There’s many reasons for taking on a vegan, vegetarian or plant based diet - whether that’s an ethical choice, environmental consciousness or for health reasons.
But when you completely eliminate whole food groups, like you might on a plant-based or vegan diet, there's the potential risk of exposing yourself to nutrient deficiencies - if poorly managed.
So when it comes to sports nutrition, a vegan, vegetarian or plant based diet brings a set of unique considerations to achieving nutritional adequacy and optimal performance.
Low in Calories - both density & availability
Food choices associated with a vegan diet is typically representative of nutrient dense, high plant fibre, low Calorie per bite foods. On average vegans and vegetarians consume less Calories than omnivores, which likely explains why vegan/vegetarian diets outperform omnivorous diets for weight loss.
For athletes with high energy requirements or trying to gain weight or muscle mass, this makes a lot of Calories sometimes a bit tricky. On top of that, chronic underconsumption of energy can pose significant health and performance implications.
When it comes to monitoring and coaching athletes on a plant-based diet, incorporating Calorie dense highly delicious, sweet, salty and creamy foods can be a vital tool in meeting their Calorie intake. Sometimes there’s an instinct - particularly around athletes - to focus on ‘healthy’ whole foods. So providing additional food choices and guidance around what food to eat can make the overall experience more enjoyable, achievable and of course, successful.
Managing fibre - too much of a good thing
Consuming a high amount of food has another challenge on a plant-based diet. Fibre consumption.
Plant-foods are typically high in fibre. For an average person, fibre is excellent for our digestive health and regular bowel movements. It also can improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of diseases, including bowel cancer.
For weight-cutting athletes, like powerlifters, boxers, and bodybuilders, fibre can play an important role in maintaining fullness during weight loss phases.
However, excessive consumption of fibre can have negative effects on performance if the volume of fibre causes gut discomfort and distention close to training windows. Additionally, while normal levels of fibre can aid with hormonal balance, very high levels of fibre can have the reverse effect and interfere with hormones such as testosterone or estrogen.
Again, it comes to selecting the right food choices at the right times.
It’s all about maintaining that balancing act when selecting foods that will help an athlete achieve their best without taking it too far in the wrong direction.
In this case, we want to achieve the most appropriate Calorie intake, without blowing out their fibre consumption and creating an unintentional negative effect on performance and health.
Protein - management & strategies
An athlete’s ideal protein intakes range between 1.4 - 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
But research has shown that vegan athletes require more protein than their non-vegan counterparts in order to have the same anabolic effect. On a gram for gram basis, plant proteins aren't as effective as animal proteins from a muscle growth and retention perspective.
This is because plant proteins may be “incomplete” and lacking (or have low levels of) certain amino acids. In particular, plant foods are lower in leucine - a vital amino acid in muscle synthesis. Additional management can be implemented to help offset this. For example, picking better protein choices - such as soy foods - utilising protein pairing or diverse protein consumption, and implementing protein or amino acid supplementation.
That said, this does not mean that plant based, vegan or vegetarian athletes can’t be competitive and gain significant amounts of lean mass.
But depending on an athlete's sources of protein they may need to increase their daily protein intake by 10-20% above the recommendations for non-vegan athletes. This also helps compensate for the lower digestibility and less optimal amino acid profile of plant proteins.
Vitamins, minerals & micronutrients
Eliminating animal products and meat from your diet can also expose vegan athletes to nutritional deficiencies if not properly regimented and managed. Achieving adequate intakes of micronutrients is vital to promote the best human functions and sports performance. Meeting your daily vitamin and minerals can be achieved with a plant based and vegan diet, it might just require extra focus, and sometimes supplements.
In particular, the following nutrients need to be carefully monitored and/or supplemented to achieve adequate levels in plant based athletes.
For a more detailed look into managing micronutrients for vegan and vegetarian athletes - please see our blog post Micronutrient for vegans and plant based athletes