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The Vegan Athlete and Normal People!
I am not an advocate of removing an entire food group from the diet unless there is a medical reason for doing so but make an exception to this personal rule in the case of vegetarianism or veganism; diets which are usually followed due to a moral stance. It is notable that veganism is growing in popularity and is certainly more obvious with the advent of social media. There is little specific scientific research into the effects of a vegan diet on exercise and performance but there is good evidence that a vegan diet poses certain challenges and should be designed to include adequate sources of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin D which might ordinarily be obtained from animal sources.
Providing sufficient energy
A well balanced diet should provide sufficient energy (calories) for energy balance unless you are actively seeking to lose/gain weight. However some athletes struggle to consume enough energy particularly where the sport requires the athlete to have low body mass (low weight). This can cause, low bone density, especially in female athletes, impaired immunity, loss of muscle mass and lower work capacity. In vegan diets the evidence suggests that less energy is consumed than by those following an omnivorous diet and that both vegan and vegetarian diets are lower in protein, fat, vitamin B12, Riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc. These diets also tend to be high in fibre, which can make them low in energy density and good at promoting satiety (which is helpful for weight loss).
How balanced is your vegan diet?
There is a general consensus that athletes require more protein than the average person. In simple terms protein is predominantly used by the body in muscle synthesis. There is concern that vegans consume less protein than both omnivorous and vegetarian individuals and that careful attention should therefore be paid to the quality and quantity of protein in a vegan diet particularly as plant based proteins often lack essential amino acids. To ensure that sufficient essential amino acids are consumed foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds should be included, good examples are, red lentils, almonds, tofu, oats and quinoa. Further it is now suggested that it is not necessary to combine plant based protein sources to achieve a complete essential amino acid profile in each meal.
Vegan diets tend to be high in carbohydrate and ensuring an adequate intake is not usually problematic. Fat intake tends to be lower, especially saturated fats and this has good health associations. However due to the absence of fish/seafood oils in the vegan diet less omega 3 fatty acid is consumed which is important for cardiovascular health and supplementation should be considered.
Vitamin B12 is found in both animal and dairy food products and vegans are at risk of being deficient so it is recommended that fortified foods be included in the vegan diet such as breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast. Whilst a vegan diet may contain as much iron as an omnivorous diet the source is non-haem and less easily absorbed by the body. This may also be exacerbated by the fact that a vegan diet is often high in polyphenols which can act as inhibitors reducing the amount of iron absorbed. Vegans, especially women, should be mindful of their iron status and supplement where necessary. The vegan diet should provide sufficient levels of calcium, which is found in tofu, fortified plant milks, kale and other green leafy vegetables. food.
For the non-athlete vegan too
Whilst all of the above information is aimed at vegan athletes it is no less relevant to anyone who follows a vegan or to a lesser extent vegetarian diet. As in both cases complete food groups are excluded so care should be taken to replace the lost nutrients such as iron and calcium through other dietary sources or if necessary through supplementation. Don’t be put off following such a diet as these types of diet are often linked to better health outcomes and modern supermarkets and health food shops provide us with a plethora of foodstuffs to meet all of these requirements. As in all dietary patterns I would simply say that we need to be mindful and endeavour to achieve a good balance and variety of foods to ensure that we obtain all of our micro and macronutrients.