Vegan athletes, including runner Carl Lewis, hockey player Georges Laraque, and baseball player Patrick Neshek, prove that athletes can get the nutrition they need without eating meat. However, making sure you get everything you need to fuel your body requires careful planning.
What to watch for
Here are five nutrients for athletes to consider when planning a vegan diet:
Protein contributes to healthy muscles and bones, tissue repair, and a healthy immune system. All plants contain some protein. However, while it’s easy to get all the essential acids you need for protein synthesis from one meat source, it takes a combination of plants to get all the proteins you need.
Vitamin B12 is essential for red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. Since it’s difficult to meet your B12 needs from plant sources, the Boston Vegan Association recommends you add supplements.
Low iron can significantly impact your athletic performance, making you tired and lethargic. While vegans in general need to make sure they’re getting enough iron, athletes need to pay particular attention because of exercise-induced iron loss.
A recent study showed that omega-3 fatty acids can be especially beneficial for athletes as they enhance pulmonary function and help with exercise-induced inflammation. Since omega-3s are commonly found in fish, vegan athletes might want to look for a supplement for this essential fatty acid.
While common vegan foods such as beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are high in zinc, these foods also have phytates, which make it harder for our bodies to absorb zinc (and iron). Since zinc is essential for immune system function and DNA stabilization, vegans are recommended to supplement their zinc intake if needed.
Getting it all in
The Boston Vegan Association says that a balanced vegan diet includes legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, and fruits. While eating a variety of foods from these groups will help you get most of what your body needs, getting that variety can be a challenge, despite your best intentions.
Your best bet if in doubt? Check out different vegan athletic supplements to find one that works for you.