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Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers

With the growth of social media as a platform to share information, veganism is becoming more visible, and could be becoming more accepted in sports and in the health and fitness industry. However, to date, there appears to be a lack of literature that discusses how to manage vegan diets for athletic purposes. This article attempted to review literature in order to provide recommendations for how to construct a vegan diet for athletes and exercisers.

While little data could be found in the sports nutrition literature specifically, it was revealed elsewhere that veganism creates challenges that need to be accounted for when designing a nutritious diet. This included the sufficiency of energy and protein; the adequacy of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin D; and the lack of the long-chain n-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in most plant-based sources. 

Veganism is a life choice that more people seem to be making. Still, despite its increase in popularity, when most think of a vegan, they tend to think of an animal rights activist, or someone who is a bit of a hippie at heart. And most likely, said vegan is slightly underfed owing to a strict diet of tofu, lentils and salad.

But despite the stereotype, over the last few years, more and more sports stars and well-known athletes have also made the decision to go green and follow a vegan diet. And with reports that two vegan seafaring brothers are preparing to cross the Atlantic, fuelled purely by a diet rich in lentils, soya beans and vegetables, it seems being vegan and wearing a woolly cardigan no longer go hand-in-hand.

If successful, the British brothers who plan to live off a diet of freeze-dried meals on their 3,000-mile vegan voyage will become the first to row the crossing on a plant-based diet. But while veganism is now somewhat in vogue, concerns have been raised that a diet which restricts meat, fish, and dairy can’t possibly be good for your health.

Plant power

Vegan diets can make getting sufficient calories difficult – particularly if energy expenditure (the amount of calories we burn) is high. And for athletes who undertake lots of training this could be a problem. This is why  I set out to find out if a vegan diet really can provide an athlete with everything they need to perform at an optimum level. And my findings certainly provided food for thought.

Previous research shows that vegans may end up consuming less protein and fat than non-vegans, and may struggle to get enough vitamin B12 – which is found in meat, fish and dairy. B12 is an important vitamin, and a lack of it can lead to anaemia, weakness and mood changes.

The question of protein

Protein is necessary for healthy skin and muscles, and is important for athletes in terms of recovery from exercise. But getting enough protein on a vegan diet is less of a concern than you’d think, especially if enough calories are consumed. While it has been suggested that vegetarians and vegans might need slightly more protein than omnivores – due to plant-based sources being harder to digest – the main concern for the rowing brothers will be ensuring they eat a range of protein-rich foods daily.

Organic compounds called amino acids are the building blocks of protein – found in all protein foods like meat and pulses – though many plant-based protein sources tend not to contain all the essential amino acids. But a vegan diet can obtain all essential amino acids, in sufficient quantities, if the diet is varied and energy appropriate. Pulses – such as beans, lentils, peas – and grains – like rice, oats, wheat – are all protein rich, with complementary amino acid profiles. And eating a range of these foods throughout the day will ensure protein and amino acid needs are met comfortably.

With energy and protein covered, the next main concern of a vegan diet is getting enough micronutrients – so checking off the vitamins and minerals.Touched upon in one of my previous blogs. While vitamin B12 can be supplemented with a daily tablet or injection, other nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc and iodine can be easily managed with careful meal planning. Foods like flax seeds and walnuts are also important essentials of a vegan diet as they are a good source of omega-3, along with algae supplements, which may help to control inflammation and improve recovery. Clearly then being vegan and an athlete can go hand in hand, but it does take careful planning.

My Take Home Message : 

There are several benefits of following a vegan diet, in terms of antioxidant content, faster recovery after exercise, and the potential for a reduced risk of chronic disease. But, there are some special considerations that must be made for athletes because of the potential for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Therefore, if you are an athlete considering a vegan diet, be sure to give special care to hit all the important vitamins and minerals. It's definitely doable! Good luck!

Vegetarian Diets: Definitions

Type Description
Flexitarian Occasionally consumes animal flesh (meat, poultry) and fish, eggs, dairy
Pesco-vegetarian Excludes animal flesh but does include fish
Lacto-ovo vegetarian Excludes all flesh; includes diary and eggs only
Lacto vegetarian Excludes all flesh and eggs; includes dairy only
Ovo vegetarian Excludes all flesh and dairy; includes eggs only
Vegan Excludes all animal products
Macrobiotic vegetarian Variable dietary restrictions; includes wild meat/game and fish in some variations of the diet
Fruitarian Includes fruit, nuts, seeds and a some vegetables