I felt inspired to write a blog post on this after hearing an excellent presentation on this topic by Roberta Anding, the sports dietitian for the Houston Texans, at the conference I went to a few weeks ago. So a big thanks to her for some of the information discussed here!
Though some may use the terms interchangeably, there are differences between a vegan and vegetarian lifestyle:
- Vegan: Does not consume any animal products.
- Lactovegetarian: Does not consume meat, fish, or eggs but does consume dairy products.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Does not consume meat or fish, but does consume eggs and dairy products.
1) Protein is essential for both endurance athletes and strength training athletes, with the specific recommendations based on your training regimen and weight. Most vegan and vegetarian athletes do well meeting their carbohydrate needs, since grains, vegetables, and fruits are good sources of carbohydrates. Meeting protein needs requires a bit more planning. Be sure to include plant-based sources of protein at each meal, including tofu, beans, soy milk, protein-fortified almond milk, nuts, seeds, and quinoa, all of which are vegan/vegetarian friendly. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can also incorporate dairy and eggs as a protein source.
2) If you decide to use a protein supplement, choose wisely. The most common protein supplements are made from whey, which comes from dairy - so it’s generally appropriate for vegetarians but not vegans. However, some whey proteins are made using calf rennet as an enzyme, so if you are a vegetarian concerned about that you’ll need to check the label (not all use this). There are vegan protein powders on the market that are produced from soy, hemp, rice, pea, or other plant-based proteins. Keep in mind that if you are a competitive athlete that goes through drug testing, or are in the military, there are some concerns about using hemp since there is a very slim chance it may cause a false positive on a drug test. While unlikely, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry and use a different source of plant protein.
3) Leucine is particularly important for muscular recovery and protein synthesis after workouts (see a blog post from a while back on this topic here). Dairy is one of the biggest sources of leucine in our diets, so vegetarian athletes can meet their needs a bit easier than vegans. Vegan athletes need to rely on other sources. Soy, nuts, and wheat germ are some of the better sources of leucine for vegans.
4) Vitamin D may be a concern for vegan athletes, particularly those who are not Caucasian (darker skin reduces Vitamin D production from sunlight in the skin). Consider getting your Vitamin D levels checked and if needed add a vitamin D supplement to your daily regimen. Vitamin D2 is an acceptable vegan dietary supplement, and you might consider supplementing between 1000 to 2000 IU per day – potentially more for low current blood levels or for African American athletes.
5) Vegetarian and vegan athletes may also fall short in the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, since fish is not eaten. While flax and chia seeds are two commonly consumed plant-based sources of omega-3s, they predominately contain ALA. However, the body is not overly efficient at converting ALA into DHA and EPA. There is no doubt that these can be healthy to include in the diet, but in order to meet DHA and EPA needs for optimal health, an algae-based supplement may be a more reliable and better utilized source.
6) Iron is important for transporting oxygen to muscles, so vegetarian and vegan athletes should make sure they’re getting enough iron each day as well. Add plant-based sources of iron like beans, legumes, certain dried fruit, tofu, and dark green vegetables to your meals. Combine these with a food rich in Vitamin C – like citrus or tomatoes – to help to increase the absorption of the plant-based iron.
Share with us: Do you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet?