Plant-Based Diet Basics for Vegan Grapplers
Several years ago, I became interested in a vegan diet for ethical and environmental reasons, but at the time, I did not know anyone else in BJJ who was vegan or eating a plant-based diet, so I was not sure it was possible.
At first, I had the questions most people have about not eating animals: “How do I get enough protein? How do I get enough calories? What about healthy fats? Will I get all my micronutrients? How do I shop and meal plan? Is it all just boring tofu and salads? Where do I even start?”
I had ingrained beliefs about the need for animal protein and dairy products that made me worry I would not be able to maintain my health and energy to train like usual without them. I was reassured when I found successful vegan athletes with far more demanding sports than BJJ like Olympians and ultramarathon runners.
With help from some vegan friends outside of BJJ, and by researching online and in books, I found answers to my questions and started transitioning to a new diet.
The switch was not overnight. Like many people who go vegan, I went through stages: cutting out meat, then poultry, then finally eggs and dairy, which were the hardest to give up (which I hear a lot from vegetarians, especially about cheese).
In the time since I switched over, I have met other vegans in BJJ, including black belts, and we have swapped stories and food tips. We all found being vegan is completely doable, even with the energy and recover demands of BJJ, and are happy to live and eat this way now.
With this article, I want to provide the kind of resource about vegan nutrition I wish I had when I first started making the switch. I’m not going to give any recipes (cookbooks and blogs are full of those), but I will cover the basics of vegan nutrition, answer some common questions, and point you to additional resources.
I'm not a doctor and I don't even play one on TV
IMPORTANT NOTE: Check with your doctor before making any major dietary changes. I’m not a dietitian or nutritionist, and this is not a guide to eating for optimal bodybuilding or athletic performance. Hire a diet coach if those are your goals.
I'm not making the case that being vegan is the healthiest or only way to eat (that's not why I became vegan anyway), but it's important to know if it is good or bad for you. I will answer some of common concerns below.
Vegan or plant-based?
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use “vegan” to mean people who eat a plant-based diet for whatever reason, and to describe foods that are plant-based. The full definition of vegan includes following an ethical lifestyle that avoids exploitation of and violence to animals in every way possible (including eating a plant-based diet), while being plant-based means someone eats a certain diet, perhaps for health reasons, but may still uses animals other ways or sometimes "cheats" on their diet.
With that out of the way, here's the quickest summary of how to eat vegan I can give!
Vegan Diet Advice Simplified
- Eat many kinds of plants with different colors and textures, especially legumes, dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and grains. Whole foods tend to be healthier.
- Be sure to get enough protein, fats, and calories. Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and avocados are good sources.
- Eat fortified foods like breads, cereals, and plant milks, cheeses, and yogurts. Supplement vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fat, and maybe iodine. Watch your calcium, iron, zinc, and selenium, too.
- Learn to shop and cook for yourself. Try new recipes. Use herbs and spices to make flavorful, exciting food.
Now let’s start the Q&A!
What do vegans eat?
A vegan diet consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, mushrooms, and foods made from these like milks, cheeses, butters, yogurts, tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Many tasty vegan products like plant-based meats and non-dairy ice creams are available in grocery stores today. More vegan goods become available all the time!
What is not on a vegan diet?
Vegans do not consume animals or anything of animal origin, such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, or bee products.
Is a vegan diet healthy?
A vegan diet can be very healthy, if that’s your goal. While you could eat nothing but potato chips, Oreos, and soda and technically call that vegan, I assume that’s not what you mean.
Research shows vegan diets provide good nutrition, and most of us could benefit from eating more fruits and veggies. Vegans are at less risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
How do you get enough protein?
You may be surprised by how much protein is in many plants, and by how we do not need as much protein as we’re led to believe. In fact, many people take in more protein than necessary by eating animal products with every meal.
Getting enough protein—even for athletes—is not a problem on a well-balanced vegan diet. Vegan protein sources include soy, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, almonds, beans, nutritional yeast, seeds, and grains. You can get vegan protein powders if you want to bulk up.
Is soy bad for you?
No, soy is not dangerous unless you are allergic or have certain thyroid conditions. Some people fear soy can affect your hormones, lower testosterone, or even cause cancer since it contains phytoestrogen, which is similar to estrogen. But so far, research has not found negative effects of consuming soy, and instead maybe a few benefits.
Does a vegan diet lack any nutrients?
Vegans need to supplement vitamin B12, and should take extra care to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, iron, calcium, iodine, zinc, and selenium. Fortified foods like cereals and plant milks can contain these, and you can take supplements.
Is vegan food expensive?
Not if you get the hang of shopping and cooking for yourself. Where vegan food gets pricey is eating out and buying processed or specialty foods. But most vegan staples (e.g. fruits, veggies, beans, rice, etc.) are fairly affordable and often available in bulk.
Is vegan food bland?
No, not with good cooking and seasonings. Many cultures enjoy rich vegan cuisines. Vegan food gets stereotyped as salad, tofu, and granola because few places offer good vegan meals. Most us did not learn to cook without relying on animal meats, fats, eggs, and dairy as the main ingredients, so you may need to expand your cooking skills. Try new recipes and learn to use new ingredients. Season your food with more herbs and spices.
Where can you find vegan recipes?
The internet is full of vegan recipes. Try searching on Google or Pinterest for foods you like and adding the keywords “vegan recipe”. You can also find many good vegan cookbooks. Your public library likely has plenty.
That ends the Q&A!
To continue your research, I recommend these vegan diet and health guides:
Plant-Based Diets: A Physician’s Guide – A "just the facts" PubMed paper.
NutritionFacts.org – A doctor’s guide to plant-based diets.
PCRM.org – Doctors for ethical health and medicine.
VeganHealth.org – Evidence-based vegan nutrition advice.
If you are interested in the ethical and environmental aspects of being vegan, check out:
Vegan.org – Vegan education and outreach.
VeganKit.com – A practical toolkit for going vegan.
VeganSociety.com – The group that coined “vegan”.