The number of professional athletes adopting a vegan athlete diet to boost their performance and maintain their nutrition the natural way has truly grown in recent years.
From plant-based tennis stars like Venus, Serena and Martina Navratilova to Olympic runners like Carl Lewis, plant-based diets are proving the evidence over and over that you don’t need to consume animal products to be a force in the sports field!
Vegan athletes build their nutrition around healthy plant sources and exclude all forms of animal products including meat, eggs, and dairy.
A plant-rich diet gives them everything they need to perform at optimal levels, meet their high energy demands, get the nutrients they need, and may even give potential benefits than the standard diets for athletes.
Keen to build your own vegan athlete diet? Let’s take a look at everything you need to incorporate in order to perform at your peak!
Carbohydrates are readily available as energy for your muscles, and important in any vegan athlete’s nutrition.
Due to its immediate availability, out of the three macronutrients (carbs, proteins & fat), carbs are the fastest converting into energy, thus your body’s first choice for energy needs .
It also reduces your body from using protein as a source of energy, allowing protein to do what it does best—grow & repair muscles & tissues.
As a rule, it is recommended to consume at least 60% of your total calories from carbohydrate-rich foods. Luckily for vegan athletes, this is quite easy, because after all, plants convert energy from sunlight into sugars and more complex carbohydrates, making them an excellent source of fuel and vegan sports nutrition.
Healthy High Carbohydrate Sources for Vegan Athlete Diet
- Wholegrains: amaranth, pearled barley, millet, teff, spelt, kamut, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, and quinoa
- Pinto beans, adzuki beans, navy beans, pink beans, black turtle beans, white beans and kidney beans
- Lentils, split peas, and chickpeas
- Sweet potatoes, sweet corn, and parsnips
- Bananas, pomegranate, pears, mango, grapes, and apples
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dates, and raisins
People leading an active lifestyle require more protein than a sedentary person, and once again, nature has supplied vegan sources for that in abundance.
Apart from building and maintaining muscles, protein is also responsible for your bones, skin, and tissue growth. Insufficient protein intake can in some people cause sugars to enter the bloodstream faster, causing spikes and crashes, interfering with the correct functioning of insulin.
This is why whole plant foods are so important, as they contain natural proteins along with the carbohydrates they offer letting sugars enter the bloodstream at a stable rate. This not only keeps your energy levels up and blood sugar stable, but also keeps hunger at bay.
The general rule of thumb for working out your daily protein requirement is 1g of protein per kilogram or 0.45g per pound of body weight for non-athletes. However, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegan athlete diets would require slightly more, between 1.2 to 2g per kilogram or 0.54 to 0.91g per pound of body weight .
Vegan sources of protein are abundant, and you shouldn’t have any trouble at all incorporating them into your daily vegan athlete diet. Check below some quality vegan sport protein sources!
Protein-Rich Food Sources
- Legumes, beans (green, kidney, black-eyed, garbanzo, soy*, adzuki)
- Chickpeas, lentils
- Soy foods* (tempeh, tofu, soya mince, soy milk)
- Hemp seeds
- Peanut butter
- Hemp flour
- Bean flour
- Vegan protein powder
- Fortified food
While eliminating fat from the diet entirely is not the goal (not even really possible, as whole plant foods contain natural fats) it is advised to limit intake of saturated and particularly trans fats for peak vegan athletic performance.
Those who expend a lot of energy through endurance exercise may require extra fat in their vegan athlete diet as an additional fuel source. Fats are also important for proper absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant and can help speed up recovery after tough physical exertion.
Like natural plant proteins, fat assists in slowing the rate at which the carbohydrates entering the bloodstream, helping to provide a steady and sustained supply of energy. Adding any form of fat to meals increases their caloric density or the amount of energy which is provided per mouthful.
Still, it is recommended that even athletes, keeping their daily intake of calories from fat at less than 35% of the total calories consumed. You really don’t want those excess calories to be converted into fat the body has no use of.
Certain cold pressed oils can be particularly helpful for athletes who use a substantial amount of calories each day. Oils like hemp and flax oil are preferred, as they are an abundant source of omega-3 fatty acids which contribute to fighting inflammation. As such, these oils are useful in speeding recovery and repairing the tissue damage associated with strenuous daily training.
Quality Fat Sources
- Flaxseed (grind it for optimum absorption)
- Chia seeds (soak for optimum absorption)
- Flax seed oil
- Hemp oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Extra virgin olive oil (use in moderation)
Calcium & Vitamin D
One of the many benefits of being an athlete is the ability to maintain healthy bones, but a vegan athlete diet should include an adequate dietary intake of calcium to maintain skeletal health.
Calcium is also useful in releasing hormones and other chemicals, contracting and relaxing muscles, regulated heartbeat, and nerve signaling function.
In addition, sufficient levels of vitamin D are required for better absorption of calcium, muscle function, cardiovascular function, and respiratory system function.
Do note that during muscle contractions calcium is used by the body and in the case of any athlete, vegan or not, heavy exercise may force the body to draw on its calcium reserves within bones. Calcium can also be lost through heavy sweating.
Therefore, if there is insufficient calcium coming in from food and develops into a severe case, there could be a possibility of stress fractures which is quite a setback for any vegan athlete.
In contrast, a vegan athlete diet which includes good sources of dietary calcium & vitamin D, will be rewarded with performance, healthy bones, supple and limber muscles for good overall vegan sports nutrition!
Calcium Rich Foods
- Dark green leafy vegetables: spring greens, rocket/ arugula, kale, watercress, broccoli raab (rabe/ rapini)
- Sesame seeds: sesame seeds are very high in calcium with 1 cup (144g) yielding 1,404mg of calcium. In contrast, 1 cup (250 ml) of cow’s milk contains 300mg of calcium. To maximize the absorption of calcium from sesame seeds, grind it.
- Chia seeds (soak for optimum absorption), sunflower seeds
- Plant milk
- Fortified food
- Almonds, and walnuts
- White beans, black-eyed peas
- Dried figs
- Almond butter
Note: Some foods, such as spinach, contain calcium which is actually bound to a substance called oxalate, meaning that we experience difficulty in absorbing all of the calcium they contain. They are still a good source, but it is useful to remember not to rely solely on those for your calcium needs.
Vitamin D Sources
- Sunlight: It takes 5 to 30 minutes of sun twice per week for our bodies to make enough vitamin D (exposure time depending on your skin color & exposed area. Lighter the skin and more exposed area of the body, the lesser time it takes to produce vitamin D). Be careful not to get sunburned. Finding the right balance of sun exposure is key.
- Mushrooms which have been pre-exposed to sunlight
- Vitamin D fortified plant milk
- Other fortified food
- Vegan supplements.
- Garden of Life Raw Organic Meal Replacement (one serving of which provides 50% of your daily Vitamin D, USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO and Gluten Free)
Iron is vital for the production of red blood cells, and fighting fatigue. Vegan or not, athletes have historically battled to maintain the iron levels necessary for optimal performance, thus it is a vital nutrient in your vegan athlete diet.
Like calcium and sodium, iron is also lost through sweat, making training in warm weather more likely to deplete iron reserves.
Your iron levels take a considerable amount of time to become depleted and rebuilding your stores takes equal time. Another factor for athletes to consider is the crushing of red blood cells through muscle contractions, known as hemolysis. The more active you are, the more attention you need to pay to your iron intake.
Iron is best absorbed when taken along with a food rich in vitamin C, as it aids in absorption into the bloodstream. For extreme athletes, for example, those running more than 50 miles (80km), as well as athletes who train in warm climates and sweat all year round, it is recommended to take a good vegan iron supplement.
Iron-Rich Food Sources
- Vegan dark chocolate
- Cocoa powder
- White beans
- Soybeans (buy Non-GMO)
- Cooked swiss chard
- Cooked turnip greens
- Lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas
- Squash & pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and flax seeds
- Cashews, pine nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, and macadamia
- Edible seaweeds
While for most people an excess of sodium is more likely than a deficiency due to its use in many food recipes, athletes who sweat excessively may be at risk. Depletion of sodium reserves in an athlete will frequently result in muscle cramping and stiffness, and difficulty in recovering.
Like many nutrients, the rate at which sodium is depleted rises along with the frequency and intensity of physical activity.
If an athlete is experiencing muscle cramping due to sodium deficiency, they will find that adding sea salt to their meals should eliminate the problem and bring the suppleness back to their muscles.
A highly active person who is losing sodium through physical activity should not experience a rise in blood pressure by having reasonable levels of salt in their diet.
Recommended Sodium Dietary Intake
During periods of heavy training, a vegan athlete should try to add sea salt to at least one meal or snack each day. If you are training for a marathon, you should try to add sea salt to each meal one week before such activity.
For highly active persons or professional athletes, it is recommended to have a blood test done twice a year to spot any potential deficiencies before they become problematic.
Being a vegan athlete, make sure you pay close attention to the increased nutrient demands of the body. Perhaps you have experienced difficulty before as a vegan athlete, and the above guidelines are a good starting point for getting it right on your next go!
Making sure you are armed with information, and remaining mindful about vegan sports nutrition, make succeeding as a top vegan athlete, a reality and there is no reason to give up!
As with sports/athletics and any physical activity, the rewards are highly worthy of your commitment!
- Garden of Life Sport Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder Review
- 100 Vegan Protein Sources
- Vegan Supplements
- Vegan Fortified Food
- Vegan Documentaries for Athletes & Bodybuilders
- Famous Vegans Classified by Profession (check vegan athletes under ‘sports & games’)
- Vegan Blood Tests for Your Health
- Vegan Bodybuilding Diet & Nutrition
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