Many people are put off a vegan diet because they worry about if they will struggle to get all the nutrition that their body needs, which is even more important as an athlete. However, because people are so aware of this, they tend to pay more attention to nutrition in food as a vegan than they would if they were following a non-vegan diet. This results in a much healthier and nutritious diet overall.
There are some things you need to consider when following a vegan diet as it may naturally lack protein and some vitamins and minerals, which are vital for athletes, but these can all be addressed by learning about vegan nutrition and following great vegan recipes designed for athletes.
The problem with protein is that it’s surrounded by misconceptions. People believe you need to eat a lot more of it than your body actually needs and can use, even for athletes. Nutritionists recommend that the daily allowance of protein for adults should be 0.8 grams per kilogram of weight, so around 55 grams for a 150-pound person. For athletes, both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend increasing this to about 1.2-2 grams per kilogram.
Another misconception is that meat is one of the only good sources of protein. There are actually many plant-based sources, some that have a higher amount than animal sources. Animal protein contains all 22 amino acids that the body needs. It can’t make 9 of these, known as essential amino acids, so these have to be consumed through food. Plant based protein sources are therefore incomplete sources as they don’t contain all 22, but a variety of protein-packed plant foods will help to ensure that you do get all of the essential amino acids.
Vegan sources of protein include all types of beans, soy and soy products, lentils, whole grains, peas, nuts and seeds. Many mock meats will also be packed with protein as these are made from beans and soy.
However, don’t let these become a main part of your diet as they tend to contain a lot of ingredients, many of which most people can’t pronounce, which usually means they are no good for you. Stick to whole foods and use things like mock and dairy substitutes as treats.
Carbohydrates have been considered the enemy for a long time now, particularly for people trying to lose weight. Researchers from the University of South Carolina randomly assigned 1 of 5 diets to participants who followed the diet for 6 months. Different diets they included were vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian (fish and dairy, but no meat) and omnivore. Everyone also attended a group session to be educated on their diet and given healthy snack ideas.
The vegans lost an average of 16.5 pounds more than all of the groups that included meat in their diet. They also lost 4.3% more of their body weight than anyone else, despite having high carb diets. Vegan dieters were found to consume less fat, saturated fat, have a better balance of macronutrients and lower BMIs.
Researchers expected pescatarians to have similar results to vegans as fish is high in protein and low in fat, so the body uses it to build muscle, instead of storing it and it becoming fat, yet this was not the case, showing that a vegan diet is the most beneficial to health.
Calcium is important for athletes as they regularly put stress on their bones during workouts and training sessions, so calcium will help to keep them strong.
Vegan sources of calcium include soy products, such as milk and tofu, and dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, broccoli and bok choy. Many other foods are fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals, including cereals and orange juice. Your body needs vitamin D to help with the absorption of calcium, which many vegan calcium sources will also contain.
There is a common misconception that there are no vegan sources of vitamin B12. While it is true that vitamin B12 is mainly found in meat and eggs, there are some vegan sources, such as algae, nutritional yeast, some grains, and cereals and soy products that are fortified with it.
A B12 deficiency is particularly bad for athletes as it leads to tiredness and weakness. It can also cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath and muscle weakness, so it will have a significant effect on performance. If in doubt, you can always take a B12 supplement or get your levels checked by a doctor every year to make sure you’re getting enough.
Tennis player Venus Williams has won 7 Grand Slam singles titles and 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles, along with winning Wimbledon women’s singles 5 times. She also has 5 Olympic gold medals. She puts much of this success down to her raw vegan diet.
Williams was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, which caused her to experience extreme fatigue and joint pain. Her doctors advised her that a plant based diet would help to relieve some symptoms. Williams said that she “fell in love with the concept of fueling your body in the best possible way.” She told Health magazine, “Not only does it help me on the court, but I feel like I’m doing the right thing for me.”
Jermaine Defoe is the seventh best goal scorer in the UK’s Premier League history. He made a comeback in March 2017, which he accredited to his new vegan diet. Defoe has seen veganism take his playing to another level, telling The Guardian, “I don’t find anything hard to give up because I know the feeling scoring goals gives me.”
Tony Gonzalez is a fourteen-time Pro Bowl selection, holding the record for total receiving yards by a tight end and is second all-time in receptions. During his career he was known for his durability and rarely fumbled. Gonzalez experimented with a vegan diet throughout his career after reading The China Study, but ultimately decided to eat largely plant-based and include small amounts of chicken, beef and fish.
Rich Roll was a competitive swimmer, but by the time he turned 40 he says he was out of shape and feeling fatigued. He decided to do a cleanse and turn vegetarian, but the diet didn’t make him feel much different than he did as a meat eater. In June 2007 he decided to go vegan and immediately felt more energized. Rich lost weight, started training and doing triathlons. Today he does double Ironman competitions and had been named one of the Fittest Men In The World by Men’s Fitness.
Ricky Williams played 12 seasons in the NFL an one seasons in the CFL. He has won the Heisman Trophy and been inducted into the College Hall of Fame. His veganism has gained him ridicule from other NFL players and coaches, but Williams feels strongly that animals shouldn’t be eaten, saying, “I wouldn’t eat a chicken if it dropped dead in front of me holding up a sign that said ‘Eat Me’. In fact, being one of few vegan NFL players, his food got dubbed ‘Ricky Food’ and has led to him opening a restaurant called PROOF where he encourages vegan food.
Lentil dhal is great because the lentils are packed with protein. All the other ingredients offer plenty of vitamins and minerals with very little fat, cholesterol, sugar or salt. It is also really easy to make and can be cooked in bulk and frozen for convenient meals after a workout.
Heat the coconut oil in a large pot until it melts. Add in the garlic, onion, ginger and chili until the onion is soft, which will be about 5 minutes. Stir in the spices and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the lentils, tomatoes and stock, then stir and leave on a low heat for 30-35 minutes, until the lentils are soft and the dhal has a nice, thick consistency. Dish this up with the coconut yogurt and coriander on top and a nice helping of brown rice and steamed green veggies on the side for a wholesome, healthy meal.
Following a vegan diet need not mean you have to go without your favorite cheesy pasta dish. This recipe has plenty of veggies for lots of vitamins and minerals, plenty of carbs for energy and a nice creamy sauce that makes it mouth wateringly delicious.
Grill the breadcrumbs until they are crispy, then cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. Steam the veggies on top of the pasta, if you don’t have a steamer you can place a colander on top with a plate over it to act as a steamer. In a separate pan, make a roux by melting the butter then adding the flour to thicken it. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Add the mustard, nutritional yeast, cheese and onion powder to make a bechamel sauce. Once the macaroni and vegetables are done stir them into the sauce, then serve topped with the crispy panko breadcrumbs.
Energy bars are great for giving you a quick boost, and if you get the recipe right, you can pack in plenty of nutrients too. Sneaking in a can of beans will add lots of protein. It bulks a recipe up and the flavor can be easily hidden with other ingredients. This recipe is versatile as you can add any flavors you want and substitute a sweetener or type of beans for something similar.
Put the beans, almond/peanut butter, maple syrup, dates, extract, spice and salt into a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the oats and pulse until just combined. Add everything else and pulse again until just combined to keep the fruit or nuts in bigger pieces for a nice texture. Your mixture should be spreadable, if not add some water or more oats until it is, depending on if it’s too dry or wet. Get a baking tray and cover it with oil, then pour the mixture in, smooth it out and bake at 350? for 15-18 minutes.
This one is really simple. Just throw everything into a blend until smooth and you’re ready to go. This is great for people who struggle to eat breakfast in the mornings, as a post-workout smoothie or just for a delicious snack.
There are many elite vegan athletes who are at the top of their game, including weight lifters, runners, swimmers, mixed martial artists and boxers. They all put their success down to their plant powered lifestyle, seeing better recovery rates and healing times, as well as feeling like their body is fueled better than ever before.