With social media playing such a big role in people’s lifestyle choices nowadays, many different exercise modalities, diets and so on have reached a bigger audience and have become more popular.
One of these is following a vegan diet/lifestyle. Vegans don’t consume animal products in their diets, and most of them don’t use any other kind of product containing animal derived ingredients or tested with animals.
As this has become widespread, more and more influential people have adopted this diet/lifestyle, even elite athletes. Lewis Hamilton, Venus Williams and many other top-athletes adopted this diet and are thriving in it. So, is it possible to perform at your best as a vegan?
As stated in an article published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition:
“a vegan diet can achieve the needs of most athletes satisfactorily”
So, let's tackle the issue, how can you achieve your nutritional needs as a vegan?
What do you eat?
As with every diet, what matters is what you eat. Just being vegan does not tell what someone eats, it just shows what he doesn't eat. You could be a vegan eating Oreos and fries all day long, but that would not make you thrive!
Let's start from the basics. To thrive and feel our best, we have to be healthy, first of all. There is no point on pushing 400w for one hour if our arteries are clogged and we will have cardiovascular disease soon. All the healthiest, longest living populations share a common dietary pattern: they follow a whole-food, plant-based diet. Although most of them eat some meat, fish or animal products here and there, roughly 95% of their calories come from plants, while 5% come from animals. So, instead of just being a vegan, eating a whole-food, plant-based diet based on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, pulses, and some nuts and seeds is the key to achieving great health, as well as good performance.
Once the basics are sorted, and we define what we eat (as well as what not), a few points need to be addressed:
As athletes, our calorie expenditure is higher than the normal population. If we want to meet the training demands and perform well, we need a good supply of energy (in general). As whole plant foods are rich in water, fiber, and nutrients, they fill us with fewer calories than processed plant foods or animal products.
Here the vegan athlete faces the first potential issue: not eating enough. When energy expenditure is high, athletes need to ensure they eat enough calories, and that can be achieved by having more frequent meals, eating more calorie dense foods (eating more whole grains, some more nuts, and seeds...). If the athlete comes from an animal rich diet, with processed grains and foods, it may take some time to adapt the gut to the higher volume of food (drinking smoothies can be a good staple as someone makes the transition).
Everyone switching to a vegan diet has listened to this: "where do you get your protein from?". Well, getting enough protein may be one of the easiest "challenges" that a vegan athlete has to face. The recommendation for the regular population is 0.8g/kg/day of protein, but, for athletes, 1.2-1.7g/kg/day is suggested due to the increased demands from the exercise. For a regular 70kg (154lb), that would be between 85g and 120g of protein per day. Seeds such as pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and flaxseed are high in protein, between 15g and 30g of protein per 100g. Nuts are high as well, also around 20g per 100g on average. Pulses are around 20-25g per 100g and whole grains around 10-15g per 100g.
With an adequate energy intake, around 3000-4000kcal per day for an athlete (obviously, depending on the energy expenditure of the day), protein is not an issue. A whole-food, plant-based diet, with some nuts and seeds, pulses, and a good amount of whole grains, should give around 15% of calories coming from protein, what would equate to 112-150g of protein per day, nothing to be worried about! Also, when the calorie intake is that high, more emphasis can be put into grains and fruits in order to meet the carbohydrate requirements, while staying within the range of an adequate intake of protein.
One of the best things about a plant-based diet is that it meets better the carbohydrate demands of an athlete! As carbohydrates are found in plants, eating just plants is an easier way to get them in.
Depending on the activity level, carbohydrate intakes can go from 4g/kg/day on really easy and short days, up to 12g/kg/day on long hard days. The athlete should tweak the carbohydrate intake according to the training of the day, eating fewer carbohydrates in easy days (more pulses, vegetables...), and more in hard days (more whole grains, fruits...).
Again, a well-planned diet should give us enough fat to have a well-working hormonal system. Around 0.5-1.5g/kg/day is suggested, so between 35g and 105g for our 70kg athlete. On top of the fats found in all foods, adding a few seeds, nuts, or avocados meets the target without any issue. In addition, such a diet would be way lower in saturated fats and trans fats, which are worse for heart disease, type II diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, cancer...
However, there is a concern about omega-3 fats in a vegan diet. There are 3 forms of omega-3s: ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA is found in very high amounts in flaxseed, chia seed, hemp seed, and, in a lesser amount, in walnuts (among other foods). This fatty acid can be transformed into the longer chain EPA and DHA (which can be found in fish), but the transformation rate is not incredibly high (~8%). If enough ALA is consumed, the needs for all three omega-3s can be met, but, and algae-based omega-3 supplement can be taken in order to ensure an adequate amount of EPA and DHA.
B12 needs to be supplemented in vegans, and maybe even in omnivorous eaters. All discussions about why we don't get enough B12 aside (excessive hygiene...), B12 is a key vitamin in order to be healthy and perform well, as it has major roles in the neurological system as well as in oxygen transportation, among others. There are enriched foods, but you may not get enough if you only eat one enriched meal per day. A B12 supplement is the safest and most effective way to get an adequate amount.
Iron is another micronutrient that is often considered as an issue for vegans. A whole-food, plant-based diet, with pulses, green leafy vegetables, and some seeds will give all the iron needed. It's true than plant iron is not absorbed as well as meat iron, but combining it with vitamin C (which green leafy vegetables already have...) can increase considerably the absorption. In addition, the intake of iron usually exceeds the RDA (up to 5 times), but as plant iron doesn't cause intoxication as easy as meat iron, exceeding the RDA is safe for vegans.
Beans, nuts, seeds, oats... are high in zinc, and the process of cooking beans reduces phytates (a compound that could decrease zinc absorption), so if those foods are consumed, the risk of zinc deficiency is fairly low.
Iodine is key for our energy system. It plays a major role in the thyroid function, which regulates the energy production and utilization in our body. From experience, I can say that an iodine deficiency can have a big impact on performance: I suffered from it and my performance decreased considerably, I was missing 100 watts. In order to avoid these, eating some seafood is suggested. Just an inch of kombu per day would give more than the RDA of iodine, and it could be used to cook our beans as it makes digesting them easier.
Vitamin D is a hormone produced by sun exposure. Some animal products and mushrooms can give a dietary source of it. However, as exercise increases the utilization of it, and as we are having less and less sun staying indoors, and living in colder climates, vitamin D supplementation is usually suggested during the colder months (later autumn, winter, and early spring).
Green leafy vegetables are a very good source of calcium and it is well absorbed. Pulses also have a good amount of it, as well as other grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds...
It is about what you eat
As mentioned above, what eats is what matters. Not consuming animal products due to ethical reasons won't define your health or your performance. As with any other diet, it has to be adequate and, at least, planned slightly. Focusing on high nutrient whole plant foods, such as green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, pulses, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds will meet most if not all of the needs of a serious athlete. Adding a B12 supplement, a vitamin D supplement during the colder months, some seaweed, ground flaxseed, and, maybe, an EPA/DHA supplement, will enhance the diet, ensuring good health, and adequate performance.
- Burke (2006): Clinical Sports Nutrition. McGraw Hill: North Ryde Australia.
- Fuhrman (2010): "Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete". Current Sports Medicine Reports. 9(4):233-41.
- Rogerson (2017): "Vegan diets: Practical advice for athletes and exercisers". Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 14(1):36.
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