Getting Enough Calories on a Plant-based Diet

Do you struggle with getting enough calories on a plant-based diet? If you are running for over an hour on most days of the week then most likely you will need more calories than the calories you need to survive for performance and to maintain your weight. Getting enough calories on a plant-based diet can be challenging because the foods you eat are mostly low in calories. So what does that mean? You get to eat more food!

But this is not always easy to do.

First, what are calories anyway? Calories are used to refer to the energy content of our food (actually called a kilocalorie). Food energy from calories is stored temporally as ATP and the body uses it for muscles and energy. Our bodies can only break down energy stored in carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fat, and alcohol (aka macronutrients except alcohol) which is why these nutrients only provide calories. Micronutrients do not provide any calories.

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Energy needs vary for runners based on daily activities from your day job to intensity and lengths of runs. But can be estimated using formulas and when working with a nutrition coach or sports dietitian, they can help you adjust daily energy needs based on your training. But most likely for females, calories may be 2,000 or more per day and 2,500 or more per day for males.

For males to eat over 2,500 calories a day, maybe even around 3,000-4,000, can be challenging on a whole-food plant-based diet because these foods are in low in calories which means a very high volume of food to eat in a day.

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According to Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RDN, “To combine WFPB with sports nutrition, consider using smoothies to consume more calories quicker, and trade out some whole grains for refined versions. Nuts, nut butters, seeds, and dressings or sauces made from these ingredients can boost calorie content. This way, fruit and vegetable intake remains high while freeing up stomach space to meet energy needs.”

Another tip is to eat 5-8 small meals or snacks per day to reach the volume of food such as fruit, dried fruit, granola bars, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, non-dairy yogurt, nuts, chocolate almond milk, bagel with nut butter or avocado, etc.

Not getting enough energy from food can minimize the effect of training. You want the miles and work you put in to count right? Also, a lack of calories can prevent adequate tissue repair, promotion of lean body mass, and prevent you from meeting your overall nutrient needs.

 It is possible to eat enough calories to fuel your body for performance on a plant-based diet, but as Matt said, you may need to adjust and add foods you typically wouldn’t eat on a WFPB diet to meet your nutrition and fuel needs.

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Kayla Slater