February 26, 2020

What to eat when you're a vegetarian or vegan athlete

A person in a kitchen holding lettuce and tomato

Madison, Wis. — Reading through any number of headlines lately, it seems like the vegetarian lifestyle may be the way to go for our long-term health. But, for athletes whose sports put a lot of demand on their bodies, is a vegetarian diet enough to keep them fueled up and performing at their peak?

Melissa Ball, doctor of physical therapy and resident vegan athlete at UW Health Sports Rehabilitation, helps dispel some of the myths around vegan/vegetarian diets and offers tips to help ensure vegetarian and vegan athletes are getting the nutrients they need.

Myth: Vegan athletes need to eat more protein.

Protein is likely the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about vegetarian or vegan diets. Athletes’ protein needs are actually based on their body mass, their type of activity/sporting demands (i.e. do they compete in more endurance events, sprinting events, etc.), their overall caloric intake, and their fitness goals (e.g. trying to lose weight, gain lean muscle mass, etc.).

On average, most athletes require 1.0-1.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. This is the same for both vegan/vegetarian athletes and meat-eaters alike; vegan athletes do not inherently NEED more protein. Some guidelines suggest that people on a vegan diet consume more protein, because plant proteins have a slightly lower digestibility than animal proteins; however this difference in digestibility is small, and for athletes, a maximum protein intake of about 1.8 grams per kg of body weight is still recommended, whether they be vegan or meat-eater.

What vegan athletes DO need is to be aware of their specific protein needs, and to be aware of good plant-based sources of proteins (see below). They may need to eat more of these particular plant products if they are no longer consuming protein through meat or animal products.

Myth: Vegan athletes can’t get enough protein to fuel their athletic endeavors from plant-based diets.

It is a common misconception that protein cannot be sufficiently obtained from plant foods. Plants are abundant in protein, and with a little planning and understanding, it is easy for vegans and meat-eaters alike to get the protein they need through their normal diet. Common sources of plant-based proteins include soy products (tofu, edamame, soymilk, etc.), lentils, chickpeas, beans, quinoa, chia seeds, flax seeds, nuts, peanut butter, peas (including snap peas, snow peas, split peas, or black-eyed peas), mushrooms, green leafy vegetables, and various grains.

One of the key things to remember about protein is the difference between complete and incomplete proteins. Proteins are built of chains of amino acids that are critical to our health and physiology; humans can synthesize some amino acids, but there are nine amino acids that we cannot make ourselves. These are called essential amino acids, and we must get them from food. Sources of protein that contain all nine essential amino acids are called complete proteins, and ones that do not are called incomplete proteins. It is critical for all people to ensure they are getting all essential amino acids in their diet, either by consuming complete sources of protein OR multiple, complementing sources of incomplete protein. Below is a list of plant-based sources of complete protein and good combinations of incomplete proteins to help provide vegan athletes all the essential amino acids their bodies need:

  • Complete protein: soy/soybeans, quinoa, hemp seeds

  • Incomplete protein combinations: nuts and seeds with whole grain, grains and beans, beans and nuts or seeds

It important to understand that, as long as you eat a variety of incomplete proteins in a day, you are getting all of the essential amino acids your body requires. These also do not have to be eaten at the same time (i.e. within the same meal), but can be consumed throughout the day.

In addition to protein, it is important to understand the role of other macronutrients in your diet and how they contribute to athletic performance and recovery. While protein is the first thing we think of when we worry about a vegan athlete’s nutrition, protein is more important for growth and tissue repair, and is therefore important to an athlete’s recovery process, but actually does not do as much to fuel athletic activity. Carbohydrates are actually the body’s main source of fuel during exercise and athletic events, used in the form of glycogen that is stored in our muscles. Athletes need anywhere from 3-12 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight, and carbohydrates intake should account for approximately 45-65% of an athlete’s total caloric intake for the day, while protein should only account for 10-35%. While it is critical to get both carbohydrates and protein in your diet, it is equally important to understand the purpose of each nutrient to help determine how much you should consume, whether you are a vegan or a meat-eating athlete.

Myth: Vegans need to take a multivitamin or supplements to make sure they are getting enough iron and other nutrients.

It is very common to hear that vegan/vegetarian athletes should take a multivitamin to ensure they are getting enough of certain nutrients, mainly iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and vitamin B12. The fear is that these athletes will be deficient is these nutrients because they can’t get enough from plant-based foods, but that is a common fallacy. Almost all of these nutrients – with the exception of vitamins D and B12 – can be readily found in many different plant products.

It is highly recommended by the American Dietetics Association and the American College of Sports Medicine that all athletes try to get the nutrients they need in their diet from whole foods first, before resulting to supplements. Whole foods are generally safer to consume, and nutrients are more readily absorbed by the body from whole foods than from powders or pills. Now, if a vegan or vegetarian athlete has any additional dietary restrictions (such as a nut or soy allergy, or they just REALLY don’t like eating beans) that restricts them from getting enough iron, zinc, etc. in their normal diet, then they might need to consider taking a supplement, but the first goal should be to obtain these nutrients through whole foods. Below are lists of several great plant-based sources of all of the above nutrients:

  • Iron: lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal

  • Zinc: beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread, quinoa, and green leafy vegetables

  • Calcium: kale, pak choi, okra, spring greens, dried figs, chia seeds, and almonds; many milk and yogurt alternatives and certain types of tofu are also calcium-fortified

  • Vitamin D: mushrooms; most soy and almond milks are also fortified with vitamin D, as is cows milk (be sure to check the labels and nutrition facts to see how much is added); our bodies can also synthesize vitamin D from appropriate levels of sun exposure, so getting outdoors can be a great way to supplement this in your diet. Just 15 minutes of sun on the face and arms provides the amount of vitamin D a person needs in a day!

  • Vitamin B12: vitamin B12 is the one nutrient that cannot be obtained sufficiently from a solely plant-based diet, as it is not made by either plants or animals naturally. B12 is synthesized by bacteria that is often found in dirt. Because we as humans rarely eat any unwashed foods, we don’t consume this vitamin directly from its source. We can get some B12 indirectly from animal products, because the animals are more likely to consume dirt when they graze and eat, and we can then absorb this B12 when we eat meat; however, we are developing cleaner feeding practices for these animals as well, and even many of them are not getting enough B12 in their diets, which means that even animal products are often not high enough in B12. It is therefore recommended that both vegans and meat-eaters take a B12 supplement to ensure proper nutrition.

For more good resources on plant-based sources of various nutrients and information for thriving on a vegan diet, check out The Vegan Society’s website.

Other Tips for Switching to or Continuing Your Vegan/Vegetarian Diet

  • Make small, sustainable changes first: if you currently eat meat almost every day, and are considering trying a plant-based diet, it is not recommended you try to quit eating animal products cold turkey. This is a big change in habit and diet and is often not sustainable.

    Melissa recommends starting by just limiting your meat intake, maybe to 1 or 2 days a week, or by only eating meat when you go out to eat, and not cooking it at home, whatever works best for you! From there, consider weaning off of meat entirely and going vegetarian for a few months, and then trying to wean to a solely plant-based diet after that.

  • Look up cook books or recipe apps to help you plan your meals and learn about food: vegan or vegetarian cooking can seem very challenging or impossible at first, especially if you are used to cooking a certain way and are not familiar with how to cook certain plant products or use certain spices.

    Cookbooks and recipe apps can help you feel a little more creative with your menu and meal planning, and can help you learn a lot more about food in the process! There are lots of different cooking resources out there, but Melissa highly recommends the Forks Over Knives program – an online program that includes a recipe app with hundreds of vegan recipes, as well as an optional meal-planning service and cooking classes – and The Frugal Vegan by Katie Koteen and Kate Kasbee – an excellent cookbook with simple, delicious, and easily affordable vegan recipes.