How to Follow a Plant-Based Diet for Athletes
Authored by Trevor Hiltbrand
Numerous professional athletes — including basketball player John Salley, runner Scott Jurek, and Olympic athlete Venus Williams — report switching to a plant-based diet in recent years. But can a plant-based diet for athletes provide the macros you need to meet your fitness goals?
According to a growing number of anecdotes and research studies, the answer is yes.
In fact, many athletes credit their success on the field, court, or course to their change in eating habits. As plant-based and vegan diets have become increasingly popular, athletes point to a number of health benefits as a reason to switch their diet.
A recent systematic review in Translational Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed medical journal, contends that these benefits may include a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.
But while the American Dietetic Association claims that plant-based and vegan diets are "nutritionally adequate" for the average person, athletes need far more sustenance to fuel their workouts. For example, Scott Jurek recently told Bon Appetit magazine that he needs to consume at least 5,000 calories a day while training — which can be extremely difficult on a plant-based diet.
If you’re interested in following a plant-based diet as an athlete, keep reading. This article explains which nutrients are essential on a plant-based diet, and how to ensure you're getting enough fuel for your workouts.
Vegan, Vegetarian, and Plant-Based Diets for Athletes
Vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based are three terms that often get confused. So, let's clarify the similarities and differences among them:
Vegan vs. Vegetarian
While both vegetarians and vegans avoid meat, vegans eliminate all animal products — including dairy products, eggs, and honey. Essentially, anything that comes from an animal is a no-go on a vegan diet.
Vegetarian diets, on the other hand, still include some animal-based products, although there are some variations. For example, lacto-ovo vegetarians are the most common type, eating both milk and dairy products. Meanwhile, lacto vegetarians eat milk-based products but no egg products. Finally, ovo vegetarians consume eggs but not dairy.
Vegans and vegetarians often give up meat products for reasons related to health, environment, or animal rights. These motivators could spread to other life choices, including clothing (refusing to buy leather or fur) or transportation (opting for green-friendly choices, like public transit).
Vegan vs. Plant-Based
When someone subscribes to a plant-based diet, their meals are built almost entirely with plants. Sometimes, they will refer to their diet as "whole foods, plant-based" to show they eat minimally-processed, plant-based foods. For example, someone eating a whole-food, plant-based diet wouldn't eat processed vegan foods, such as vegan ice cream, vegan hot dogs, or vegan sausages.
But here's a common misconception about plant-based diets: Someone can call their diet plant-based and still eat products derived from animals. “Plant-based” is a somewhat loose term, primarily focusing on filling one’s plate with as many fruits and veggies as possible.
Benefits of Plant-Based Diets for Athletes
Athletes need adequate nutrition to support a high-level of performance. As many competitive and endurance athletes switch to a plant-based lifestyle, here are two health benefits that could positively affect their training:
1. Plant-Based Diets Could Boost Immune Function
According to a review published by Nutrition Reviews, intense athletic activity can lead to mildly suppressed immune function by decreasing natural killer cells and neutrophil function. This change in the immune system is believed to increase susceptibility to bacterial infections, which could compromise an athlete's training.
To train competitively, athletes need to avoid illness at all costs. Athletes who eat more plant foods — such as those following vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diets — tend to get sick less often. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, this is likely due to the immune-boosting properties of plant-based foods.
2. Plant-Based Diets Have High Levels of Antioxidants
A 2008 research review in Physiological Reviews suggests that a high level of physical performance puts athletes at risk for chronic oxidative stress. This leads to the formation of free radicals which can cause long-term damage to body tissues and increase the risk of disease.
Antioxidant-rich foods, such as most fruits and vegetables, help neutralize free radical formation and reduce oxidative stress. Therefore, eating a diet with plenty of micronutrient-dense plants will help attenuate some damage caused by intense physical exercise.
Nutritional Concerns for a Plant-Based Diet for Athletes
There is limited research on whether plant-based diets improve or hinder athletic performance.
However, most sports nutritionists and dietitians agree that you can train competitively on a plant-based diet. In fact, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition makes it evident that a vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet can provide adequate nutrition for athletes. You simply have to be very careful to consume a few key nutrients.
There are fewer omega-3 fatty acids, minerals, calcium, B vitamins, and essential amino acids in plants than in animal-based products. So, as you develop a plant-based meal plan, ensure you're getting enough of these nutrients.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to human health, meaning they must be consumed regularly. Omega-3s are also anti-inflammatory, which may be beneficial to athletes because inflammation can lead to exercise-related injuries.
But if you're following a plant-based diet, here's something you should know: Plants don't contain two essential types of omega-3 fats: EPA and DHA.
Plants do contain a third type of omega-3 fatty acid: ALA. However, ALA is a non-active omega-3 fatty acid that must be converted into EPA or DHA before it can be used in the body. This is an extremely ineffective conversion, with only 1% of ALA becoming EPA (and less than 0.05% DHA) on average, as reported by Reproduction Nutrition Development.
When following a plant-based diet, be sure to consume foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, including chia seeds, algae oil, avocados, flax seeds, and extra virgin olive oil. You can also supplement with omega-3 fatty acids.
Adequate iron intake is of critical importance for athletes.
Iron is used to transport oxygen to muscles in the form of hemoglobin. Without iron, your muscles would not be able to perform any type of athletic activity. Unfortunately, according to the World Journal of Gastroenterology, iron absorption is notoriously poor, particularly if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Here's why: There are two types of iron in food — heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal foods and is three times easier for your body to absorb than non-heme iron.
If you eat a plant-based diet, you need to make a conscious effort to eat foods high in iron, including black beans, lentils, fortified cereals, kale, spinach, and other leafy greens. Since vitamin C helps with iron absorption, try to consume foods high in vitamin C (like fruits and veggies) alongside iron-rich foods.
Zinc helps support immune function and gene expression.
Like iron, zinc absorption is extremely low, particularly when it comes from plant foods. According to the Journal of Nutrition, plant foods have a high phytate content, which binds to zinc in your digestive tract, thereby lowering absorption.
According to a 2009 study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, vegetarians have a higher prevalence of zinc deficiency than non-vegetarians. If you follow a meatless diet, make a conscious effort to incorporate high-zinc foods, such as whole grains, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, and oatmeal.
Iodine is an essential mineral for thyroid function.
Due to soil depletion, iodine is only found in trace amounts in plant foods. In fact, a 2003 clinical trial published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism reveals that upwards of 80% of vegans suffer from iodine deficiency.
If you avoid animal-based protein sources, actively choose foods that will add iodine to your diet. Look for soy products (like tempeh), iodized salt, whole grains, kelp and seaweed.
Calcium is essential for bone health and muscle function. In fact, over 99% of all calcium in the body is stored in bone tissue. When vegan and plant-based athletes don’t get enough calcium, it starts to leach out of bone to compensate, thereby increasing the risk of fractures and osteoporosis.
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the bioavailability of calcium from several plant- and animal-based foods is quite low. Certain compounds in plant foods, such as oxalic or phytic acids, can reduce your body's ability to absorb calcium.
If you are a vegan athlete, try to consume plant foods that provide bioavailable calcium, such as broccoli, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and soy.
6. Vitamin D
Vitamin D promotes bone health, calcium absorption, and muscle function.
Researchers from the New England Journal of Medicine believe up to 50% of the population is deficient in vitamin D. Since many foods high in vitamin D come from dairy products, veganism can increase your risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency.
If you’re an elite athlete suffering from a vitamin D deficiency, get outside! Sun exposure can increase levels of active vitamin D in the body. You can also consume vitamin D through fortified cereals and vitamin D supplements.
7. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is necessary for DNA synthesis and nervous system function. B vitamins also help give you energy — which is essential for every athlete.
Since vitamin B12 is found exclusively in animal foods, it's of particular concern for plant-based athletes. Chronic B12 deficiency can cause irreversible neurological damage or negatively impact your heart health.
Since B12 is not naturally found in plant foods, you will need to consume vitamin B12 through supplements or fortified plant-based foods.
The biggest nutritional concern for plant-based athletes is consuming enough protein, which is crucial for muscle protein synthesis and recovery after exercise. Exercise causes microtears in muscle tissue that need to be repaired, therefore you should consume protein shortly after your workouts (and at each meal throughout the day) to fuel the muscle-building process.
Athletes, whether plant-based or not, have greater protein needs than non-athletes. According to Physician and Sports Medicine, athletes need a minimum of 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day — twice as much as non-athletes. Depending on your chosen form of exercise, your protein requirements may be higher. For instance, an NFL linebacker or a bodybuilder might need more protein than a distance runner or triathlete.
In addition, plant-based athletes need to make a conscious effort to consume essential amino acids, which are found primarily in animal products. However, plant-based athletes can eat foods like buckwheat, soy, quinoa, and vegan protein powders to get essential amino acids.
You Can Be Successful as a Plant-Based Athlete
To be a successful plant-based athlete, you just need to dial in to your nutrition.
A plant-based diet comes with multiple health benefits. It's higher in antioxidants, has an anti-inflammatory effect, and typically involves fewer processed foods.
However, as a plant-based athlete, you must ensure to consume a few key micronutrients. Plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian diets are notoriously low in vitamin B12, iodine, iron, zinc, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential amino acids. If you consume these nutrients — either from foods or through supplements — you certainly can thrive as an athlete.If you’re following a plant-based diet, we recommend the Transparent Labs Vegan Strength Stack. Combining the CoreSeries BCAA Glutamine, PreSeries BULK Pre-Workout, ProteinSeries Organic Vegan Protein Powder, and StrengthSeries Creatine HMB, the Strength Stack will help fill in any nutritional gaps in your plant-based diet.
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