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Boost Your Game with Plant-Based Power

On the courts and off, the topic of vegetarian nutrition is hot!

Whether it be for health, ethical, or environmental reasons, many players are looking for plant sources to meet their energy needs. And with farmers markets in their full summer swing, this is the most delicious time of year to drop more plant power into the kitchen.

From a dietitian’s point of view, this trend is no fad diet. The evidence of health benefits from a well-planned vegetarian diet continues to grow, even for athletes. But how do you know if going vegetarian is right for you?

It’s Not All or Nothing Some people don’t like the idea of going completely without animal products, and that’s OK! Any increase in whole plant foods will add nutrients and reduce nutrient-empty calories, especially if you’re eating them in the place of processed foods and meats. There is a wide variety of vegetarianism out there, so let’s define the basics:

• Vegans eat no animal products.
• Vegetarians eat some animal-derived foods like dairy and eggs.
• Pescatarians are vegetarians who additionally eat seafood like fish and shellfish.
• Flexitarians are vegetarians who sometimes add meat to their mostly vegetarian diet.

Notice that I didn’t include the term junkatarians, the folks who boast of eating no animal products but whose diet consists of mostly chips and processed foods with little nutrient value. Like any diet, the key to healthy vegetarian eating is planning, so that your body gets all the nutrients it needs, especially for those getting out on the court.

Enough Protein? Not a Problem!
Athletes tend to have concerns over getting adequate protein, and rightfully so. It’s important to get enough so that you can build and maintain muscle. With mindful planning, vegetarians can meet their needs without eating any animal products. Beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and vegetables all contain some essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. By eating a variety of these healthy foods, players can get what they need.

So how much do we actually need? There is a simple formula, which varies based on your weight, health and activity level. Here’s a very basic breakdown for average, healthy pickleball players:

Average Recreational Player
.9 grams protein/kg/day
Example: 80kg person x .9g = 72 grams of protein
Endurance Athlete (playing several hours daily)
1.2-1.7 grams protein/kg/day
Example: 80kg athlete x 1.2g = 96 grams of protein
Here’s an example of what over 100 grams of vegan protein might look like:

• ½ cup steel-cut oats (10 grams)

• 1 cup walnuts (12 grams)

• 1 cup firm tofu (20 grams)

• 1 cup of lentils (18 grams)

• 2 cups of soy beverage (16 grams)

• 2 tablespoons nut butter (8 grams)

• 2 tablespoons chia seeds (5 grams)

• 1 cup brown rice (4 grams)

• ¼ cup pumpkin seeds (8 grams)

Vegetarian sources that are high in protein include eggs and dairy products. One egg contains about 6 grams of protein while a serving of dairy can vary anywhere from 8 grams in one cup of milk to 14 grams in a 5.3-oz. container of Greek yogurt.

Other Nutrients to Consider
Becoming low in any nutrient can keep you from playing your best. It’s always a great idea to discuss any new diet plan with your doctor, who may want to monitor your blood levels for potential deficiencies. The following list includes nutrients most commonly missed in vegetarian diets. In general, you can meet your needs by regularly adding my suggested vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian “Great Shot” recommendations to your kitchen. While the following nutrients can be of concern, you are likely gaining more vitamins and minerals from a plant-based lifestyle than you’d ever lose.

Iron deficiency can mean low energy because of a reduced ability to circulate oxygen. This can be a real problem for athletes, females of childbearing age, and people who are avoiding meat. It’s always important to talk to your doctor if you’re feeling run-down more easily on the court. Vegan sources of iron, or non-heme sources, don’t absorb into the body as well as heme or animal sources. However, pairing high-iron foods with foods high in vitamin C (like fruit, peppers and broccoli) significantly increases iron absorption. Think along the lines of chili beans simmered with tomatoes, or a spinach and strawberry salad. Cooking with an iron skillet also adds iron to the diet.

Great Shots: lentils, beans (especially white and soybeans), quinoa, tofu, dark leafy greens like spinach and chard, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, clams, mussels

Vitamin B-12 (also known as Cobalamin)
The 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B-12 most adults need daily is almost exclusively found in animal products, with the exception of fortified foods like cereal and nutritional yeast. It’s an important nutrient; deficiency can lead to permanent neurological damage. If you are nearly or completely vegan, be sure to take a good-quality supplement, verified for purity by a third party like United States Pharmacopeia (USP).

Great Shots: fortified nutritional yeast, fortified cereal, fortified soy beverage, third-party-verified vitamin B-12 supplements, eggs, Greek yogurt and other dairy products

Zinc is essential to a healthy immune system, which is of even greater concern on the courts lately.
Great Shots: legumes, seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), chickpeas/hummus, whole grains like oatmeal, shellfish

Calcium is essential for bone strength, and for that winning smile in your medal photos. Traditional American dairy sources can easily be replaced with plant sources.

Great Shots: broccoli, dark leafy greens like kale and collard greens, legumes, calcium-fortified beverages like orange juice and soy beverages, dairy products, canned sardines or salmon with bones

By switching to a plant-strong diet, you may just gain the edge you’ve been looking for on the court!

Brandi’s Summer Salad
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup jicama
1 red pepper, finely chopped
1 cup baby spinach, chopped
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 can chickpeas
Juice from 2 or more limes
Combine all ingredients, and season with salt and pepper. Chill and devour. Serves 4.
Nutrition Information: 12 grams protein, 3 mg iron, 52 mg vitamin C

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