Interest in the Vegan diet is on the increase. This has led to a growth in the number of athletes following a vegan diet. A new film out on Netflix, The Game Changers directed by James Cameron, showcases high profile athletes who have adopted a vegan, plant-based diet such as Novak Djokovic, Lewis Hamilton, Chris Paul and Morgan Mitchell, suggesting that athletes can, indeed, be vegan.
There is a lack of research available, however, into the effects of a vegan diet on athletic performance and therefore the question posed is not a straight forward one. Meeting the health and performance needs of a vegan athlete requires that dietary requirements need to be met. So what does the current literature say? What are the challenges presented by the vegan athlete? And what practical recommendations can be made for the vegan athlete?
Although there have been a limited number of studies looking at the vegan diet and its effect on athletic performance studies that have been undertaken tend to suggest that there is no difference in performance when consuming a vegan diet versus a vegetarian or omnivorous diets. This does suggest, and was the conclusion of a recent study into the performance of recreational runners, that the vegan diet can be a suitable alternative for the ambitious athlete. Taken alongside the ethical, environmental and health benefits of following a Vegan diet this suitability can be seen as positive confirmation of its appropriateness for athletes.
As with all athletes there are challenges to achieving a healthy, balanced diet which is suitable for suporting training and competition. The vegan diet is no different. Of particular consideration, however, is total energy intake. A Vegan diet will tend to be low in calorie density and therefore meeting the high energy needs of the athlete can be a challenge. This also has a knock on effect to key macronutrients, carbohydrate and protein, if energy intake is inadequate to support training adaptations. Focussing on eating frequently and snacking between meals (5-8 snacks/meals per day) and planning and preparation can help in achieving optimal intakes. Including energy dense foods (such as nuts and seeds and snacks) and limiting the intake of high fibre foods, can also help in increasing calorie intake when needed.
Protein is also a macronutrient which can be challenging and the consensus is that athletes require more protein than the general population. There is an additional challenge with plant-based proteins as the quality of the protein and the amino acid composition can be incomplete. There is a requirement, therefore, to consume a range of plant-based proteins which complement each other to ensure a complete set of amino acids and adequate intakes are achieved. Eating foods such as grains, beans, legumes and seeds and including foods which do have a complete set of essential amino acids ( such as soya, quinoa and chia seeds) can help ensure that recovery and adaptation to training is optimised.
Dietary intake of a number of vitamins and minerals can also be a challenge when consuming a vegan diet and particular attention should be taken to ensure adequate intakes of Iron, Zinc, Calcium, Riboflavin, Iodine, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12.
Eating a healthy well-balanced diet with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and plant foods can go a long way to achieiving adequate intakes of the energy, carbohydrate, protein, fat and essential nutrients. Understanding personal requirements in terms of energy intake and expenditure during training and competing can also help to ensure optimal intakes of key nutrients to maximise training gains and performance. Apps such as MyFitnessPal or Chronometer can help to monitor intake and expenditure and to highlight any likely personalised shortfalls. Another option is to consult a qualified Sports Nutritionist ideally one that has a knowledge of plant-based nutrition. Following a food first approach should ensure adequate intakes but in some circumstances fortification or supplementation may be required for Vitamin B12, D, Iron and Iodine.
Author: Philip Woodbridge
Philip Woodbridge is a registered Sports Nutritionist with the SENr (Sports and Exercise Nutrition Register) and specialises in plant-based nutrition through his consultancy P4S Nutrition. Philip is author of a nutrition guide and cookbook Plant-Based 4 Running
See also our October blog: "Is plant-based diet a good choice for athletes?"