I’m often asked about my professional opinion regarding the active individual who has chosen a vegan lifestyle. The most common concern is usually whether that individual can get enough protein to sustain growth, recovery, and performance for their activity level. I’ll address these major concerns briefly, but each athlete is unique and may be in a different training phase with different nutritional needs. No two athletes are alike, even if they are training the same way for the same sport.
Many people choose vegetarianism for personal, ethical, political, and even medical reasons, and I’m not here to advocate one way or the other, but to address the needs of that individual from the standpoint of adequacy in energy and food composition in order for to thrive in life and sport.
The vegan diet is essentially an elimination diet, much like a gluten-free, dairy-free, or sugar-free eating lifestyle. The vegan, by definition, avoids animal derived food products and consumes a strict plant based meal plan. The following are some of the major concerns when choosing a vegan lifestyle, and is by no means comprehensive of the topic.
Plant based proteins are incomplete. Food diversity is a must in order to complete the individual’s protein needs. Essential amino acids are those which your body cannot synthesize, and require a variety of food sources in order to meet the body’s requirements for growth and recovery. You don’t have to have a “complete” protein profile for every meal, but by the end of the day, you should consider whether or not you’ve met your requirement in the proper amount. Too often, trying to consume a “complete” protein profile in a single meal means eating more volume and diversity of foods, which translates to inadvertent overconsumption of calories. Not a good strategy if weight gain is an issue.
Plant based foods are low in fat. This could be a good thing when trying to reduce calories and cholesterol. But fats play a vital role in hormone production and in energy density for the active individual. An athlete in training needs calories to produce work and perform. Plant based foods have a much greater carbohydrate percentage than it’s protein and fat constituents, causing you to become hungrier sooner, and perhaps left feeling unsatisfied from a carb heavy meal. Avocado, flax and chia seeds are rich in fats, and should be a regular part of the vegan diet.
Plant based foods are generally carbohydrate rich. Your body prefers to use carbohydrates over fats and proteins as fuel. Vegan diets fulfill the body’s natural preference by using carbs right away to stabilize blood sugar. At the same time, the body is frequently dependent on the next meal. If it doesn’t get it, performance suffers. The vegan athlete must be prepared for the next meal frequently in order to avoid hypoglycemia.
Energy intake will vary depending on training phase. Athletes should pursue adaptive training phases throughout the year, and not train the same way all year long. These phases, or training periods, are often defined by time periods of weeks to months, and may emphasize growth, maintenance, body composition, and performance. Each of these phases will require different macronutrient needs and caloric volume in order to achieve the best outcome. The omnivore, as well as the vegan should keep this in mind during the training phase they are in.
All diet varieties require attention to detail in order to meet the body’s nutritional needs. Vegan diets, like many elimination diets, can be accomplished successfully by the athlete, but require planning, education, and self awareness. Remember, the informed individual has more options and are able to troubleshoot problems more quickly and adequately. A good coach or nutritionist can also accelerate your learning curve, so consider having one if your are new to the vegan diet.
Dr. Adrian Pujayana has been providing drug-free solutions for health and wellness to adults, athletes, and youth since 2000 through his private practice at Family Chiropractic Center of South Pasadena, a place for strength training and nutrition based health care.