vivo Life’s vitamin D provides 50μg (2000IU) of D3 (the most bioavailable form of vitamin D) and is combined with vitamin K2 which has been shown to improve absorption.
Omega-3 fats are essential fatty acids that support the health of our heart, brain, skin and joints. On a plant-based diet, it’s possible to get plenty of short-chain omega-3 (alpha-linoleic acid – ALA) from eating foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.
However, we also need long-chain omega-3s (eicosapentaenoic acid – EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid – DHA). Our bodies can convert the short-chain ALA from our diet into the long-chained EPA and DHA, but this ability reduces with age and also varies between individuals.
Many people get their long chain omega-3s from eating oily fish – but did you know that omega-3 originally comes from algae? Just like us, fish only get their omega-3 from the foods they eat. The trouble with eating fish or fish oils for your omega-3 is that due to ocean pollution, most fish contain harmful levels of heavy metals and other contaminants like PCBs and dioxins. It also adds demand to modern fishing methods which destroy entire ocean ecosystems.
VivoLife’s omega-3 comes directly from algae that’s grown in a controlled, unpolluted environment that’s much more efficient and sustainable. Each serving provides 300mg EPA and 600mg DHA and is perfect added to smoothies or oatmeal.
Iodine is an essential trace element that’s a vital component of the thyroid hormones, which control our metabolism. The recommended amount for male and female adults in the UK is 140μg per day, but the iodine content in plants is generally low. However, seaweed is a good source of iodine, and one and a half to two sheets of nori (the type used to make sushi) typically provides the recommended daily intake. Just be careful, as some seaweed varieties (like kelp) can have a dangerously high amount, so only eat these sparingly. Some plant milks are now being fortified with iodine, which is an easy way to top up intake, and iodised salt is an option, as long as it doesn’t encourage you to use more salt, as increased salt intake can be harmful. Alternatively, a supplement may be the most suitable option if you’re not regularly consuming these other sources.
VivoLife’s Vegan Multinutrient contains 150μg iodine, alongside 11 other nutrients (including vitamins B12 and D) that are most beneficial for a plant-based diet.