Powered by Vegan: Must-Knows for Sports Nutrition

Vegan athletes have special challenges in meeting their nutrient needs, but with careful planning, they can meet the demands of high-volume training and competition. If you need any proof, look to ultra runner Scott Jurek who trains up to eight hours a day and fuels his 100-mile-plus races on a diet of plants only. While there is no research on sports performance and veganism, some athletes are turning to vegan diets out of concern for the environment, animal welfare and, like Jurek, for the perceived health benefits.

Vegan diets can fit well into an athlete’s training plan. With meat, poultry, dairy, fish and other animal products removed from the equation, vegan diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates, the primary fuel for athletes. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds — the mainstays of vegan diets — contain quality carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Vegetable protein sources are also low in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol, supporting a healthy cardiovascular system. Good protein sources for vegan athletes include quinoa, brown rice, protein-enriched pasta, nuts, tofu, soymilk, soy “cheese” and “yogurt,” tempeh, peanut butter, beans and peas.

Are Plant-Based Foods Enough?

However, athletes do have some special considerations to take into account when following vegan diets. Vitamin B12 intake should be closely monitored as this nutrient is found only in animal foods. Vegans can get this vitamin through fortified nutritional yeasts, or through supplementation. In addition to B12, other nutrients that could be in short supply if vegans aren’t careful include calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, vitamin D and riboflavin. Vegan diets are usually high in fiber, which can lead to gas and bloating if high-fiber foods are consumed immediately before or during exercise. Vegan meat alternatives like veggie burgers, “chicken” patties or soy-based “sausage” provide protein without a lot of dietary fiber and are good choices for pre-competition meals.

Vegan athletes can meet their nutrient needs with food, but vegan dietary supplements do exist. However, they are harder to find and usually are more expensive than their non-vegan counterparts (most commercial supplements use gelatin in vitamin and mineral formulations). One supplement popular with speed, strength and power athletes is creatine, which is found primarily in animal muscle tissue. Vegan diets provide no creatine, so creatine supplementation may be of interest to some vegan athletes. Any supplement should be thoroughly researched to make sure it is derived from plant sources.

Vegan athletes who travel for sporting events and competition need to plan ahead. Because such a small minority of the population embraces a vegan diet, competition organizers may not have vegan fuel, snacks or food on hand. Dried fruit, grapes, applesauce and energy gels or chews (check with the manufacturer to ensure they’re vegan) make for good endurance event fuel.

Consider including foods that contain potential short-fall nutrients for vegans, such as:

  • Calcium: calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, soy, rice and almond beverages, broccoli, kale, greens (collards and turnips), almonds, tahini and blackstrap molasses
  • Iron: dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds, whole grain breads and cereals, root vegetables and dried fruit
  • Zinc: dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds, soy foods and soy "burgers"
  • Iodine: iodized salt and  seaweed (kombu)
  • Magnesium: beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains, leafy green veggies
  • Vitamin D: fortified foods (check labels of soy products to see if vitamin D is added), sun-dried mushrooms
  • Vitamin B12: nutritional yeast, soy foods that have added vitamin B12
  • Riboflavin: whole grains, fortified breads and cereals, tofu, nuts, seeds, bananas, asparagus, figs and avocado
Christine Rosenbloom
Christine Rosenbloom, PHD, RDN, CSSD, FAND, is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She has more than 30 years of experience in nutrition, with specialties in sports nutrition and gerontology.