Eating Sustainably for Active People
By Stephanie Howe, PhD and sports nutritionist.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.
The earth is one of our most precious resources. And we have a duty to protect the outdoor places where we play, not just for our enjoyment but also for the enjoyment of generations that follow. As a new mom, I feel a heightened sense of urgency to protect our earth from the harmful effects of climate change so my son can also enjoy the outdoor spaces I love.
One simple action we can take is to make more sustainable food choices. The foods we choose to eat are one of the most important things we can do to support our health and well-being. And the foods we choose to eat also impact the health and well-being of our planet. Our daily habits impact our climate, so it’s important to strive to align our food choices with our own individual health goals, as well as the health of our planet.
What Does Sustainable Eating Look Like?
A healthy, sustainable diet is one that provides nourishment through primarily plant-based foods, has a positive impact on the earth, is accessible and affordable, and is produced in a way that treats people fairly.
The bottom line? When considering how to fuel sustainably, understanding how a food is grown and made can be just as important as how it makes you feel on or off the trail.
So how do you choose foods that will sustain both you and the planet during exercise? Here are some tips:
1. Start with a plant-based diet. Prioritize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based proteins like nuts, seeds, and legumes. You don’t have to eliminate animal proteins but try to consume them in smaller quantities. Make sure to choose a diverse diet that works best for you.
Can a Plant-Based Diet Fuel My Activity?
Many people think it’s tough to get enough protein from a plant-based diet. That’s a myth. 1,2
Although animal proteins are considered a “complete” protein (containing all the essential amino acids), plant-based proteins can be just as effective when varied sources are consumed in the right amounts. A combination of mostly plant-based protein, with the occasional animal source, is a good way for many active people to prioritize the health of the planet while still meeting their protein needs.
With that said, when following a plant-based diet, you may have to be more intentional about your protein intake. Planning your day helps set you up for success. Timing your protein intake around your activities can help support your fitness goals and energy needs. Eating mostly plant-based means bringing more awareness to protein intake, but it can be easily accomplished by including a balanced mix of the following:
- Soy: tofu, edamame, tempeh
- Other Legumes: green peas, lentils, split peas
- Beans: black beans, chickpeas, refried beans, hummus
- Nuts/Seeds: cashews, almonds, peanuts, nut butter, sesame seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds
- Whole Grains: oats, quinoa, brown rice, kamut, wild rice
Eating some combination of these foods is the best way to ensure you meet your protein needs. Be sure to speak with a registered dietitian or use the Active Nutrition Guide to help you build a customized eating plan and keep you on the move.
2. Know how to fuel on the go. Healthy, sustainable diets don’t have to be exclusively homemade to benefit people and the planet. When selecting fuel on the go, look for options that feature plant-based ingredients and third-party certifications such as USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified™, and Fair Trade Certified™. These verified seals help ensure these foods are sourced in a way that’s fair and equitable for both the people who grow and make them, as well as for the planet. Choosing foods crafted by companies with thoughtful values and commitments around things like eco-friendly packaging, zero waste practices, and paying employees a living wage is another way your choices can have a more positive impact.
What Are Some Nutritious Sustainable On-the-Go Options to Fuel Fitness?
For a quick, on-the-go option, CLIF BAR® is an optimal blend of plant-based protein, fat, and carbs for fueling before or during a workout. This new bar features a mashup of fan-favorite flavors and is made with organic rolled oats and Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa, making it an ideal choice for sustainable eating when on the move.
Active people have different needs, and it’s important to source foods that are both sustainable for the people and the planet. Although eating homemade foods is ideal at mealtimes, eating occasions surrounding a physical activity (before, during, and after) can be fueled by sustainable, nourishing, on-the-go options.
3. Match your food with your movement. Different types of activity require different foods. Before selecting a food, consider the type of movement and energy requirement of the activity. Fueling a pickup basketball game will look different from fueling a trail run.
Consuming the right foods before, during, and after an activity helps to meet your energy needs and feel your best. For activities lasting about 60 minutes, focus on eating before your workout. For activities lasting over 90 minutes, it’s important to also take in fuel during the activity to energize your working muscles. Even if you are more of an everyday athlete, choosing the right fuel for your activity will give you the energy you need to feel and perform at your best. Here are some examples of the timing and type of fuel to choose:
- Before: One to two hours before a physical activity, look for a mix of carbohydrates, fat, and plant-based protein. The goal of this food is to energize your body for an activity as well as make sure you don’t feel hungry during your workout routine. Some good examples are yogurt with granola, oatmeal topped with nuts and fruit, or CLIF BAR.
- During: For activities lasting over 90 minutes, fueling during the activity will provide continuous energy to working muscles to stave off fatigue and keep you moving. Ideally look for a mix of simple carbohydrates in an easy-to-carry form. For example, if out on a long bike ride or an all-day hike, pack up a PB&J sandwich, CLIF BAR, or a tortilla with banana and honey.
- After: Recovery begins as soon as the activity ends. Replenish, restore, and rebuild by choosing foods with a combination of complete proteins and carbohydrates. Within the first 30-60 minutes after an activity, try to eat foods like a smoothie with plant-based protein powder, chocolate milk, or avocado toast with an egg.
What Does a Day of Sustainable Eating Look Like?
Elite athletes aren’t the only ones who benefit from good nutrition and planning. Here’s what a day of sustainable eating might look like for someone who is moderately active:
- 7 am Breakfast: Avocado toast or oatmeal topped with nut butter and a banana
- 11 am 1-2 hours pre-activity: CLIF BAR
- Noon: 1-hour spin class
- Immediately post-spin: Recovery smoothie with a banana, peanut butter, and pea protein
- 1 pm Lunch: Mediterranean Chickpea Salad
- Mix canned chickpeas (drained), chopped cucumbers, kalamata olives, bell peppers, and crumbled feta cheese with Greek dressing. Serve atop cooked quinoa with a side of hummus and whole grain crackers.
- 3 pm Afternoon Snack: Plant-based yogurt with CLIF BAR® Thins
- 6 pm Dinner: Tofu Noodle Bowl
- Drain and press extra-firm tofu, then marinate in ginger, garlic, and soy sauce. Sautee until golden brown. Serve over cooked soba noodles with sliced green onion and sesame seeds. For extra veggies, add carrot ribbons, asparagus, or broccoli!
Remember, try mixing up the foods you eat to get a variety of vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant nutrients every day. Plus, eating a variety of foods keeps it interesting for your taste buds!
- Lynch H, Johnston C and Wharton C. Plant-based diets: considerations for environmental impact, protein quality, and exercise performance. Nutrients. 2018;10(12):1841
- Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets, 2016. Accessed from: https://www.eatrightpro.org/~/media/eatrightpro%20files/practice/position%20and%20practice%20papers/position%20papers/vegetarian-diet.ashx