“But how do you get your protein?” is probably the most common question vegan and vegetarian athletes get asked. Meeting your bodies protein (and other) requirements from plant-based sources is much easier than most people think. With more and more athletes opting for a plant-based diet, we take a look into the best ways to fuel as a vegan athlete and consider some of the common deficiencies associated.
As athletes have increased requirements for protein in the diet to ensure muscle maintenance and growth, a properly planned diet is essential. A varied range of plant proteins can provide an athlete with all of the different amino acids essential for normal growth and development and to meet the increased demands of intense training and exercise. Protein rich plant-based alternatives include pulses (e.g. chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils), tofu, vegan QuornTM, nuts and nut butters. Below we’ve listed some of the vegan foods with the highest protein content.
Nuts (almonds, cashew, walnuts) - 18-26g/100g
Nut butter- 24g/100g
Beans(kidney, pinto, mung)- 7-9g/100g
It’s important to remember that these values given are per 100g, which is possibly higher than the average serving size of items such as nuts and nut butters.
While well planned, whole-food vegetarian and vegan diets can be nutritious and healthy, cutting out certain food groups can run the risk of nutrient deficiencies. Certain micronutrients are mainly found in animal products, but alternatives are available to reduce the risk of deficiency and limit the impact on performance. Below we list some of the common micronutrients that vegan athletes may potentially become deficient in and discuss alternative food sources to prevent this.
Vitamin B12 is essential for the formation of red blood cells, keeping the nervous system healthy and releasing energy from food. It is only found naturally in animal products. However, it is commonly fortified in various different vegan food sources. Foods such as yeast extract, breakfast cereals, or dairy-free alternatives e.g. soya, oat or almond drinks and supplements are great sources of B12 and should be a staple in any vegan athletes diet to prevent deficiency.
Calcium is essential for the growth and development of strong bones and is involved in muscle contractions - both of which are essential to athletes. Dairy foods are the biggest single contributor of calcium to UK diets, however, there are various non-dairy vegan sources. Examples of these include bread (through fortification), vegetables such as bok choy, kale, okra and rocket, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified dairy alternatives and various nuts and seeds. The calcium present in many vegetables, nuts and seeds are more readily absorbed than that from dairy sources. Therefore, calcium deficiency in vegan athletes with a well-planned and varied whole-food diet is unlikely.
Iron plays a vital role in the formation of red blood cells which transport oxygen around the body - essential to prevent fatigue during exercise. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies globally and can result in anaemia and other illnesses. Good sources of iron for vegans include pulses, green leafy veg, wholemeal/seeded/brown bread, some fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits (such as apricots and figs), and various nuts and seeds. As plant sources of iron aren’t as readily absorbed by the body, consuming them alongside Vitamin C rich foods and drinks increases absorption rates and reduces the risk of deficiency.
Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with good heart health, as well as reducing inflammation, good joint health and promoting recovery. Whilst short-chain omega-3 fats are found in some nuts, seeds and oils, these often can’t be efficiently converted to the long-chain forms present in oily fish. Supplements containing long-chain omega-3 fats from micro algae are available as a vegan alternative to ensure they can be consumed in the diet.
Whilst a poorly planned vegan diet can increase an athletes risk of both macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies, careful planning and selecting foods can ensure athletes successfully meet the increased demands of their bodies. Plant-based diets have been widely associated with various health and performance benefits, and although they lack sound scientific evidence, the potential benefit of increased intake of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrate rich foods must not be overlooked for sporting performance and should be an essential part of any athlete's diet.
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Just as your youth athlete will need to fuel well to stay healthy, the same goes for parents too. Ensuring you eat a healthy and balanced diet will help to keep your energy levels high, so you’re better equipped to handle the stress and challenges that life throws at you.