October 2022, Articles

Olympic athletes fuelling on plant-based foods

With around 10% of New Zealanders adopting a plant-based diet it is unsurprising that an increasing number of Kiwi elite athletes are making the same dietary choice.

It is, however, extremely important for elite athletes to make sure a switch to plant-based foods is planned to provide them with adequate macro and micro nutrients to support training and competition.

Sustain, a book on plant-based foods for active people, written by Olympic medalists Brooke Francis (nee Donoghue) and Luuka Jones, along with HPSNZ Head of Nutrition Christel Dunshea-Mooij, hit bookstore shelves around the country earlier this month.

HPSNZ spoke with Brooke and Luuka to learn about their personal plant-based food journey, and with Christel to understand the implications for elite athletes.

In her introductory section to Sustain, Christel Dunshea-Mooij, says there is world-wide growing interest in plant-based eating so it is not surprising elite and recreational athletes are choosing to consume more plant-based protein sources.

Christel says when she was first approached by Olympic rower Brooke Francis about following a vegetarian lifestyle she was not excited and Brooke, for her part, says she felt some initial resistance when she expressed her desire to switch to plant-based foods.

“I understood the HP team’s concerns about my ability to fuel properly on a plant-based diet, not just from a nutrition standpoint but also from a medical and physiological perspective,” says Brooke.

“The initial concerns were mainly because Brooke is an endurance athlete which has some pretty significant fuelling requirements and because there is still a lack of information available about plant-based diets among elite athletes,” says Christel.

However, Brooke’s commitment to a plant-based lifestyle brought together the HPSNZ and rowing athlete performance support team, Christel and Dr Stu Armstrong, to help work out a plan which would help Brooke without compromising her performance.

To assess if she was fuelling enough for the work she was doing, Brooke was asked to keep a food diary to understand how much protein, carbohydrates and other nutrients she was consuming. With the help of this information Caroline MacManus (physiologist), James Coote (Coach) and Christel put together an appropriate, balanced plan.

“Endurance athletes generally struggle to eat enough calories and we were initially concerned that without meat in her diet, her calorie intake would be adversely impacted,” says Christel.

“The biggest adjustment was one of confidence that Brooke was getting the right amount of nutrition from her diet and that her key medical markers – B12, iron and folate – were not being affected.”

Luuka Jones’ story is similar.  “Canoe Slalom New Zealand were supportive of my decision to be a vegetarian athlete because they know I have a good support team around me and that this decision was made in conjunction with experts like Christel,” says Luuka.

While Luuka is considered a power athlete, there were many of the same considerations to Brooke.  “Monitoring my B12 and iron levels and ensuring I am fuelling for the work I’m doing is critical,” says Luuka.

Christel says traditionally the protein in meat-based diets had been considered important in muscle building to ensure power was not compromised.

“It was critical to find alternatives that provided the right balance of carbohydrates and protein to maintain muscle building and aid with recovery.”

Both Brooke and Luuka have nothing but praise for their athlete performance support teams.  “The switch to a plant-based diet involved a big collaborative effort from the HPSNZ team and the work that Christel and our respective doctors have done to ensure we are fuelling correctly to get the right performance outcomes has been exceptional,” says Brooke.

Like Brooke, Luuka has a supportive team around her including Dr Craig Panther, physiologist Julia Casadio, Strength & Conditioning coach Dan Smart, along with Christel.

Luuka points to the numbers to support her decision.  “Gym numbers don’t lie and in 2020/21 I continued to improve in my gym lifts and was the strongest I have ever been.  In fact my 2021 international season had some good results, winning a World Cup medal and finishing second overall in the World Cup series.”

The collaboration between Brooke, Luuka and Christel which has resulted in Sustain has been a real pleasure according to the three.  “We are really proud to have been able to bring an idea to reality and create a resource that will hopefully help a lot of people, elite athletes and everyday Kiwis alike,” says Brooke.

“I get a lot out of knowing I am eating in a way I feel comfortable with and lowering my impact on the planet,” says Luuka.  A sentiment wholly matched by Brooke.

Sustain features information to help support a plant-based lifestyle and contains insights from other elite athletes who have chosen this food approach including tennis player Marcus Daniell, rugby player Ruby Tui and alpine ski racer Piera Hudson.  It also has an exciting range of recipes which have been chosen for their nutritional balance, ease of preparation and, most importantly, delicious taste.

All proceeds from the book go to The WaterBoy, a charity that breaks down the barriers for youth to participate in sport whether financial, disability, lack of confidence, sexuality, age, gender, religion or others.

Olympic athletes Luuka Jones and Brooke Francis with fellow author, HPSNZ Head of Nutrition Christel Dunshea-Mooij