Both protein and fats are known as macronutrients and, along with carbohydrates, are primarily used for growth, repair and energy production. Think of them as “go nutrients.”
Along with the macronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that are collectively referred to as “micronutrients.” We need these micronutrients for health, wellbeing and the smooth running of the body, but only in relatively small amounts. Think of these as “glow nutrients.” As with the macronutrients, by eating a wide, varied and balanced plant-based diet, there should be no issues with obtaining all the micronutrients the body needs for both health and performance but there are some concerns to be aware of.
Fatigue and Poor Recovery
There are a number of specific micronutrients that might be deficient in a poor plant-based diet. Each of these micronutrients tend to produce similar symptoms of fatigue, poor recovery, low immunity and performance drop-off.
The only way to know for sure whether a vitamin or mineral deficiency is to blame, is by regular blood testing. There are now a number of companies that offer remote testing services online, so it’s actually easy and affordable to get tested, if needed.
The great news is that most of the micronutrients listed below can be found in foods that are fortified with them. This includes bread, breakfast cereals, many non-dairy milks and tofu products. Check food labels to find out if the foods contain some of these fortified products. Check for the following:
Vitamin B12 primarily comes from meat-based sources, and it is important for providing energy and recovery from training. A deficiency of vitamin B12 is often cited as a reason for athletes to not follow a plant-based diet. However, by seeking out fortified products this should not be an issue.
Vitamin D, and specifically its active form vitamin D3, rightly can be thought of as being akin to a hormone, because of the messenger roles it plays within the body. It’s vital for bone health, immune function and for maintaining a healthy nervous system. Although we do obtain some vitamin D from our diet, our bodies actually synthesize it from sunlight.
In the Northern Hemisphere, for at least six months of the year, there simply isn’t the length and quality of sunlight for our bodies to produce enough vitamin D. This means we are more reliant on dietary sources. The primary sources are eggs and oily fish. This can be a problem if we’re following a plant-based diet. In fact, even for people who do eat fish and eggs, maintaining adequate vitamin D levels during the winter is extremely difficult.
Again, fortified foods can definitely help but, during the winter months especially, a vitamin D supplement is recommended.
Iron is arguably one of the most important minerals for endurance athletes. Forming the “heme” component of hemoglobin in our red blood cells, iron is essential for the transport of oxygen throughout the body. Myoglobin, which is responsible for oxygen transport and transfer within our working muscles, is also iron based.
Fortified foods aside, there are some great plant-based sources of iron such as green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, nuts and milled seeds and whole grains like brown rice and quinoa. However, absorption of the iron from them won’t be nearly as good as it is from animal-derived sources.
There are, however, several steps available to boost iron intake from food. The first is to use acidic dressings, such as vinegar and lemon juice, with iron-rich greens. The acid oxidizes the iron and makes it easier for the body to absorb. The second is to introduce iron into food from cookware. Stir frying in a traditional steel wok, not an expensive non-stick coated one, will significantly boost the iron content of the food. Also available is an “Iron Fish” (luckyironfish.com), literally a lump of iron shaped like a fish that can be placed in the cooking pot to raise iron levels.
Other micronutrients to be aware of include iodine, zinc and calcium but, as with the three discussed in more detail above, a varied plant-based diet and fortified food will cover these bases.
In a perfect world, with time to plan and prepare our diets, supplementation shouldn’t be necessary. However, with work, family, training and other commitments, finding this time can be tricky. Those who are new to a plant-based diet might find that it could take a little while to find the right path.
So, with this in mind, when I’ve followed a plant-based diet, I took the following supplements:
- Calcium, magnesium and zinc (combined): I had 2 tablets a day, which provided 666.6 mg of calcium, 266.6mg of magnesium and 16.6mg zinc
- Unflavored vegan protein: 20g/day
- Vegan Omega-3 oil: 1g/day
- Iron: 15mg/day
Micronutrients in Pistachios
Pistachios are an important contributor of micronutrients. They contain a wide range of antioxidants, gamma-tocopherol (a type of vitamin E), polyphenols, and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein and zeaxanthin, give the nuts their green color, and promote eye health by lowering the risk of age-related macular degeneration.
Pistachios are a source of vitamin A, the B vitamins (excluding B12), E, and the minerals potassium, copper, magnesium and phosphorus.
Potassium is an important electrolyte for athletes that regulates total body water and muscle contractions. A single ounce of pistachios contains as much potassium as half a banana, which helps replenish potassium stores in the body, coupled with proper hydration.
Magnesium and phosphorus, also minerals that present in pistachios, promote bone remineralization, Pistachios also contain zinc and selenium, potent antioxidants important for muscle repair and recovery.
One of the things I love about pistachios is their culinary versatility. Making a really good dairy free pistachio gelato is easy to prepare, such as this Pistachio Gelato recipe that can be found at AmericanPistachios.org/recipes-and-snacking/recipes/pistachio-dairy-free-gelato.