Key Considerations for the Vegan Athlete
Veganism is becoming more visible and accepted in sports performance. Several high-profile athletes have adopted a vegan diet, such as heavyweight champion boxer, David Haye. Data indicates that vegans consume less energy than omnivores and that these diets generally appear to be lower in protein, fat, vitamin B12, Riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc. Vegan diets can also lead to high fibre consumption and therefore tend to have low energy density and promote early satiety. This article aims to provide some tips on how a vegan athlete may promote their diet for sports performance.
Consume energy dense foods
Where a high Calorie diet is needed due to increased training loads, increasing feeding frequency and consumption of energy dense foods such as all nuts, seeds and oils (olive, flax and coconut etc) will help to ensure that calorie goals are met. With this, it is suggested that an athlete should monitor and adjust a diet on the basis of unwanted body mass fluctuations. This will allow a diet to be tailored to an individuals’ energy and nutrient requirements.
Consume some lower-fibre foods
Athletic diets generally require carbohydrate intakes of 4 to 12 g per kg of body mass per day to support high training volumes. A high-fibre diet may promote gastric distress in some cases, depending on gender and the type/duration of exercise. Achieving adequate carbohydrate intake with a vegan diet is relatively straightforward by consuming grains, legumes, beans, root vegetables and fruits. However, for athletes involved in high-volume training phases, it might be appropriate to choose some lower-fibre carbohydrate based foods, providing other micronutrients (i.e B vitamins) are provided! Foods such as rice, pasta, noodles and buckwheat contain less fibre than oats, lentils, beans and wholegrain breads. Lower fibre, high GI carbohydrates may want to be consumed at least 90 minutes pre and within 30 minutes post training to promote energy and recovery.
Protein rich foods are key
Recommendations for protein intake typically range between 1.2 – 2 g per kg of body mass per day. This can be over 2 g/kg when reducing carbohydrate intake. The aim here is to support the maintenance of muscle mass and fuel adaptation and recovery. Plant-based protein sources are often incomplete, missing important essential amino acids, and may contain less BCAAs than their animal-based equivalents. Aim to consume 20 – 30g of protein every 3-4 hours (or 0.3 g/kg). It is recommended that vegans consume beans, pulses, lentils and grains daily. Foods such as beans and legumes are rich sources of lysine however, and leucine can be obtained from soy beans and lentils. Other BCAAs can be found in seeds, tree nuts and chickpeas. Vegan protein supplements also provide convenient protein solutions, best used on-the-go to maintain protein intake between meals. Popular solutions include pea, soy and rice proteins that are often blended together.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Vegan diets are typically lower in total and saturated fat and higher in omega-6 fats than omnivorous and vegetarian diets. Due to an absence of fish sourced fats, vegans naturally consume fewer omega 3 fatty acids. This might have important health and performance implications. The omega 3 fatty acids are important for normal growth and development, and play an important role in cardiovascular health, inflammatory and chronic disease. Flax seeds, soybean, walnuts and chia seeds are a key food for vegan athletes and are sources of omega 3 and should be consumed daily.
Research indicates that vegan diets may reduce muscle creatine stores8. Meat, fish and poultry are common sources of creatine but are excluded from a vegan diet. The performance-enhancing effects of creatine have been well studied, and it appears that supplementation can improve short-term high-intensity exercise performance, muscle hypertrophy and strength. Creatine supplementation might therefore be an important ergogenic aid for vegan athletes to consider, and may compensate for reduced muscle creatine stores. Dosing creatine effectively requires the achievement of muscle creatine saturation. Common dosing strategies include taking 20 g per day for 7 days to load, followed by maintenance doses of 3–5 g per day. For vegan athletes who decide to supplement, powder forms of synthetic creatine are vegan-friendly (but always check!).
Veganism is a commitment whether you are competing in sport or not. As a Performance Nutritionist, I am often asked “will I be fitter and faster if I follow a vegan diet?” I can’t answer that question. Whatever the reason or answer is, there are clearly guidelines that need to be met in order to promote high energy availability, recovery and general health and wellbeing. Periodisation is key and knowing which carbohydrate to consume, when. Consuming lower fibre carbohydrates around training and competition can prevent unwanted gastrointestinal issues, but with this diet (just like any) trial and error must be practiced to see what works for your body. A clear challenge for the vegan athlete is protein intake with what appears to be less choice for the vegan athlete compared to an omnivore. Beans, lentils and pulses (to name a few) are key components of a vegan diet, but supplementation may be key during times when high protein intake is required. If you would like to read ore around the subject, I recommend looking at the Rogerson (2017) paper - Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers.
Rogerson, D. (2017). Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 36.
Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(3), 543-568.
Rehrer, N. J., van Kemenade, M., Meester, W., Brouns, F., & Saris, W. H. (1992). Gastrointestinal complaints in relation to dietary intake in triathletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 2(1), 48-59.
Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(1), 17-27.
Areta, J. L., Burke, L. M., Ross, M. L., Camera, D. M., West, D. W., Broad, E. M., & Hawley, J. A. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 591(9), 2319-2331.
Lane, K., Derbyshire, E., Li, W., & Brennan, C. (2014). Bioavailability and potential uses of vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids: a review of the literature. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 54(5), 572-579.
Calder, P. C. (2015). Marine omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: effects, mechanisms and clinical relevance. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Molecular and Cell Biology of Lipids, 1851(4), 469-484.
Burke, D., Chilibeck, P., Parise, G., Candow, D., Mahoney, D., & Tarnopolsky, M. (2003). Effect of creatine and weight training on muscle creatine and performance in vegetarians. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(11), 1946-1955.
Kreider, R. B., Ferreira, M., Wilson, M., Grindstaff, P., Plisk, S., Reinardy, J., & Almada, A. L. (1998). Effects of creatine supplementation on body composition, strength, and sprint performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 30, 73-82.
Clark, J. F. (1997). Creatine and phosphocreatine: a review of their use in exercise and sport. Journal of Athletic Training, 32(1), 45.
The original article can be found here for Sport Examined