Helping Your Vegan Clients To Succeed Beyond ‘Veganuary’

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Veganuary has been and gone, but for some of your personal training clients, their journeys are only just beginning – meaning now is the perfect time to assess what they’ve been consuming (and when) in order to offer them the very best advice and support moving forward. The question is, did they rock Veganuary, getting all the necessary nutrition to lead healthy, active lifestyles and meet their training needs, or are there aspects of their diets that need tweaking?
As with many nutritional trends, a plant-based diet is fast becoming a positive lifestyle choice for many people – evidenced by over 500,000 participants in Veganuary since 2014. Regardless of the type of diet and the individual’s reasons for adopting it, there’s always some confusion about whether or not it’s good for you.
As Personal Trainers, it’s not our job to preach about what we think is best. Our job is to present the pros and cons of each diet to help our clients make informed decisions for themselves once presented with information supported by credible scientific research. It’s also worth noting that going vegan may not be suitable for clients with certain medical conditions, so it’s always best for them to seek the advice of a doctor or dietician first. With that said, let’s unpack everything you need to know about training clients on a vegan diet…
Positives of a Vegan Diet
When following a vegan diet, the removal of dairy and reduction in saturated fat leads to a higher intake of fruit and veg, which, in turn, increases the amount of fibre you’re consuming. This helps to maintain and improve the health of the digestive system. More fruit and veg also results in a higher consumption of vitamins and minerals, which can improve your overall, general health and subsequently reduce the risk of diseases linked to a poor diet.
If well-structured, with an adequate variety of food sources that are wholesome, natural (non-processed), and unrefined, then a vegan’s diet can be rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, helping to prevent free, radical damage and protect every cell in the body. Their diet will also contain less salt and sugar, as well as fewer chemicals from processed foods (i.e. meat substitutes) that could potentially alter or interfere with the way the body digests food and absorbs nutrients.
Elements of a vegan diet can also help to maintain a healthy heart, while the consumption of nuts and whole grains (in the right quantities) can help with blood sugar stabilisation and reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes. In addition, it’s been suggested that a vegan diet can help with weight management, as it tends to be naturally lower in calories.
Drawbacks of a Vegan Diet
Possible poor planning can result in deficiencies or missing food groups from your clients’ overall intake, regularly talked about as a pitfall of a vegan diet. Iron, B12 and calcium are usually the most common.
There can be a tendency to rely on the pre-processed vegan meat substitutes, which are fine occasionally and support the transition to a fully-fledged vegan diet, however, because they’re processed, they lack in nutrient bioavailability, often contain more salt and sugar, and tend to have had additional chemicals/substances added to them to improve the taste and texture. Something else to bear in mind is that it’s possible for people relying on soy-based produce to experience hormone disruptions.
While getting to grips with a vegan diet, particularly in the earlier stages, preparation and planning can take longer, making the transition seem like a mammoth task. If your clients struggle in this area, boredom and repetitiveness in food choices can creep in. Eventually, as they feel the effects of lacking in food groups, vitamins, and minerals, their diet becomes unsustainable.
Lastly, there’s calorie intake. This can go one of two ways with a vegan diet. Especially early on, your client could have a significantly lower calorie intake or significantly over-consume – leading to a nutritional imbalance of macronutrients. New vegans, in particular, can sometimes fail to compensate for the protein that’s been removed from their diet, often consuming a higher proportion of carbohydrates as quick fixes. Therefore, your client may need to do some more planning to ensure they include protein in every meal (especially at breakfast) and have a readily available supply of protein-based snacks to silence those hunger pangs! A quick tip here is to suggest stirring some flax or chia seeds into porridge, sprinkling them over salads, or blending them into smoothies. This is an easy and effective way to boost protein intake.
Should your Clients Adapt Their Vegan Diets?
There are a number of signs to look out for when training vegan clients to tell if their diets are working. The most obvious ones would be fatigue, drop in energy levels, poor gym performance, and not getting the desired results from training.
Some clients may even gain weight if they’ve not yet mastered their vegan portion sizes! ‘Healthy stuff’ can still be energy-dense, therefore, if your client consumes avocados like they’re going out of fashion, their body will have an abundance of excess energy which will be stored as fat if it’s not burned off. People can often forget to consider energy input versus energy output because a vegan diet is naturally associated with being healthier. So, if your vegan clients want to reach their goals, they may want to rein back on some of their favourite foods.
To help your clients understand portion sizes, provide them with ‘visual plate’ guidance. As a general rule, they should start by filling half their plate with veggies, preferably the green variety and ones that grow above ground (e.g. radishes, onions, and spinach) – the greener the better, as this will help to boost calcium intake! A quarter of their plate should be protein (e.g. pulses and beans) and the final quarter should be root veggies (e.g. carrots, sweet potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread). In other words, 50% produce, 25% protein, and 25% whole grain. They can use this rule when filling up their shopping trolleys too!
If your clients are bored of their food that’s another tell-tale sign that something needs to change. Variety in a diet is key, so encourage them to eat the rainbow! If they’re new to veganism, suggest replicating meals they used to enjoy with vegan alternatives.
Digestive system upsets, such as bloating, can occur when ramping up fruit and veggie intake. If your client is suffering from this, they may have gone too hard too soon and need to consider a more gradual transition to their new, vegan diet. As the saying goes, “Sometimes you need to take a step back to move forward.” Therefore, you could suggest that they start by swapping one meal per day until they’ve fully transitioned. People tend to go ‘all-out’ in the early stages, but they can lose momentum very quickly. As with any new lifestyle change, it takes time to become a habit.
Fad dieting (i.e. flicking between a vegan and an omnivorous diet), relapses, and reverting to old habits could also suggest an unsustainable rate of change, so listen out for these in discussions with your clients. If they truly want to become vegan, then taking small steps to get there is the best way to go.
Fuel for Training on a Vegan Diet
Fuelling adequately for each session is vital for any client’s success. The guidelines don’t change for a vegan diet as such, but a little more planning and preparation may be needed. The typical intake of 50% carbs, up to 20% protein, and 30% fat (relevant to the individual’s goals) remains. Likewise, macros and kcal intake are still calculated in the same way if this is the approach you choose to take with your clients, although they may need a little more support finding food sources to achieve the recommended percentages.
Ensuring that your vegan clients are getting a well-balanced nutrient consumption throughout the day, a source of high GI carbohydrate (e.g. banana, watermelon, or a handful of grapes) 30-60 minutes before training, and quality plant-based protein (e.g. falafel or nut butter on a rice cake/wholemeal bread) within the first hour post-training will put them on the path to progress!
Summing up…
As with every client, be patient. Let them find their way and what fits with their lifestyle. People make changes for a range of ethical, religious, and emotional reasons, so be respectful and support their decisions.
In order to manage your clients’ expectations and help them to reach their goals, be non-judgemental but realistic, honest yet supportive. This way, you’ll help your clients to understand the difference between marketing claims and actual evidence-based research from a recognised scientific body.
Implement small, manageable changes with your clients rather than taking a cold turkey approach – new habits need to be sustainable, and it takes time to make a permanent lifestyle change.
Encourage them to find a support network of like-minded individuals to share meal ideas, nutrition/training programmes, and personal challenges, so they can help and learn from each other. To illustrate the effectiveness of finding your ‘fitness community,’ a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that 95 per cent of the participants who undertook a weight loss programme with friends completed it, compared to 76 per cent who tackled it alone. Further still, the friend group had a 42 per cent greater chance of maintaining their weight loss.
Lastly, reassess your clients’ nutritional intake on a regular basis to check that they’re fuelling adequately for their training goals and not under-powering themselves for sessions, limiting their progress.
If Veganuary was just the start, you now have the information and guidance to achieve maximum results for your vegan clients going forward. Good luck!
By Amanda Atkinson, Health and Fitness Tutor at The Training Room
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