Vegan Diet for Athletes: Expert Shares Healthy Sources of Protein

There are many myths surrounding a vegan diet; one of the biggest being that it does not provide enough protein, calcium, iron and vitamin D. However, nutritionists believe otherwise. “If you’re a vegan and an aspiring athlete, or an athlete who wants to adopt a vegan diet, here are some things to keep in mind when designing your diet,” said Haripriya N., executive nutritionist at Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Chennai.

Common myths about a vegan diet for athletes

The nutritionist said it is essential to remember that “a well-planned, supplemented and diligently implemented vegan diet is compatible with competitive sport and promotes good health without the risk of developing nutritional deficiencies. It is therefore a myth that a vegan diet fails to support peak performance in athletes.

“Plant-based diets, which are generally low in saturated fat, high in complex carbohydrates, fiber and nature-rich nutrients, can help regulate and reduce body fat percentage associated with increased aerobic capacity. It has been proven to improve their stamina which results in better performance on the pitch,” she told

It’s also a myth that those who follow a vegan diet don’t get enough protein, she continued. Although a vegan protein intake of 10-12% is lower than that of non-vegans, it is still sufficient to meet the even higher protein requirements of the highly stressed metabolism of athletes. “These values, ranging from 8 to 15% of daily energy, can be easily achieved and have been described as adequate to benefit health and athletic performance,” she added. Some excellent sources are soybeans, millet, tofu, whole legumes, sprouts, chickpeas, lentils, and quinoa; they are excellent sources of protein that also increase your micronutrient intake.

“Thus, vegans need to slightly increase their daily protein intake compared to non-vegans to get the essential amino acids needed for protein turnover and recovery,” she suggested.

Achieving micronutrient sufficiency is an important concern for all athletes. Particular attention should be paid to the adequacy of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin D intakes when designing a particular vegan diet. These nutrients are naturally low in vegan foods but can be combined or supplemented as needed.

It is also a myth that vegan diets impair recovery. “In fact, the opposite is true. Balanced vegan diets are abundant in phytonutrients and antioxidants that are especially helpful for recovery as they fight oxidative stress and reduce exercise-induced muscle damage, which causes inflammation, soreness and fatigue 24 to 74 hours after exercise,” she said.

As long as you eat a healthy, balanced diet, training as a vegan is no different than regular training, aside from the potential increase in recovery and energy levels.

Healthy Sources of Protein for Vegan Athletes

Optimizing the protein intake of a vegan athlete requires paying attention to the quantity and quality of protein consumed. Common examples of limiting amino acids in plant proteins include lysine, methionine, isoleucine, threonine, and tryptophan. Of these, lysine appears to be most often absent, especially from cereal grains.

However, foods such as beans and legumes are rich sources of lysine, and leucine can be obtained from soybeans and lentils. Other BCAAs can be found in seeds, nuts, and chickpeas, which means these amino acids can be obtained by consuming a variety of protein-rich plant foods.

Foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds should be included in the vegan diet to ensure that all essential amino acids are present.

Examples of high-protein vegan foods and their protein supply per 100g, according to Haripriya N

Pumpkin seeds (dried, uncooked) – 30.2
Lentils (red, split, uncooked) – 24.6
Black beans (uncooked) – 21.6
Almonds (raw) – 21.2
Tempeh – 20.3
Tofu – 17.3
Oats (rolled) – 16.9
Quinoa (uncooked) – 14.1

*Source: USDA Food Composition Table Nutritional Values.

Are supplements necessary?

Dietary supplements are only recommended if an individual cannot meet their needs from natural food sources or if the demand for nutrients is higher. “For vegan athletes, it is important to focus on micronutrients such as vitamin B12 and iron which might not improve performance but, if deficient, can damage or delay muscle recovery. nutritional supplements, the results of taking dietary supplements for exercise and sports performance vary depending on the level of training; the nature, intensity and duration of the activity; and environmental conditions. Nutritional supplements such as that plant-based protein powders may be suggested if the athlete cannot meet the desired protein requirements from food for various reasons such as cost effectiveness and inconvenient consumption,” she said.

Supplements should be taken under the advice of an appropriate professional and should not be taken without a prescription, as an overdose can lead to fatal toxicity.

Iron: Vegan athletes can achieve iron sufficiency by choosing whole iron sources such as legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, fortified foods, green leafy vegetables and by reducing intake of foods containing inhibitors such as tea, coffee, and cocoa (when consuming iron-rich meals), concurrently consume foods containing vitamin C to enhance absorption, and incorporate steeped, sprouted, and/or fermented foods into their diet.

Vitamin D: The best way to acquire vitamin D is to expose yourself to the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for 10 to 15 minutes, every day without sunscreen. Other than that, food sources like soy milk, mushrooms, and fortified oils are also good sources.

Calcium- Remember that calcium is well absorbed along with vitamin D. Fortified plant milks and juices, broccoli, many local green vegetables, sprouts, cauliflower, bok choi, soy milk and Green leafy vegetables can be eaten for adequate calcium intake.

What should they have on training days and rest days?

On training days, focus on:

Pre-work out- As a general rule, it is best to avoid eating just before exercise, as this may cause gastrointestinal discomfort and reduce performance. Count one carb half an hour before the event. Something simple like 1 small banana, a slice of bread with peanut or almond butter that provides instant energy for the event.

During training- It is important to have sips of water between workouts to prevent electrolyte imbalances, fatigue and thermal shock during workouts and to compensate for water loss through sweating.

Post workout- During this phase, it is essential to replenish nutrient losses during training such as a snack rich in carbohydrates and proteins within 30 minutes of training for better absorption and to prevent muscle soreness after exercise.

On rest days, focus on:

  1. Carbohydrates- Eat complex carbohydrates to restore your glycogen levels. Depending on your activity level, you will need 3 to 10 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
  2. The water- It is essential to drink enough water, even when you are not exercising. Staying hydrated prevents muscle cramps and delivers nutrients throughout your body.
  3. Fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds– Have healthy carbohydrates and micronutrients (zinc, selenium and magnesium) that promote recovery.

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