Traditional eating habits are being questioned more and more often these days – even in sports! A good example is the belief that in order to be strong, fast and healthy, animal-derived foods must be consumed. In a strictly vegan diet, no animal food is consumed, whether for ethical, health, environmental or other personal reasons. Meat, fish, dairy products, eggs and honey are taboo. Which nutrients are considered critical in a vegan diet and whether this style of nutrition is suitable for athletes or even as a recipe for success for better performance, you’ll find out here.
Vegan and Sport – can they go hand in hand?
Both recreational as well as elite athletes hotly discuss a vegan diet. Successful performances in endurance as well as strength sports have been shown to be possible by athletes who follow a vegan diet. Even Anna Fiegert, an ice hockey player for the German national team has been eating vegan for about a year now. „I’ve always liked to experiment with my diet. But since going vegan in my diet, I feel fresher in my everyday life. I also sleep better and have the overall feeling that I recover better.” A well thought out and planned vegan diet covers the nutritional requirements of an athlete (1). A high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are typical and provide the body with plenty of fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals. These go along with numerous health-promoting effects and a reduced risk of various diet-related diseases. However, whether a purely plant-based diet offers an advantage for athletic performance can’t be confirmed at present based on current published studies.
Nutrients that require special attention in a vegan sports diet
In general, whether vegan or not, you should eat as varied a diet as possible. A vegan meal plan requires a bit more planning than a diet containing animal-based foods such as dairy products, meat and fish.
Since a vegan diet, due to the high consumption of vegetables and whole grain products, is often very high in fibre and thus promotes the feeling of satiety, this can be at the expense of energy supply. A high intake of fibre-rich foods can, in training phases with a high energy requirement, make it difficult to consume sufficient energy. Here it might be helpful, depending on needs, to switch to lower-fibre carbohydrate sources, such as millet or buckwheat instead of oats or whole grain wheat/rye products, breads and rolls with a lower whole grain content or removing the skin from tubers and root vegetables.
Plant-based proteins are contained in legumes, nuts/seeds, soya products, grains and potatoes, for example. However, on average, plant-based protein sources have a lower total content of indispensable amino acids (9 essential amino acids that the body cannot synthesize itself and must be taken in with food) and leucine than animal-based protein sources (2). The indispensable amino acid leucine is not only a building block for muscle protein but is also considered the “superstar” of all amino acids because it acts as the strongest trigger for muscle protein synthesis. Although maize protein is a plant-based protein that is particularly rich in leucine, it has a low content of other essential amino acids (2). In order to provide optimum support for muscle growth and maintenance, a little more attention should therefore be given to the quality of protein in the diet in order to ensure that the optimum amounts of all essential amino acids are reached. Different plant-based protein sources must be combined to fill this aim.
Vitamins and minerals
Critical micronutrients include the vitamins B12 and D and the minerals iron, zinc, calcium and iodine (1, 3). These are often found either in smaller amounts in plant-based foods or are less bioavailable, i.e. are less well absorbed by the body compared to animal-based sources. All these micronutrients are extremely important for our body to function well and for us to be healthy and efficient. With some nutritional know-how however, a sufficient supply can be ensured. This includes, for example, salting meals with iodised salt or using dried algae and seaweed with a defined iodine content. The germination of pulses and grains improves the bioavailability of zinc, among other things. The absorption of iron from plant-based foods can be improved, for example, by the simultaneous consumption of vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetables (e.g. freshly squeezed orange juice or freshly cut bell pepper sticks).
Likewise, caffeine acts as an iron absorption inhibitor and should not be consumed while eating an iron-rich vegan meal. A need-covering supply of vitamin B12 is not possible via a plant-based diet, therefore a supplement is essential. In addition, sufficient vitamin D intake from food alone, whether vegan or not, is hardly possible. However, vitamin D can also be synthesized in the body by exposing the skin to sufficient UVB sunlight. However, those who don’t get enough sunlight exposure (e.g. during the darker seasons or for other reasons) should consider taking a supplement, after consultation with a doctor.
Omega 3 fatty acids EPA und DHA
The Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are important for normal heart function and play a role in the regulation of inflammatory processes in the body. Direct intake via diet is possible through appropriate microalgae supplements, as otherwise these are mainly found only in fish and seafood.
Vegans often have lower muscular creatine levels. Creatine is both synthesized in the body and consumed through food. However, significant amounts of creatine are only found in meat and fish. Vegans can therefore especially benefit from a creatine supplement to improve performance during high-intensity (anaerobic) exercise and to increase lean body mass.
From theory to practice: This is how pro hockey player Anna Fiegert feeds herself
“On a typical training day, I eat a smoothie bowl of oat milk, fruit, chia seeds, and muesli in the morning before the first training session. At lunchtime, I usually have a sandwich with whole-grain bread and tofu patties or a large, fresh salad bowl with a plant-based protein source. As an afternoon snack, especially when I’m on a training camp, I need something for on-the-go. For example, some nuts or a Real5 Vegan Energy Bar. This bar gives me energy in a handy format. In the evening I eat a hot meal. My current favourite recipe is chickpea curry. I also supplement my diet with vitamin D and B12.”
Conclusion: A well thought-out vegan diet is also suitable for athletes. Increased consumption of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains is incredibly healthy. However, whether or not avoiding animal foods can improve athletic performance can’t be confirmed at present. Vegan athlete Anna Fiegert stands by the following point of view: “Every athlete has to find out for his or her own body which nutritional style suits them the best”.
Author: Corinne Mäder Reinhard, International Sports Nutrition Lead at Active Nutrition International. She has a postgraduate diploma in Sports Nutrition from the International Olympic Committee and is a certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
The implementation of the nutrition information and recommendations described in this article is at your own risk and cannot replace personal and individual advice. In particular, for persons under 18 years of age, health restrictions (especially internal medical conditions/illnesses or food intolerances or allergies), during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, a doctor should always be consulted in advance. If complaints arise during the implementation of nutritional measures, a doctor should always be consulted immediately. Active Nutrition International GmbH assumes no liability whatsoever.
Sources used, among others:
1. Melina. V., et al., (2016): Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet, 116(12):1970-1980.
2. Vliet, et al. (2015). The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption. J Nutr. 145(9):1981-91.
3. Rogerson, D. (2017). Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 13;14:36.