Are you thinking about becoming a vegan? Many athletes I work with have considered or have become vegan. The problem is, starting out they have a really hard time figuring out what exactly to eat. It can be a very complicated matter; however, it is not impossible and athletes are more than able to fuel correctly on a vegan diet. Well planned plant based diets can be adequate for athletes; however, there are some nutrients of concern and foods that are a must to incorporate into their daily diets.
Protein – because animal proteins, such as eggs, dairy products, poultry, and meat are considered the most high quality and bioavailable, vegan diets can sometimes lack in protein if not eating the right foods. One important protein in particular that can be limited in a vegan diet is lysine. The highest plant sources of lysine include tofu, tempeh, soy, lentils, and seitan; therefore, a vegan diet needs to include these foods on a daily basis.
Vitamin B12 – this is the micronutrient that I worry about the most for vegans, because it is typically found only in animal foods. This nutrient plays many key roles and contributes many functions in the body; therefore, it is important for vegans to include vitamin B12 fortified foods in their daily diet, including nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals, and some meat alternatives.
Calcium –because vegans are avoiding all animal products they are not consuming any dairy products, which are the foods that contain the most readily absorbed calcium. Foods that vegans should include in their diets include milk substitutes, fortified juices, tofu, and a variety of leafy greens.
Vitamin D – just like calcium, vitamin D plays an important role in bone health. Just as important for athletes is the importance vitamin D plays in the immune system, as well as muscle function. In food, vitamin D is really only present in fish, cheese, and egg yolks – all foods that vegans avoid. The best way for a vegan athlete to get adequate vitamin D is through sun exposure and fortified foods like milk substitutes and orange juice.
Omega-3 fatty acids – again, because vegans avoid all animal products, including fish, their diets may lack in omega-3 fatty acids. Some foods that vegans should include on a daily basis include flaxseeds, walnuts, soy foods, and canola oil.
Iron – this mineral is essential for oxygen transportation in the body; therefore, a deficiency can cause fatigue and decreased performance. There are two types of iron – heme iron, which is found in animal products like fish and poultry – and non-heme iron, which is found in plant foods like beans and lentils. The problem is, non-heme iron is less bioavailable, so vegans must make sure to significantly increase their consumption of non-heme iron foods.
If you are considering becoming a vegan and are confused about what foods to buy, below is a list of my must-have vegan foods:
If you need help planning your vegan diet, please contact me!
Allison Tropf, MS, RD, CSSD
Allison is a Sports Dietitian in Michigan. She enjoys helping others reach their nutrition and fitness goals through reliable and trustworthy recommendations.
ALT Performance Nutrition