Vegan nutrition

The number of athletes who substitute plant foods for meat and animal foods in their diet is steadily climbing. If you’re considering a plant-based diet, here’s what you should know about proper sports nutrition in the absence of meat or animal products.

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What Can Vegans and Vegetarians Eat?

Vegetarian diets consist of plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Vegans are vegetarians but have more diet restrictions.

Here’s a run-down of the different types of foods vegetarians and vegans do — and don’t — eat.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy foods and eggs, but no meat, poultry, or fish.
  • Lacto vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, along with any foods made with these. However, lacto vegetarians do eat dairy foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter.
  • Ovo vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, fish, and dairy, but eat eggs.
  • Vegans avoid all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs.
  • Flexitarians generally follow a vegetarian diet, but occasionally eat fish, poultry, or meat.

Vegetarian diets are a great choice, as long as they’re planned around a variety of natural, unprocessed foods. Athletes need more calories — and more of certain nutrients — compared to nonathletes, so it’s essential to choose your foods wisely.

Nutritional Needs for Vegetarian Athletes

All athletes require a healthy, balanced diet for energy, performance, muscle growth, and repair. However, your exact nutritional needs depend on your training schedule and intensity, and the type of sport you play.

Here are a few things to consider:

Calories

Training burns lots of calories, so it’s important to eat enough to maintain a healthy weight, as well as supply your body with the fuel it needs to perform well and recover. Athletes with plant-based diets sometimes have difficulty getting enough energy to support their daily and training needs. Adding a few nutrient-dense snacks between meals will assist in proper calorie requirements. Good choices for vegetarian or vegan athletes include nuts or nut butter, dried fruit, and avocado toast.

Vitamins and minerals

A B12 vitamin deficiency is common in vegan athletes. B12 is a vitamin that’s mainly found in animal proteins, and it assists in the breakdown of calories to create natural energy. While nonvegans can get the B12 they need from fish, eggs, and dairy products, vegans must rely on fortified foods like plant milks, cereals, and nutritional yeast. Adding a vitamin B12 supplement is recommended, but athletes should consult with a sports dietitian on the right dose and brand of B12 .

Plant foods also have lower amounts of iron, calcium, and vitamin D. Vegetarians can boost these nutrients by eating fortified plant (or cow’s) milk, legumes, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables.

Carbohydrates

Eating high-quality carbs improves endurance during an event and helps you recover afterward. Plant foods like whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits are all rich in carbs that provide long-lasting energy.

Protein

Athletes need extra protein to support muscle growth and repair. Most vegan diets are lower in protein, so it’s important to incorporate protein wherever you can. Good choices for plant proteins include beans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, nuts, and seeds.

How to Get Enough Protein

Many people worry that vegan or vegetarian diets don’t provide enough protein for athletes. Although their protein needs are higher, with some planning, even vegan and vegetarian athletes can get enough of this essential nutrient.

In order to ensure an adequate daily consumption of protein, vegan and vegetarian athletes should include 20 to 40 grams of plant protein in each meal, and 10 to 20 grams in each snack.

  • Example Meal: 1 cup black beans + ½ cup quinoa
  • Example Snack: 1 ounce of nuts + 1 ounce of pumpkin seeds

Although plant foods typically provide a lower dose of protein per serving compared to animal-based foods, combining two moderate to high plant-based proteins in each meal and snack will help ensure that you get the protein your body needs.

Here are protein counts for various vegetarian foods:

  • 8 ounces of Greek yogurt: 15 grams
  • 1/2 cup of cottage cheese: 12 grams
  • 1 cup of regular milk: 8 grams
  • 1/2 cup cooked lentils or beans: 8 grams
  • 1/2 cup of tofu: 7 grams
  • 1 large egg: 7 grams
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: 7 grams
  • 1/4 cup of nuts: 5 grams
  • 1 cup of cooked quinoa: 4 grams
  • 2 scoops of plant protein powder: 20 grams

Vegetarian and vegan diets offer many long-term health benefits, and there’s no reason athletes can’t follow one of these diets.

Pay close attention to the amount of protein and vitamin B12 you consume, as you may need to supplement those. Careful planning should cover the rest. Check in with Jeff Lucchino, MS, RD, CSSD, at 724-720-3081 or SportsNutrition@upmc.edu to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to optimize your athletic performance. Learn more at UPMC Sports Nutrition.

Sources

Vegetarian Eating for The Student Athlete. National Collegiate Athletic Association. https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Vegetarian%20Eating%20for%20the%20Student-Athlete.pdf

Vegan Diets: Practical Advice for Athletes and Exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598028/

Nutrition Guide: Reach Your Peak Performance Naturally. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598028/

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