Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a fitness newbie, the world of sports nutrition can be confusing. We’re constantly being barraged by advertisements about which protein bar works best for recovery, what pre-workout drink will help you run faster, blah, blah, blah. Here’s the thing: Our bodies are SMART. They recognize quality fuel over chemically processed “food.” The best thing you can do is keep it simple; Fortunately, plant-based eating helps you do just that.

So, what does “plant-based” nutrition look like? Well, it’s different for everyone, but the general idea is your diet centers around simple, whole foods that come from the earth: Fruit, vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. Your body will appreciate it because it’s easier to digest plants than it is to break down meat or the chemicals in processed food (not to mention, who knows what kind of chemicals are in your meat). Plus, plant-fuel is naturally rich in nutrients, which is way more beneficial than pumping your body with supplements. Embrace those fruits and veggies! People are always so focused on making sure they get enough macro-nutrients (protein, carbs, and fat), that they forget that micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) are important too. Yes, you need carbs to fuel you for a workout, but trust me on this one… you don’t want to be low on iron either. Beans naturally have both – how easy is that? Thanks, nature!

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Let’s take a closer look at how simple, plant-based food compares to other options for fitness fuel.

Pre-Workout

1. Banana vs. Pre-Packaged Energy Bar: Bananas score an A+ for convenience thanks to their natural peels, but they come loaded with health benefits, too. They are rich in potassium, vitamin C, and B6, which is great for heart health. Plus, they contain tryptophan, which studies have shown can boost your mood. Easily digestible, bananas have enough calories and carbs to fuel the average athlete for an hour of physical activity.

Most processed energy bars are worse than eating a candy bar. They’re loaded with corn syrup (which is almost certainly genetically modified), several other forms of sugar, and “natural flavors” which is just a fancy way of saying mystery ingredients. Not to mention, most are filled with common allergens that can irritate the stomach. They don’t even make sense from a cost standpoint since you can generally score a bunch of bananas for about 50 cents per pound. A typical energy bar costs over $2 and that’s just for one! No, thanks. Try these Homemade Energy Bars instead.

2. Chia Seeds vs. Greek Yogurt: Chia seeds are nature’s little miracles. In two tablespoons of these tiny seeds, you get fiber, protein, omega-3s, antioxidants, and a laundry list of other vitamins and minerals. Their bland taste makes them perfect for adding to most anything you want, whether that’s a smoothie, cereal, or even plain water. Since they slow the conversion of carbs into sugar, the carbohydrates you eat will fuel you for longer, meaning increased energy.

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Greek yogurt is often touted as convenient pre-workout fuel, but did you know that it’s harmful for the environment? For every three to four ounces of milk, only one ounce of greek yogurt can be produced. The rest becomes acid whey, an environmentally toxic byproduct that, if dumped, depletes oxygen from streams and rivers. To avoid that, the acid whey is handed off to farmers to mix in with their cow feed, which can cause digestive issues in the animals. Cows have it hard enough, don’t you think? Plus, purchasing individual greek yogurt containers contributes a lot of unnecessary plastic waste to our earth. Ditch the dairy, and try chia instead.

3. Oatmeal With Fruit vs. Breakfast Sandwich With Eggs and Cheese: Some people need a little extra boost before a workout, and that’s where oatmeal comes in. It has just the right amount of fiber to release carbs into your bloodstream gradually, but not so much that it’ll cause digestive distress. Oats have a host of other important nutrients, including Vitamin B1, which helps convert carbs to energy. Fruit is a perfect compliment to oatmeal due to its water content, helping to keep you hydrated during exercise. Fruit of course tastes great, but also digests quickly to provide you with energy right away.

This combination is a much more sensible option than eating a breakfast sandwich made with eggs and cheese. The protein in the eggs and cheese slows down digestion, which is not a good thing before exercise. If your body is working to break down food, it’s not going to leave you with the blood and energy necessary for your workout. This type of heavy breakfast can lead to GI problems, and nothing puts a damper on a race quite like having to sprint to a porta-potty.

During Workout

1. Dates and Coconut Water vs. Energy Chews and Sports Drinks: We’ve all seen those commercials featuring sweaty athletes chugging down a sports drink in the middle of an intense exercise session. They make you feel like you, too, can play in the NBA if you guzzle down their products. Should we really be taking health advice from advertisements? Here’s the truth: there are some freaky ingredients and little-to-no nutritional benefit in those products. One common ingredient, dextrose, is an industrially-produced sugar, usually made from cornstarch (aka: GMO), and is the main ingredient in corn syrup. There are endless debates about the effects of different types of sugars on the body, but I think it should always come down to common sense: if something is artificially produced, it’s probably not great for you. Try these 5 Homemade Natural Energy Drinks to Fuel Your Workout.

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Dates, on the other hand, naturally contain glucose, fructose, and sucrose, so they’re perfect for giving your body a quick burst of energy. They’re also a great source of vitamins and minerals like calcium, and iron. Coconut water is a rich source of electrolytes, potassium, and natural salts, which are important for replenishing your body during exercise. Together, these two are a power team of exercise-fueling excellence – without any unnecessary ingredients like Yellow #5 (I’m looking at you, lemon-lime Gatorade).

2. Dried Fruit vs. Candy: You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but athletes talk all the time about eating commercialized candy during their workouts. C’mon, friends, there’s a reason that fruit is referred to as “nature’s candy!” Dried fruit like figs, raisins, or apricots provide a concentrated form of carbs to provide maximum energy, plus fiber and other important nutrients. It’s even easy to dehydrate your own fruit so you can munch on your favorite flavors without having to scour the health food store.

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Commercial candy like gummy bears, swedish fish, or candy corn have zero health benefits and are loaded with artificial flavors, colors, and modified corn starch. Sure, the sugar will give you a quick energy boost, but what are the rest of the ingredients doing to your insides? Might as well stick to plant-fuel and reap the health benefits, rather than spend money on empty calories.

Post Workout

1. Hemp Smoothie vs. Whey Protein Shake: In the first half hour following intense exercise, your body craves nutrients to start repairing muscles, and it requires blood to transport those nutrients. Since it takes more blood to digest solid food than liquid, protein smoothies are perfect for quick recovery fuel. Whey protein powder is commonly used, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best option. For a lot of people, whey is indigestible due to an intolerance to the sugar found in milk (lactose). In fact, many people are lactose averse without even realizing it! Consuming whey, casein, or other dairy products can lead to issues like bloating, acne, and constipation. And if that’s not bad enough, whey protein powders come loaded with artificial sweeteners, flavors, and oils, which really isn’t the best way to repair your body.

Fortunately, hemp powder exists. Hemp has 21 amino acids, making it a complete protein. These amino acids help maintain muscles, tissues, and organs. It’s also high in fiber, so it fills you up, and keeps things  … er …  moving along. You can easily make a delicious protein-packed smoothie by combining a few tablespoons of hemp powder with fruits like blueberries and cherries, which are natural anti-inflammatories – peace out, sore muscles! It’s easy, cheap, and nice to your body. Win-win-win.

2. Plant-Based Milk With Cacao Powder and Maple Syrup vs. Chocolate Milk: Oh, chocolate milk. This childhood favorite has gained a reputation for being great recovery fuel due to its ratio of protein, carbs, and fat. This is healthwashing at its finest. Here are some reasons to skip the moo-juice:

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• Dairy is an acid-forming substance. It takes minerals like calcium and magnesium to neutralize that acid, and those minerals are leeched from your bones.

• Milk like 1% and skim have been stripped of their fat content through a process that also takes out fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Those vitamins are then added back in synthetic form, which our bodies do not absorb as well.

• The carbs in chocolate milk come from sugar in the chocolate syrup. A ready-to-drink bottle of chocolate milk can contain more than 30 grams of sugar in a serving. That, along with the amount of artificial ingredients in chocolate syrup, makes for one unhealthy beverage.

An alternative solution is to make your own chocolate milk using plant-based options like almond, hemp, or rice milk. Rich in nutrients without the tummy-troubling side effects of dairy, these can be mixed with cacao powder for antioxidants, and a tiny bit of pure maple syrup for sweetness and carbs. No weird additives needed!

3. Beans, Green Veggies, and Quinoa vs. Animal Protein: It’s common for some people to turn to animal protein like chicken or red meat after a workout to rebuild muscle, but those choices may actually be counter-productive. Intense exercise leads the body to become increasingly acidic. That acid must be neutralized with alkalizing foods to prevent bone and muscle deterioration. Animal-based foods such as red meat, fish, and dairy are acid-forming, while plant-based foods are alkalizing. Studies have shown that diets rich in fruits and vegetables lead to reduced acid levels in the body, and result in a greater preservation of muscle mass. Meat eaters should especially watch out for sodium nitrate, found in bacon, sausage, and lunch meat; It’s linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Yikes!

For a great post-workout meal, try combining black beans with kale and quinoa, instead. You’ll get the protein, carbs, and fat you need, while also getting a boost of iron, B-vitamins, and calcium that your body can absorb efficiently. It’s also quick to prepare, so you can chow down before the hangry feelings set in.

Here’s the bottom line: Plant-based food rocks. Choose simple foods that pack the most nutritional punch, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a healthy, vibrant athlete. Get to it, Green Monsters!

Image source: Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr