If your clients aren’t powering their workouts with plant-based foods they may not be getting maximal results from their training. Plant-based foods can improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to hard-working muscles, ignite muscle growth and repair, and deliver the nutrients needed for maximal energy and recovery. Here are three research-proven ways to help your clients reap the benefits of consuming the earth’s most nutrient-packed plants. 

Look Beyond Beetroot Juice for a Nitric Oxide Boost

Nitric oxide is a short-lived gas that helps open blood vessels for greater blood flow and, as a result, enhances oxygen and nutrient delivery to working muscles. There are two pathways by which nitric oxide is produced. One pathway requires the presence of oxygen and is ideal for a light jog or other low-intensity activity. The second pathway is perfect for high-intensity activity when oxygen is in short supply. Beetroot juice, which works via this pathway (Jones, 2014), helps decrease the oxygen cost of activity, which means less energy (ATP) is needed to produce the same amount of power (Bailey et al., 2010; Lansley et al., 2011). It’s also been shown to help improve speed among cyclists (Cermak, van Gibala and Loon, 2012).

Although beetroot supplements are available, active adults shouldn’t rely only on them. A better approach is to munch on rocket, spinach, lettuce, radishes, beets and Chinese cabbage, all of which are high in dietary nitrates, which is a compound that is converted to nitric oxide in the body. Dietary nitrates may, in fact, be at least partially responsible for a number of other health benefits tied to plant-based eating, including lower blood pressure and improved blood vessel functioning (Lidder and Webb, 2013).

In addition to these vegetables, foods rich in polyphenols work through both the oxygen-dependent and oxygen-independent pathways and may also help nitric oxide stick around for a longer period of time (Lundberg, Gladwin and Weitzberg, 2015). Though there are hundreds of polyphenols found in edible foods, they vary in their effects in the body (Myburgh, 2014). Look for deep red, purple, black and dark blue foods for a polyphenol punch. Cranberry juice, Concord grape juice, black rice and blackberries are good examples (Auger et al., 2015; Alhosin et al., 2013; Förstermann and Münzel, 2006).

Add Plant Protein Powders to Extend the Muscle-building Period After Lifting

Incorporate plant proteins after exercise for a longer-lasting muscle-building period. While whey protein is a quickly digested protein, soy, which contains all of the essential amino acids, is considered moderate-speed protein. This means the amino acids from soy are delivered more slowly, over a longer period of time, to muscle tissue (Reidy et al., 2013). Look for protein blends that include both whey and soy, or blend milk with a soy protein or soft tofu for a post-workout shake. Combining fast and slow proteins may be beneficial for anyone who waits several hours (four or five or more) before eating again or for those who exercise at night and consume protein prior to sleeping. 

What about other plant-based proteins including pea, hemp and rice? These proteins are lower in leucine, the key amino acid that turns on the processes underlying muscle growth and repair. In addition, they aren’t as digestible when compared to whey and soy (the body is not able to use all of the amino acids in these proteins). As a result, a much higher dose is necessary post-workout, along lines of 40 grams or more per serving. Choosing a protein blend (versus a single source like pea) also provides a wider array of essential amino acids, which are necessary for muscle building and repair (Phillips, 2016; van Vliet, Burd and van Loon, 2015).

Crack Into Nuts and Seeds for Better Recovery

Nuts and seeds are among the best sources of vitamin E, a nutrient most people do not consume in adequate amounts. Skimp on this vitamin and the cells throughout the body, including muscle cells, may be damaged, which can affect how well muscles work and possibly contribute to muscle fatigue and delayed-onset muscle soreness (Kim and Lee, 2014; Powers and Jackson, 2008). 

Nuts and seeds also provide fiber, magnesium and zinc as well as other nutrients to support healthy energy levels (magnesium is key for ATP production), immune system functioning and overall health. To increase the amount of fiber and protein in a recipe, when appropriate substitute part of the white or wheat flour with almond, cashew or pecan flour. These flours also provide considerable amounts of leucine, which, as mentioned earlier, is key to muscle growth and repair. The daily recommended intake for leucine is approximately 2 to 3 grams for younger adults and 3 to 4 grams for older adults (Paddon-Jones and Rasmussen, 2009; Tipton et al., 1999).

Here are two suggestions for incorporating nut-based products into post-workout meals (each one contains approximately 2 grams of leucine):

  • Mix 1 serving (30 grams; just over 1 oz) of a nut-based protein powder into 10 oz. of milk.
  • Mix 1 serving (30 grams) of a nut-based powder mixed into 7 oz of low-fat plain Greek yogurt.

For those who are trying to lose or maintain weight, nuts and seeds should be added in small, portion-controlled quantities. While research has shown that the addition of reasonable amounts of nuts doesn’t lead to greater body weight, it’s always a good idea to be mindful of portion sizes for both calorie control and to ensure there is space in the diet for other healthy foods (Martinez-Gonzales and Bes-Rastrollo, 2011).


There are a plethora of beneficial foods found in gardens and the produce sections of grocery stores. Plant-based foods provide an array of compounds, including nitrates, vitamins and minerals, needed for healthy blood flow, energy production, metabolism, oxygen transport, bone health, muscle building and repair, growth, development, immune functioning and more. While these often-colorful compounds protect the body tissues from harm, the proteins found in many plans offer a nutrient-packed way to build and repair muscle. 

Your clients know they should be eating more vegetables, because they are “good” for them, but helping them to understand that these foods not only benefit their health, but also enhance their workouts may be just the incentive they need to start making the switch to a more plant-based lifestyle.  


Alhosin, M. et al. (2013). Redox-sensitive up-regulation of eNOS by purple grape juice in endothelial cells: Role of PI3-kinase/Akt, p38 MAPK, JNK, FoxO1 and FoxO3a. PLoS One, 8, 3, e57883.

Auger, C. et al. (2015). Great heterogeneity of commercial fruit juices to induce endothelium-dependent relaxations in isolated porcine coronary arteries: Role of the phenolic content and composition. Journal of Medicinal Food, 18, 1, 128-136. 

Bailey, S.J. et al. (2010). Dietary nitrate supplementation enhances muscle contractile efficiency during knee-extensor exercise in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 109, 1, 135-48. 

Cermak, N.M., van Gibala, M.J. and Loon, L.J. (2012). Nitrate supplementation’s improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. International Journal of Sport Nutrition Exercise and Metabolism, 22, 64–71. 

Förstermann, U. and Münzel, T. (2006). Endothelial nitric oxide synthase in vascular disease: from marvel to menace. Circulation, 113, 13, 1708-14. 

Jones, A.M. (2014). Dietary nitrate supplementation and exercise. Sports Medicine, 44, Supplement 1, 35-45.

Kim, J. and Lee, J. (2014). A review of nutritional intervention on delayed onset muscle soreness, Part I. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 10, 6, 349-356.

Lansley, K.E. et al. (2011). Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves cycling time trial performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43, 1125–1131.

Lidder, S. and Webb, A.J. (2013). Vascular effects of dietary nitrate (as found in green leafy vegetables and beetroot) via the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 75, 3, 677–696.

Lundberg, J.O., Gladwin, M.T. and Weitzberg, E. (2015). Strategies to increase nitric oxide signalling in cardiovascular disease. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, 14, 623-641. 

Martinez-Gonzales, M.A. and Bes-Rastrollo, M. (2011). Nut consumption, weight gain and obesity: Epidemiological evidence. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 21, Supplement 1, S40-45.

Myburgh, K.H. (2014). Polyphenol supplementation: Benefits for exercise performance or oxidative stress? Sports Medicine, 44, Supplement 1, S57-70. 

Paddon-Jones, D. and Rasmussen, B.B. (2009). Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia. Current Opinions in Clinical Nutrition Metabolic Care, 12, 86-90.

Phillips, S.M. (2016). The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise-induced changes in muscle mass. Nutrition Metabolism, 13, 64. 

Powers, S.K. and Jackson, M.J. (2008). Exercise-induced oxidative stress: Cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiology Review, 88, 4, 1243-1276. 

Reidy, P.T. et al. (2013). Protein blend ingestion following resistance exercise promotes human muscle protein synthesis. Journal of Nutrition, 143, 410-416.

Tipton, K.D. et al. (1999). Post-exercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. American Journal of Physiology, 276, E628-634. 

van Vliet, S., Burd, N.A. and van Loon, L.J. (2015). The skeletal muscle anabolic response to plant- versus animal-based protein consumption. Journal of Nutrition, 145, 9, 1981-91.

Further Your Knowledge

With so much conflicting information out there, it can be a huge challenge to know what to tell your clients about healthy eating. These recorded webinars from ACE can help you expand your nutrition know-how and earn CECs, while also keeping you well within your scope of practice as a health and fitness professional.

Nutrition Planning for Clients That Leads to Real Results
[Recorded Webinar]

Cooking 101: Essentials of Meal Selection and Preparation
[Recorded Webinar]

The 3D Approach to Finding Nutritional Balance
[Recorded Webinar]