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Maximizing Nutrition for the Plant-Based Athlete

Maximizing Nutrition for the Plant-Based Athlete

Are you getting all you need?

There is a lot to gain from a plant-based diet, but when you go vegan, there are a few things you need to keep in mind – especially if you are an athlete.  While antioxidants and complex carbohydrates are big contributors to recovery and are easy to check off the list, other nutrients are a bit more complicated - think protein, vitamin B12 &D, iron, zinc, calcium.  One study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition put together this practical advice for vegan athletes. 

Getting enough total energy is a concern for all athletes but can become a special concern when consuming a volume and fiber rich foods that promotes a feeling of fullness. 

If total calorie needs aren’t met, immunity can become compromised, resulting in more time spent resting and recovering instead of training and competing!    Try adding portable and calorie dense foods like trail mix, dried fruit and bananas to your eating plan. 

Athletes tend to need more protein.  And vegan athletes, tend to consume less than their omnivore counterparts - often leaving gaps and missing essential amino acids (EAA) that support muscle growth.  Current recommendations encourage including a variety of beans, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes to ensure all of the EAA are present.   

High protein vegan foods                      Protein per 100g

Pumpkin seeds (dried uncooked)           31.2

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



Another consideration is the digestibility of protein sources.  It has been suggested that vegan and vegetarian athletes may need to consume more protein to overcome lower bioavailability of plant sources through digestion.

Vitamin B12 – When animal products are eliminated, natural sources of B12 (cobalamin) are removed, and consuming fortified foods or supplementation is necessary to avoid nerve damage.  Try fortified nutritional yeast as a whole food option!

Iron – While iron is generally present in the vegan diet, it is not always available to the body to use.  Iron plays an important role in delivering oxygen to working muscles, and absorption can be enhanced by eating foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus or greens at the same time! 

Zinc – This mineral plays a role in making protein, immunity, gene expression and blood formation, but it is often lost in urine after exercise. Humid environments also contribute more to losses than cooler ones do!  Needs can be met by including foods such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and soy. 

Calcium and vitamin D are critical for bone health and studies suggest vegans consume the least of all the plant-forward lifestyles. However, when there is adequate vitamin D, even when dietary calcium is low, more calcium can be absorbed from food.   Reach for 1000mg of calcium by including tofu, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower in addition to sunlight and foods fortified with vitamin D. 


Published September 1, 2022

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