By Lisa Salmon, PA
Although Manchester United footballer Jesse Lingard narrowly missed out on playing for the England Euro 2020 squad, the midfielder enjoyed an outstanding end to the season – fuelled by his new mainly plant-based diet.
The 28-year-old is clearly in peak physical condition, and he’s not the first high-profile sports star to switch on to the benefits of plant-based eating – others include his former Manchester United teammate Chris Smalling, and tennis champions Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams.
He’s not 100% vegan. Lingard changed to a more ‘flexitarian’ diet – where animal products are eaten occasionally, but there’s a much bigger focus on plant-based elements – halfway through the season.
“At first, I tried to go fully vegan straight away, but I found I was starving during a game.” he admits. “Plant-based foods are always going to be a good fuel component and put you into a really good mode going into a game, so I make sure to have as much as possible.”
During a game, while many players use energy gels to aid performance, Lingard sticks to fruit and nuts. “They give us energy gels to take but I rarely do,” he says. “I take pistachios to games and snack on them to give me a bit of energy and help with recovery, and at half-time I have a banana.”
Body and mind
Professional footballers can burn more than 2,000 calories per game, so maintaining optimal playing weight and having the right nutrition plan is crucial. But it’s not just preparation that’s important – recovery is also vital.
“Food is very key with recovery,” says Lingard. “Especially after a game, it’s important to get the right food. You have to regain to recover faster for the next game. After a game, I get as much food down me as possible, go to the gym and then have an ice bath.”
The physical demands of professional football are huge, but the mental stresses are also pretty tough, and Lingard says it’s important to step away between matches, to give his mind a break and refresh himself mentally.
Going home to his two-year-old daughter, Hope, always helps: “You know, I see my daughter. She’s a blessing. She takes all the stresses away from me. She’s a joy to have and I love seeing her every time I go home.”
Plant-based diets and athletic performance
GP Dr Laura Freeman, of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK (plantbasedhealthprofessionals.com), which aims to educate health professionals and the public about the benefits of plant-based eating, says plant-based diets are excellent for athletes.
“There are now a growing number of vegan athletes demonstrating the beneficial effects of a varied and well-planned plant-based diet,” she says. “It’s being increasingly accepted that a plant-based approach can enrich the diet – a key component in driving athletic performance. It can be used effectively to meet increased nutritional and energy requirements, while also enhancing performance and recovery.”
Some people worry that going plant-based will leave them lacking in energy. It can take a bit of time to figure out the best food sources and portion sizes, etc – but if plant-based eaters ensure they get enough iron, protein, calcium, vitamin B-12 and vitamin D, this shouldn’t be the case.
“For peak performance, it’s crucial an athlete’s increased energy needs are met,” stresses Freeman. “This can be achieved with vegan foods, especially energy-dense foods, such as avocados, seeds, nuts and nut butters. It’s also important to make sure athletes are eating frequently – using opportunities for healthy nutritious snacks, such as smoothies, vegetable or bean soups, or whole wheat pasta dishes. These are rich in high-quality carbohydrates, which provide plenty of energy and will replenish glycogen stores after training sessions.”
Freeman says a common concern with athletes is that a plant-based diet will be too low in protein, or that animal proteins are better. “We have robust data to support plant proteins as an overall healthier choice, and it’s quite possible for athletes to get sufficient protein from a well-considered diet,” she explains. “Vegan athletes can choose their food as fuel and by focusing on whole plant foods such as tofu, tempeh and legumes, they can ensure optimal health and performance.”
Lingard’s 5 top tips
To help the nation get match fit, Lingard shares the following physical and mental health tips…
1. Plant-based transition
“If you’re thinking about trying a plant-based diet, ease your way into it,” he advises. “I tried to rush it, but incorporating plant-based alternatives into your diet is a great way to start the journey.”
2. Take a cold bath
After intense exercise, Lingard is a fan of taking a cold bath or ice bath, to help ease soreness, fight small muscle fibre damage and reduce inflammation picked up from a knock or injury. “It’s really important for physical recovery after a game,” he says. “It may give you a shock at first, but it’s well worth it.” (If you are new to cold water immersion, approach it slowly and sensibly and always check with your doctor if you have any health concerns.)
3. Eat complete proteins
For muscle recovery and growth, complete proteins are vital, explains Lingard. “They’re basically amino acids and things your body can’t make, so you have to get them from your diet,” he says. While animal proteins, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, are complete, there are a few plant-based sources of complete protein, including quinoa, pistachios and soya beans.
4. Natural snacks
“It’s easy to grab a quick energy fix, whether it be energy drinks or gels,” he says. “Natural options can do everything you’re looking for to give you a burst of energy. Fresh fruit, like bananas and berries, and nuts can give a quick burst of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.”
5. Make time to refresh
“Mental health is so important,” says Lingard. “Whatever level of sport you play, stress is often high so it’s important to take a step back and away sometimes, to regroup and refresh. For me, that’s spending time with my family and giving my mind a rest. Failing that, a walk and a good book is great downtime.”
Jesse Lingard was talking on behalf of American pistachios. Visit americanpistachios.org.