You are most likely well aware of the benefits of being a fat adapted athlete. It’s a fallacy however, that this is a luxury only enjoyed by meat eaters. We are frequently asked this question and today, I set the record straight.
As an athlete wanting to maximise performance and minimise recovery time, your micronutrient requirements are already greater than that of your inactive peers. Combine these requirements with a vegan diet, where nutrients including B12 and iron aren’t as readily available, the importance of what you consume and the quality of your digestion grows significantly.
Before we explore the possibility of becoming a fat adapted vegan, our top 5 nutrient considerations for vegan athletes are:
Adequate intake of B12 is essential for DNA synthesis and maintenance of myelin sheath (part of the nervous system). B12 can be stored in the liver for years, which is why many vegans don’t notice signs of deficiency (fatigue, shortness of breath and palpitations) until two years into veganism. That’s not to say however, that some don’t show signs of depletion much, much sooner. Some vegan foods like soy, nutritional yeast and grains are B12 fortified, but not with nearly enough to achieve the levels required or replicate the bioavailability of B12 from natural sources including liver, eggs, chicken and fish. For anyone following a vegan diet, B12 supplementation is a non-negotiable and required dosage is considerably higher than the traditional RDI, simply due to bioavailability of synthetic sources.
Inadequate intake of iron can lead to varying degrees of deficiency ranging from low iron stores (indicated by low serum ferritin levels) right through to Iron-Deficiency Anaemia1. As an athlete you don’t want to fall into either of these states as iron is essential for the transport of oxygen to muscles and cellular energy production (processes crucial to endurance performance). The concern around iron is due to the reduced bioavailability of iron from plant based sources, however a well planned vegan diet usually contains more than enough iron. Consume foods like beans and lentils (prioritise these in the post training window due to their carbohydrate content), tofu, tempeh, broccoli and green leafy vegetables. Iron absorption can be enhanced by consuming it alongside vitamin C or beta carotene1, so consider pairing tempeh with broccoli, capsicum and/or cauliflower. If you’re an endurance runner and/or premenopausal female and on a vegan diet (or considering being one), we highly recommend regular blood tests to monitor ferritin levels and signs of iron deficiency.
We’ve included protein because it’s the macronutrient that most new vegans are concerned about getting enough. To set the record straight, a vegan following what some term the “starchitarian diet” (a carbohydrate loaded plate) could be at risk of falling short on protein or amino acid requirements, but it’s certainly not the case on a well managed vegan diet2. What’s an amino acid? Essentially, proteins are made up of amino acids and they’re the building blocks of life. There are what we call complete sources of proteins, which contain all of the amino acids that we can’t create ourselves (aka essential amino acids) and the incomplete sources, which contain some but not all of the essential amino acids. Animal proteins are the best sources of complete proteins, so vegans need to be particularly conscious of consuming a variety of plant based protein sources to obtain the required amount of essential amino acids. Aim for a regular dose of quinoa (prioritise this in the post training window), tempeh, tofu, chia seeds, kale, broccoli, hemp seeds, hemp protein powder, nuts and seeds.
It does mean that more attention should be placed on dietary variation and high quality sources of protein, as a diet of vegetables and carbohydrate simply won’t do. Below are our top suggestions for protein sources:
- Tempeh and tofu
- Lentils and beans
- Nuts, including almonds, walnuts, cashews and their respective butters
- Seeds, including chia, hemp, flax, sunflower and sesame
- Green leafy vegetables, including broccoli and kale
For the vegans reading this, I’m sure you’re sick of being asked the question ‘where do you get your calcium?’. The truth is, a well balanced vegan diet won’t cause calcium deficiency. The problems come if you follow a restrictive vegan diet of fruit, pasta and bread. Daily calcium requirements can be met by consuming the following, as an example; 150g tofu, 1 cup of bok choy, 1 cup of broccoli, 2 tablespoons of chia seeds and 1 tablespoon of unhulled tahini.
Omega-3s are broken down into three forms, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALAs are found in foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and green vegetables, and are required to create EPA and DHA in our body. There is evidence to show that DHA supplementation in particular, may be beneficial for vegan athletes to assist with training induced inflammation and oxidative stress2. For optimal health we recommend an algae based DHA supplement and to prioritise the consumption of the ALA rich foods mentioned above. As always, please ensure you moderate your intakes of omega-6 oils, and avoid vegetable oils including canola, corn and safflower oils.
In summary, eating a well balanced vegan diet is absolutely possible, but to truly allow for optimal performance and recovery it’s more than just a question of adequate energy and protein intake. Priority needs to be placed on nutrient density and variation. B12 and DHA supplements are a must and regular blood tests are highly recommended. For personalised support with your vegan nutrition, please book your complimentary 15-minute consultation with Elly here. You can learn more about Elly here.
- Saunders, A, 2012. Iron and Vegetarian Diets. Medical Journal of Australia, 1 Suppl 2, 11-16.
- Furham, J, & Ferreri, DM, 2010. Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9,4, 233-241.
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