Updated: Mar 17
In recent years, vegetarian and vegan eating has grown exponentially in popularity, from meatless Mondays to Veganuary. Because of this, plant based diets for athletes has also become a popular search. The search term “plant based diets for athletes” gained traction as household names including Alex Morgan (football/soccer), Lewis Hamilton (F1), Venus Williams (tennis), Nate & Nick Diaz (UFC), who are all vegan, revealed that they made the switch.
First thing’s first, what’s a plant-based diet? It may refer to an eating pattern that is solely composed of plant-based foods (vegan) including grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. On the other hand, it could also refer to a diet that’s predominantly made up of plant-based foods while still including small amounts animal-based products such as meat (flexitarian), fish (pescatarian), eggs (ovo-vegetarian) and dairy products (lacto-vegetarian).
While we may have different reasons for eating more plant-based foods, such as for health, the environment, costs associated with meat etc, one thing that individuals may start to have in common are nutritional deficiencies, if their plant-based diet is poorly planned.
Here are some nutrients to look out for in plant based diets for athletes:
Protein (muscle growth and repair)
Since animal protein, especially boiled chicken breast, has long been associated with muscle growth, there’s a common misconception that plant based diets for athletes would hinder muscle hypertrophy (growth). But this is far from the truth!
Try to consume a variety of plant-based proteins since they often lack one or two essential amino acids, compared to animal-based proteins, which contain all essential amino acids (necessary for muscle protein synthesis).
A well planned plant-based diet may include proteins like legumes, beans, tofu, nuts & seeds to help you achieve your daily requirements!
Omega 3 (lowers risk of heart disease and may help reduce inflammation)
This may be a nutrient of concern if you're following a strict vegan diet. Oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel are excellent sources of omega-3s, but don’t fret if you’re not a fan of fish. Chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts are all vegan-appropriate sources!
After a hard training session, omega 3's can also help to reduce inflammation and speed up recovery!
Vitamin D (helps with bone health)
You may have heard that the body can make vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight, but in the winter, where sunlight is scarce in some areas, vitamin D supplementation may be necessary. This is also because there are few foods that contain vitamin D, and you’d have to eat a lot of it to reach your daily requirements.
Vitamin B12 (forms red blood cells which is necessary to carry oxygen around our bodies when we exercise)
Plant based diets for athletes may lack vitamin B12 since this is most commonly found in meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Fortified breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast are good sources of B12 but supplementation may be necessary.
Calcium (Strengthens bones, reduces the risk for fractures and low bone density)
A vegan diet may be deficient in calcium since this mineral is found predominantly in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. However, calcium can also be found in dark green leafy vegetables and plant-based beverages like almond, oat, and rice beverages, when fortified. The drawback of these milk alternative drinks is their lack of protein, in spite of their respectable calcium content. This could be the difference between achieving daily protein requirements or not. Fortified soy milk could be a part of plant based diets for athletes to meet calcium and protein requirements.
Iron (Carries oxygen to cells to allow for regular muscle function)
Individuals following a vegetarian diet are at greater risk for iron deficiency than those following a carnivorous diet. Iron is found in dark green vegetables, legumes, and fortified grains like pasta, but the body cannot absorb it in the same way as red meat. Pair these plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C rich foods to enhance absorption!
Bottom line, when following a vegetarian or vegan diet, try to include a variety of foods- not only will this make your meals more exciting but it’ll also give you a wider range of nutrients! Plant based diets for athletes can certainly be suitable if well planned, so don’t hesitate to reach out if this is something you’re interested in!