Athletes tend to have big appetites and even bigger portion sizes of food. Hence, any sort of food restriction might seem like a big hindrance to good performance. This very reason has led a lot of people to doubt the nutritional adequacy of vegan diets for professional athletes.
However, there are tons of athletes including Venus Williams (tennis), Rich Roll (ultra-endurance athletics), and Mac Danzig (UFC fighter) who follow a vegan diet. So, while it is possible to be vegan and play professional sports, it’s important to keep a few things in mind to make the most of the diet.
1. Protein Is Essential And Easy To Get
Macronutrients are important to get if you’re an athlete. And, of all the macronutrients the one that concerns most people when it comes to vegan diets is protein. This is especially because as an athlete it is recommended that one has a high protein intake with all the essential amino acids to aid in training and recovery.1 So, be sure to include the following vegan sources of protein in your diet.
- French Beans
- Non-dairy milk
- Nut butter
- Brown rice
- Nutritional yeast
These make up for just a few of all the protein options that are available to vegan. Be sure to incorporate a variety of them in your diet to get all the essential amino acids.2
2. It’s Important To Eat A Lot
Most athletes have hectic training schedules that need to be complemented by a high-calorie diet. Insufficient energy leads to muscle loss, lowered immunity, reduced strength, lowered work capacity, and lack of satisfactory training adaptation.
This poses a challenge for vegan diets which are lower in calories. They are also high in fiber which makes you feel full quickly. Additionally, vegan diets are believed to lead to an increased calorie-burn after meals, as opposed to nonvegan diets where most of the food is stored as fat.3
Hence, it’s important to eat bigger meals, increase the frequency of these meals, and increase the intake of energy-dense foods such as nuts, seeds and oils. It’s also important to eat calorie-dense foods to have adequate energy for training.4 Be sure to consult a nutritionist to alter your meal plan according to your activity level, body type, and energy requirements.5
3. Intake Of Micro-Nutrients Must Be Monitored
Athletes need to ensure that they’re having adequate nutrients in their diet to enhance their performance and overall health. Considering that it involves eliminating several foods, there are a few nutrients that athletes might miss out on with a vegan diet. Here are few of these along with how they can be supplemented.6
- Vitamin B12: Important for production of red blood cells and healthy brain functioning, vitamin B12 is most easily found in meat and dairy products. For athletes, this vitamin is important for metabolism and proper nervous system functioning. Hence, it’s important to incorporate mushrooms, tempeh, miso, and sea vegetables into the diet. Alternatively, supplementation can also help with vitamin B12.
- Iron: Iron deficiency leads to tiredness and fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and reduced exercise tolerance. Hence, it’s important that athletes eat foods high in the nutrient, including legumes, tofu, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and dried fruits. Additionally, combining iron-rich foods with vitamin C as well as food acids like fruit and vegetables improves their absorption in the body.
- Zinc: This nutrient is vital for cell growth, repair, and protein metabolism. While it isn’t as scarce in plant-based foods as the other nutrients listed here, it’s important for athletes to incorporate foods such as beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds into their diet for adequate zinc consumption.7
- Calcium: This nutrient is important for blood clotting, nerve transmission, muscle stimulation, vitamin D metabolism, and maintaining bone structure. Additionally, calcium is lost due to heavy perspiration so athletes need to keep up with their calcium requirements. Vegan sources of this nutrient include fortified foods like cereals, plant-based milk, fruit juices, and tofu. Leafy dark green vegetables, legumes, almonds, and Brazil nuts are also rich in calcium.8
- Iodine: This nutrient is important for physical and mental growth and development. It also plays an important role in thyroid function and metabolism. Hence, athletes must supplement their diets with sea vegetables like kelp, along with prunes, iodized salt, and berries.
- Vitamin D: This nutrient is important for calcium absorption. It also plays an important role in bone health and other physiological processes. While it’s difficult to find food sources of the nutrient, athletes should include fortified plant-based milk and tofu in their diet. Supplementation is also considered safe, but it’s important to consult a professional before you do.
Besides this, it’s important for athletes to keep a track of their omega 3 fatty acids intake, which is low in plant-based foods. These play a role in how calories are burned in the body.
Omega 3 fatty acids also give energy to the body and ensure the proper functioning of the heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system.9 Vegan sources of these fats include plant oils, fortified foods, nuts, and seeds.10 Having stated this, vegan diets might have certain benefits for athletes.
Benefits Of Vegan Diet For Athletes
There aren’t any specific benefits of vegan diets for athletes. But, there are certain long-term benefits that might be worth noting. A vegan diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and heart diseases. It is also beneficial for people suffering from autoimmune diseases and high blood pressure.11
Vegans are also believed to live longer, although this claim still remains to be backed by sufficient evidence. Lastly, vegan diets are believed to improve sleep which is vital in every athlete’s life.12
While vegan diets in themselves don’t offer any specific benefits for athletes, it can be tweaked to provide optimal nutrition for training and recovery. If you’re looking to go vegan, be sure to consult a nutritionist and have a dietary plan in place to avoid any complications with regards to your diet.
|↑1||Lemon, Peter WR, Kevin E. Yarasheski, and Dennis G. Dolny. “The importance of protein for athletes.” Sports Medicine 1, no. 6 (1984): 474-484.|
|↑2, ↑3||Tuso, Philip J., Mohamed H. Ismail, Benjamin P. Ha, and Carole Bartolotto. “Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets.” The Permanente Journal 17, no. 2 (2013): 61.|
|↑4||Wirnitzer, Katharina C., and Elmar Kornexl. “Energy and macronutrient intake of a female vegan cyclist during an 8-day mountain bike stage race.” Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center) 27, no. 1 (2014): 42.|
|↑5, ↑9||Rogerson, David. “Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 14, no. 1 (2017): 36.|
|↑6||Vegetarian and vegan eating. Victoria State Government.|
|↑7||Vegetarians, Watch Your Zinc! United States Department Of Agriculture.|
|↑8||McDougall, Craig, and John McDougall. “Plant-Based Diets Are Not Nutritionally Deficient.” The Permanente Journal 17, no. 4 (2013): 93.|
|↑10||Omega-3 Fatty Acids. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.|
|↑11||Appleby, Paul N., and Timothy J. Key. “The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 75, no. 3 (2016): 287-293.|
|↑12||Hänninen, O., A. L. Rauma, K. Kaartinen, and M. Nenonen. “Vegan diet in physiological health promotion.” Acta Physiologica Hungarica 86, no. 3-4 (1999): 171-180.|