In this article:
- An athlete’s diet: Why you need supplementation
- Common deficiencies in a vegan diet
- Best nutrition & supplements for vegan athletes
If you regularly engage in high-intensity exercise, sports nutrition and proper recovery are critical for performing at a high level and flourishing in health. Athletes expend more energy (aka calories) than the average person and require additional fuel and nutrients to repair and strengthen the body.
The benefits of high-intensity exercise go beyond athletic performance. Strenuous exercise can improve cardiovascular health, mood, bone health, body composition, and help build stronger muscles.
Research has shown that vigorous exercise doesn't suppress immune function. In fact, frequent exercise enhances the immune system over time. Nevertheless, a vegan athlete must have proper rest and recovery, and refuel with adequate macronutrients and micronutrients for optimal performance.
A vegan diet is composed entirely of plant-based foods with no animal products of any kind. Vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, fish, and seafood but may still include other animal products.
Whether an athlete chooses a vegan lifestyle for health or ethical reasons, it's possible to get the vast majority of nutrients consumed by omnivores through whole foods, with a few key exceptions. Meat-eaters consume much of their daily intake of protein, minerals, and vitamins from animal products. Without those food sources, vegan athletes need to take extra precautions, which is why supplementation can be beneficial.
A nutritionist or dietitian can help ensure a young athlete forms a well-balanced diet and receives essential nutrients for growth. Along with a basic multivitamin, vegans may need additional supplements.
Common nutritional deficiencies or concerns for a vegan athlete include:
Vitamin B12 deficiency is probably the most well-known concern for vegans. B12 is naturally found in animal products and is used in making DNA, keeping blood and nerve cells healthy, and preventing megaloblastic anemia.
Without animal products, vegans may require a B12 supplement, and should be intentional about consuming foods fortified with B12, such as breakfast cereals or nutritional yeasts.
Vitamin D is critical for bone health and is synthesized from exposure to sunlight or consumed in foods like fish, meat, and eggs. Unfortunately, it's challenging to get adequate Vitamin D from sun exposure alone, which means supplementation is necessary.
An NHANES study showed that about 40% of the US population has a vitamin D deficiency, and some medical professionals would say this number is higher.
This fat-soluble vitamin comes in two forms: D2 and D3. Most sources of Vitamin D3 are animal sourced, however there are some new formulas on the market offering a clean source of the D3 nutrient from a plant-based, lab grown origin, which makes D3 an option for vegans.
Calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium are critical for bone health. With a lack of dairy products, vegans need to be creative about finding plant-based food sources of calcium or consider taking supplements. Fortified food sources like ready-to-eat cereals, plant-based milk substitutes, and vegetables such as broccoli and kale can all contribute to meeting calcium needs.
Recommended calcium intake for adults is 1,000-1,200 mg, and teenagers need slightly more. Calcium deficiency can reduce bone strength and potentially lead to osteoporosis. Because many Americans are not consuming the recommended amount of calcium from diet alone, supplementation may be necessary.
Omega-3 fatty acids are known for improving cardiovascular and brain health, and reducing inflammation. Fatty fish have the highest concentration of omega-3s, and many non-vegans who don't want to eat the recommended two servings of fish per week will choose fish oil supplements instead.
The two types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) & EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the plant form of omega-3. Plant sources of ALA include ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soy foods, and algae or algae oil. Vegan Omega-3, made with marine algae, is the perfect supplement for getting this crucial form of essential fat and includes both DHA and EPA.
Iron is a mineral that forms hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that transports oxygen to all the cells in the body. Too much iron can cause hemochromatosis, but too little can cause anemia. Iron deficiency can lead to fatigue, decreased performance, and lowered immune function.
Iron comes in two forms. Heme and nonheme iron are both found in meat, poultry, and seafood. Interestingly, excess heme iron in the body cannot be expelled and is stored in the organs, so too much of it can lead to health issues. Plants and fortified foods, on the other hand, contain only nonheme iron.
Plant foods that supply iron include nuts, beans, lentils, vegetables, and fortified grain products. Because nonheme iron has less bioavailability than heme iron, vegans may need to consume greater quantities of iron-rich foods or take iron supplements. Daily iron recommendations range from 8-18 mg depending on age and gender, and pregnant women need 27 mg of iron daily.
Whether you're a power athlete or an endurance athlete, getting enough protein is critical for muscle growth and repair. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes consume 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight when training. Athletes can supplement their daily intake with protein-fortified foods or plant-based protein powders.
Vegan athletes should pay attention to consuming all the essential amino acids–the molecules that make up protein. As cells undergo protein synthesis, they need all the necessary amino acid building blocks. The body can produce nonessential amino acids, but nine essential amino acids must be consumed in food.
Plant-based protein sources of essential amino acids include grains like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. Beans and legumes are also a great source of plant protein. Other options include tofu, tempeh, edamame, spirulina, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and nutritional yeast. Finally, rice and beans are a classic complementary source of vegan protein, providing methionine and lysine and the other seven essential amino acids.
Finally, to stay healthy and build a strong immune system, vegan athletes may want to consider an antioxidant supplement. Boswellia Serrata is a vegan-friendly extract with effective anti-inflammatory properties, which are vital for athletes who may experience joint pain and muscle discomfort.
Premium Liposomal vitamin C can stimulate collagen production and strengthen the immune system. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that combats free radicals and can increase daily energy.
Another powerhouse antioxidant is Liposomal Glutathione. This supplement helps to replenish glutathione in the body while neutralizing free radicals, which may help to reduce inflammation and aid in detoxification.
There are many reasons to go vegan, and thanks to modern supplements, there aren’t many things to hold you back! In order to excel in their sport, vegan athletes of all backgrounds just need to keep an eye on certain vitamins and nutrients, particularly protein, antioxidants, iron, calcium, omega 3-s, and vitamins B12 and D. Just like any athlete, the key lies in eating clean, training hard, and resting often!