A vegan diet offers a multitude of health benefits: improved immune function and cardiovascular health and reduced risks for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, and obesity. But how does a vegan diet impact athletic performance?
Studies have found that athletes with restricted food choices are more likely to exhibit insufficient intakes of macronutrients and micronutrients. But other research has shown that vegan endurance runners report the healthiest food choices.
Despite the increased risk of nutritional deficiencies, a well-planned vegan diet can provide adequate nutrition for athletes, as evidenced by the success of vegan tennis champion Venus Williams and ultramarathoner Scott Jurek. Here are nutrients to be conscientious about when crafting your well-planned vegan diet.
Balancing Macronutrients on a Vegan Diet
The three macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) are well known to most athletes, as is the importance of constructing a diet that appropriately balances the three. Typically, nutritionists recommend that 45 to 65 percent of an athlete’s caloric intake consists of carbs, 20 to 35 percent of fats, and 10 to 35 percent of protein, regardless of their dietetic choices. Achieving the recommended amounts of protein, however, can be difficult for vegans, and there is much more to consider than
The quality and variety of plant-based protein sources is vital for vegan athletes because plant proteins are often incomplete, meaning they do not provide all nine of the essential amino acids. The most common vegan protein sources usually lack lysine, methionine, isoleucine, threonine, or tryptophan. Lysine can be found in beans and legumes, isoleucine in soybeans and lentils, and the rest can be obtained from chickpeas and various seeds and tree nuts.
Variety is key, but complete vegan proteins do exist. Quinoa, hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat, and spirulina all contain the nine essential amino acids and serve as excellent protein sources.
Nutrients from the Sea, Vegans & Omega 3
Fat is another macronutrient that can prove difficult for vegans, who typically consume less total and saturated fats and more omega-6 fatty acids than their omnivorous counterparts. Again, quality must be considered alongside quantity, particularly in the case of omega-3 fatty acids, of which there are three main types: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Omega 3s are integral for cardiovascular health and might also increase the production of nitric oxide, an important signaling molecule in the body that relaxes blood vessels and increases blood flow. Vegans typically consume less of these essential fats because they do not eat fish or shellfish, but oils from microalgae provide DHA, and some also include EPA. ALA can be obtained from several plant sources, including flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Supplementing Vitamin B on a Vegan Diet
Supplemental vitamin B12 is typically made from animal products. Because this vitamin is integral for nervous system function, deficiencies can lead to morphological changes in blood cells, anemia, and, in long-term cases, neurological damage. Vegan sources of B12 can be difficult to come by. Nutritional yeast offers a supply, but the most reliable sources are supplements and breakfast cereals, plant milks, energy bars, and other foods that have been fortified with the vitamin.
Vegan Iron Supplements & Bioavailability
Iron is found in every cell of the body and is needed to make hemoglobin, a key component of blood cells. Unsurprisingly, an iron deficiency can result in anemia, fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath. Even in mild cases, insufficient iron supplies will reduce endurance capacity, increase energy expenditure, and impair adaptation to endurance exercise.
The vegan athlete runs into trouble with iron, not because of a lack of sources, but because those sources contain the mineral in forms that are less bioavailable than those found in animal products. Iron from plant sources is typically of the non-heme variety, which is far less bioavailable than the heme iron in animal products. It’s vital for vegan athletes—especially women—to consume whole-food sources of iron such as legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and green vegetables. Combining these foods with fruits is ideal, as vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron. Broccoli, potatoes, and chard contain both iron and vitamin C, making them efficient choices for vegan athletes.
Supplementation has been shown to correct deficiencies in iron and is a common practice among female athletes of all dietary habits. Be aware that coffee, tea, and cocoa may inhibit the absorption of iron.
The Well-Planned Vegan Diet
Essentially, a vegan diet is great for athletes of all types. As long as you’re careful to eat lots of varied protein sources and mounds of vegetables, and to take nutritional supplements where necessary, a vegan diet can carry you far and help you feel great. Be aware of how you’re fueling your body and make sure your vegan diet is well planned!
“Defending vegan diets—RDs aim to clear up common misconceptions about vegan diets” by D. Webb, Today’s Dietitian, 9/10
“Fueling the vegetarian (vegan) athlete” by J. Fuhrman and D.M. Ferreri, Current Sports Medicine Reports, 7/1/10
“Health status of female and male vegetarian and vegan endurance runners compared to omnivores...” by K. Wirnitzer et al., 12/22/18; “Micronutrient status of recreational runners with vegetarian or non-vegetarian dietary patterns” by J. Nebl et al., 6/22/19, Nutrients
“Iron in diet” by E. Wax, MedlinePlus.gov, 1/7/17
“Omega-3 fatty acids: Fact sheet for health professionals” National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, www.ods.od.nih.gov, 6/11/19
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“12 vegan sources of vitamin B12” by J. Snow, www.VeryVeganRecipes.com, 2019