With the recent increase in popularity of the vegan diet and Veganuary in full swing, nutritionists are often bombarded with all sorts of questions about meat and dairy-free diets from ‘how can I possibly get enough protein without meat?’ to ‘do I need to cut out animal products to win?’. We take a closer look into the vegan diet to assess whether young athletes can, and should, fuel their bodies solely on plant-based foods.
Contrary to popular belief, a well planned and executed vegan diet can contain all of the foods needed to meet energy and nutrient requirements essential to health and performance . Whilst energy demands vary from person to person and sport to sport, those with higher energy requirements, may find they need to increase the frequency and number of meals/snacks they eat in order to ensure they consume enough calories to fuel the body if following a vegan diet .
Reduced energy density and higher fibre planet-based foods combined with intense training schedules, can often result in athletes not meeting energy needs. To overcome this, increasing meal and snack frequency to around 5-8 meals/snacks per day and ensuring meals are always planned and on hand is essential .
Proteins are made up of different combinations of amino acids and consuming a variety of these is essential. Of the 20 amino acids, 8 cannot be made by the body and so must be eaten in the diet. While meat and dairy sources are often more abundant in the essential amino acids, they’re still found in many different plant sources, . The amount contained in some plant-sources, however, may be so low they are considered to be deficient in that amino aid, meaning consuming a variety of protein-rich plant sources is key to meeting protein needs and amino acid needs.
Good sources include :
There are a number of micronutrients that are either found less abundantly in plant foods or are not absorbed as readily from them, meaning vegan athletes will need to pay close attention to prevent deficiencies. These include; iron, zinc, calcium and iodine as well as vitamin D, B12 and Riboflavin.
Calciumis vital to the formation, health and strength of bones, as well as muscle contraction and is most commonly obtained from dairy products within a typical omnivorous diet, meaning vegan athletes may need to look elsewhere in their diets for this essential micronutrient.
Good sources of vegan Calcium include :
Iron plays a vital role in the transport of oxygen around the body and in the production of energy , both of which are essential in exercise. It can be found in either animal (heme) or plant based sources (non-heme) and intake is a particular concern for female, vegan athletes. Symptoms of iron deficiency include tiredness, fatigue and irritability, so ensuring adequate intake is essential to athletic performance. Non-heme sources of iron cannot be absorbed by the body as efficiently, however, consuming them alongside a source of vitamin C can improve this. Similarly, iron absorption is also further limited by foods such as tea, coffee, cocoa and soy, so avoiding eating these in combination will help absorption.
Good sources of Iron include :
Vitamin B12 plays a central roll in the formation of red blood cells and the repair and production of tissues and muscles . It is found exclusively in animal products, resulting in an increased risk of deficiency for vegan athletes. Fortified foods are essential to ensure adequate intakes are consumed, or alternatively, a multivitamin offers a good alternative.
Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly associated with anti-inflammatory properties and are mostly derived from fish and marine sources, making deficiency a potential concern for the vegan athlete. Considering this, vegan athletes may find it beneficial to supplement with DHA-rich microalgae supplements .
While a lot of information in the media claim vegan diets offer an array of both health and performance benefits over an omnivorous diet, there is no scientific evidence to support this . In fact, evidence suggests neither diet is superior in terms of athletic performance , but rather a well-balanced and nutritious diet is vital.
Preference should be given to whole food sources where possible with a focus on meeting individual energy demands for both health, development and performance. The quality and timing of dietary intake, as well as consuming a variety of nutritious food sources is essential to fuelling winning performances.
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