When you focus on fruits, veggies, and zero animal products, you just might kick up your intake of vitamins and minerals essential for top athletic performance.
By Mallory Creveling
Tennis star Venus Williams, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, and football players Trent Williams and D.J. Swearinger all have one thing in common besides their pro-level athleticism: A vegan diet.
You might picture most pro athletes downing protein shakes and eating red meat and poultry, but several have boasted about the benefits of going plant-based. And while there are some nutrients of concern for vegans—especially athletes—going fully animal product-free has its advantages. That is, as long as you choose the right foods.
Technically, pre-packaged, added sugar-laden foods fit the vegan lifestyle. For example, oreos and bagels, would work for the meat-free. But it’s important to stick with the nutrient-rich meals that are actually made from plants, so meal prepping and planning ahead will help make that happen, says Angela Lemond, RDN, a Texas-based nutritionist and founder of Lemond Nutrition.
“Veganism really speaks to what people don’t eat. It doesn’t necessarily say what you do eat,” Lemond says. “That’s important to note because you can still have a junky vegan diet.” As long as you skip those pre-packaged but still vegan-friendly foods, though, you can use the diet to your athletic advantage.
Benefits of Going Vegan
Many athletes—particularly endurance athletes—need carbohydrates to feed their muscles for workouts. The vegan diet provides a high dose, and healthy variety, of this macronutrient, aka one of the essential nutrients you need in large quantities (right along with fat and protein).
“When you’re looking for energy, you’re looking for quality carb sources,” Lemond says. “If you put together a combo of good-for-you vegan foods, you’ll get an extremely nutrient-dense diet, which is going to benefit any athlete.” Whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy and of course, fruits and veggies are all good products to turn to for beneficial vitamins and minerals.
While only about one in 10 Americans get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, according to the CDC, many vegans tend to meet those requirements. That means those on a plant-based diet tend to get more fiber and folate (a B vitamin), along with vitamins A, C, and E—all anti-inflammatory nutrients that help ease sore muscles, an advantage for athletes and weekend warriors alike.
Torey Armul, RDN, a sports nutritionist in Columbus, OH agrees that when done right, a vegan, nutrient-rich diet can provide real pay-offs for anyone living an active lifestyle. “Vegans tend to get more fiber, which helps with gut health, bowel regularity and weight control, all aspects that benefit active individuals,” she explains. “They also consume more carbohydrates, which is the preferred fuel source for muscles.”
The uptake in nutrient-rich dishes, along with the fact that many meatless eaters consume less fat (especially saturated fat) could also be the reason vegans have a lower incidence of cancer, diabetes and heart disease, according to research.
Vitamins You Need As A Vegan Athlete
Sticking to a strict no-animal-product meal plan does provide extra servings of some vitamins and minerals, but vegans tend to miss a few others. Mainly, vegans lack vitamin D, B12, calcium, iron, and zinc (both of which are hard to get from plant sources, plus iron needs vitamin C for the body to absorb it properly). Supplements may be the best way to make up for low levels of these nutrients, but more foods like beans, lentils, and dark leafy greens can also help, Lemond says.
In general, if you’re considering going plant-based, think about why exactly you want to do it. Then focus on creative ways and use healthy recipes to make, using fruits and veggies. Though convenient, grabbing deep fried veggie chips doesn’t count. But meals like smoothie bowls, chickpea scrambles, zucchini noodles with black bean and quinoa balls, kale salads or stuffed squash—now that will do the body good.
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