Plant-Based Diets and Grappling
By Anthony Panzica
Are you considering a vegan or vegetarian diet? You wouldn’t be the first athlete, martial artist, or grappler to do so. It’s not as uncommon as you think, and a lot of high-level athletes have thrived on a plant-based diet. Combat athletes like David Meyer, Sebastian Brosche (Yoga for BJJ), Jake Shields, Nate and Nick Diaz have all found great benefits from a plant based diet. In fact, in his final recorded interview, Grandmaster Helio Gracie stated that he hadn’t eaten meat in almost 70 years! So if you are wondering if a plant-based diet is do-able for grapplers, the answer is YES!
I’ve been an athlete my whole life, and I’ve been plant-based long enough to feel the differences in a typical “recommended” diet for athletes and a plant-based diet for athletes. I’ve tried paleo, pescatarian, “low-carb”, and Mediterranean diets and haven’t had the success like I have with a plant-based diet. My recovery has shortened, I feel lighter, move better, my joints aren’t as inflamed, and I have abs for the first time ever. Are these a guarantee? No. You still have to eat clean and train hard because vegans and vegetarians have their fair share of junk food choices as well. (Oreo’s are vegan for example) Now you may be thinking “Congrats Ant, it seems to work for you, but what about me?” Well, just like anyone could become a black belt if they stayed consistent and diligent; anyone has potential to succeed on a plant-based diet.
When I decided to make the switch, I looked at my girlfriend and asked if she was down to try it. She said yes, and that night we took all the animal products and put them in the trash. Just like that we quit cold turkey, do I recommend it? No. But although I was a broke college student at the time, I knew we had plenty of fruits, starches, and veggies in the house to last for the week. We gave ourselves no choice but to quit right then and there. I will admit breakfast was pretty tough the next day. For about 10 years straight I always had 4 eggs scrambled with veggies and 2 pieces of Ezekiel bread for breakfast. Talk about breaking a habit.
Three Tips to get you prepared for the switch:
- While you CAN go full badass and quit today, I typically recommend my clients or friends to start by cutting out all meat except fish. Eventually you will say goodbye to fish as well. Next is to work on cutting out dairy and eggs, and before you know it you have cut out all animal products from your diet! That is definitely the easiest way I have found to switch to a plant-based diet.
- My next tip is to remember the reason why you did. It will make your life much easier when your family, training partners/coach, or the know-it-all who hasn’t trained a day in their life has to insert their two cents. You don’t have to be standoffish towards them, just simply pick one of three reasons if you really want to give them something to hear… pick all three, they’ll never ask again.
- Overall Health
Without a doubt the number one question I get when people find out I’m on a plant-based diet is “where do you get your protein from?” Everyone’s biggest concern when considering a plant-based diet is that they’re not going to get enough protein. While it is absolutely possible to not get all the protein you need on a plant-based diet, it is also easy to reconcile. There are a multitude of plant protein sources out there:
- Nuts/Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pumpkin, chia, hemp, and flax seeds
- Legumes: Lentils, beans (any color), peanuts, peas
- Greens: Yes, greens are rich in protein and some contain as much protein per calorie as some meats!
- Soy: A lot of controversy revolving around soy today. Most of soy in the U.S. is GMO so always buy organic. As far as estrogen in men, WHOLE soy will not contribute to that. Soy protein isolate on the other hand, has shown to increase estrogen in men. Soy protein isolate is in many packaged foods these days, especially vegan-friendly ones, so always be on the lookout for that. Tempeh is my first recommended choice of soy protein then I’d recommend tofu.
- Mushrooms: Any kind, but specifically Portobello mushrooms are high in protein.
- Whole grains: Quinoa, oatmeal, and spelt are among the highest but don’t count out other whole grains, they all have protein!
- Seitan: Sounds evil but tastes good. Seitan is vital wheat gluten and it packs plenty of protein per serving, anywhere from 15-20 grams. I find seitan to have the best consistency for mimicking meat in case you’re needing a fix but don’t want to actually eat meat.
- Spirulina & Chlorella: While they are green in color, I don’t categorize them as one. Spirulina, a bacteria and Chlorella, an algae; are one of, if not the most complete, healthiest food on the planet for the human body.A little 30 gram serving of chlorella contains 5x’s the chlorophyll content of kale, and more iron than liver. Pair that with Omega-3 fatty acids and one of the only plant sources of Vitamin B12 and you can see why they are a powerhouse of nutrition.
Probably today’s most controversial topic. Fat is absolutely essential for humans. It gives us energy, supports cell growth, absorbs certain nutrients, protects organs, and keeps us warm. Are we aware your hormones rely on fat as well? When it comes to fat, I think people make it harder than it needs to be. Fats are to be consumed, like any other food, as a WHOLE food. Olives will always be better than olive oil, avocados will always be better than avocado oil, and you guessed it; whole coconut is better than coconut oil. With that being said, there is a split in the plant-based community when it comes to oil. You have the ones who are high carb low fat (80/10/10) 80% carbs, 10% protein, 10% fat. Then you have people who tend to do the more typical macronutrient split, and even some people are going into plant-based keto diets. Though I don’t recommend ketosis for a grappler, it is more beneficial for an endurance athlete. Fat takes more time to break down for energy than the glycogen (carbs) that’s already stored in your muscles. Whatever macronutrient split you want to do is up to you, it will take a tiny bit of attention and tracking on your part if you really want to optimize it.
In a plant-based diet there aren’t many saturated fats aside from coconut and palm oil as well as some in cacao (raw chocolate). Your primary fat intake should be the healthy fats. These will come from chia, flax, or hemp seeds. Olives, avocados, nuts and nut butters are loaded with healthy fats. Don’t fully skip out on the saturated fats though, they are important for our health as well so make sure you keep coconut around; milk, oil, or shredded it doesn’t matter.
The only thing I ask is to stay away from processed vegetable oils like: Canola, grapeseed, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, etc. They are all, high in Polyunsaturated fats and are not shelf stable. They go rancid very quickly and wreak havoc on the body. They cause a lot of inflammation, acne, hormone disruption; the list goes on and on. Not to mention, a lot are GMO. They are in A LOT of packaged foods, almost every packaged food I look at these days honestly.
Don’t be afraid of them, your body runs off of carbohydrates. Plus this plant-based diet your thinking of will contain more than you’re used to. I personally love how many carbs I get to eat now. Any time people ask “Don’t you miss meat?” I tell them “The amount of carbs I get to eat without worry like most people definitely outweighs meat.” But, I love carbs, always have, always will. Obviously whole food is best. Potatoes (white or sweet), rice, quinoa, amaranth, sprouted grain bread, oatmeal, buckwheat, beans, and my favorite, fruit. Fruit especially is high in water, which is good considering how much you sweat on the mat.
Here is what a typical day of eating looks like for me
Upon waking: 32oz of room or warm temperature water with lemon or lime. Sometimes I’ll have tea or sometimes kombucha so my gut bacteria thrive for the day. It’s not a trend, it’s been around for over 2,000 years, kombucha is legit and you should drink it.
Breakfast: 1/2 cup of buckwheat (way better than oats), 1 apple chopped, 1 banana sliced, ¼ cup frozen blueberries, 8oz soymilk, chia and hemp seeds. Cinnamon to taste. In summer I’m a big smoothie in the morning kind of guy. 4-6 cups of power greens mix, spinach or kale, 2-3 cups of mango, 2 bananas, 3tbsp flax seeds, protein powder (optional). Fill with water, blend.
Snack (optional): ¼ cup of almonds or walnuts and a protein shake or a mono-meal of fruit if before training.
Lunch: Big big salad. I try to aim for a minimum of four colors. Typically my green is arugula and romaine, avocado, purple cabbage, carrots, and a bell pepper of any color. Dressing of choice, just no packaged, store bought dressings. Sprinkle some pumpkin or hemp seeds over the top.
Snack: A veggie burger with tomatoes, any green, avocado and 2 slices of Ezekiel bread.
Dinner: Vegetable stir-fry with tempeh or tofu, once again, at least 4 different colors on the plate. Sprinkle the stir-fry with hemp and sesame seeds after. Put over rice or quinoa.
Late Night Snack (optional): If I’m going to have a late night snack it’s either going to be a couple bananas and nut butter or a protein shake. I like bananas at night because they contain potassium and magnesium, both act as muscle relaxants. On top of that, bananas contain tryptophan, the amino acid in turkey known for making us tired. Tryptophan gets converted to 5-HTP, which gets converted to serotonin and melatonin. Goodnight.
I don’t track calories, I don’t track anything, I’m a very intuitive eater; I just stay aware and listen to my body. Some days I fast for the first half of the day, sometimes I’m eating all day.
As far as supplements go, the only 3 things I really recommend are:
– A good Vitamin B12 supplement
– A protein powder, which isn’t totally necessary if you’re eating all your meals.
– Creatine, which is present in red meat. A plant-based diet obviously doesn’t include red meat; therefore, you can supplement it. Even omnivorous diets see a bump in performance with creatine. Although, if you’re on a plant-based diet you would get a cognitive boost from the creatine as well as the performance benefits it’s known for.
But if I had to pick one supplement aside from B12 because its essential…. I’d pick creatine.
To sum it up, the days of the dreadlocked, skinny, topless beach bum being the only vegan/vegetarian you know are over. A plant-based diet is getting adopted more and more each day. Try it out and see if it works for you! If you’re still iffy about it… just know Gladiators were called “Barley Men” meaning their diets comprised mostly of barley, lentils and vegetables. If you know anything about history, gladiators were considered some of the greatest warriors of all time and that was before B12 supplements, protein shakes and amazon prime. It’s easier than ever now to make the switch and the only one holding you back is yourself.
If you ever have any questions you can find me as @Thatmanant on instagram and Youtube. Oss!