By Jackie Foot, Registered Dietitian & Wellness Warehouse Product Technologist
Veganism is a lifestyle that attempts to exclude animal-derived products as far as is possible and practical. While the concept of veganism is by no means new (evidence of people choosing to avoid animal products can be traced back over 2 000 years), its rise in recent times can be attributed to its increased visibility on social media, and a handful of highly popular documentaries (who hasn’t watched Gamechangers?).
Why are people choosing to ‘go vegan’? One of the biggest motivators is health. Benefits of a vegan lifestyle may include a reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, too name a few. Many elite athletes - including American tennis player Venus Williams, Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, and even American Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris - have adopted vegan lifestyles, citing that the diet and lifestyle have helped them to perform at their best. Many also choose the lifestyle because of their strong ethical beliefs regarding animal welfare.
Sadly, there seems to be a lack of literature on the management of vegan diets for sports and exercise. However, it is clear that through the strategic management of food and appropriate supplementation, the macronutrient challenges presented by a vegan diet can be addressed and controlled. If you are considering adopting a vegan diet to enhance your exercise regime, there are a few important factors to consider…
Get your energy levels in gear
A key component of achieving optimal training and performance through nutrition is to ensure an athlete offsets energy expenditure with sufficient calorie intake. A negative energy balance is common amongst athletes, especially in endurance, weight-making and aesthetic athletes - and it may be especially difficult for larger athletes and/or those engaged in high-volume or intensity training to achieve their caloric needs on a vegan diet.
It’s also worth noting that a nutritionally incomplete diet in physically active women can result in energy deficiency, menstrual irregularities, and low bone mass - known as the Female Athlete Triad. One consequence of insufficient energy (in both men and women) that cannot be ignored is the possibility of compromised immunity and a greater risk of injury. This could result in time off from training and competition, which in turn results in weight loss, muscle loss, reduced strength, and a lower work capacity. To ensure that individual-specific targets are reached, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends tailoring energy requirements to an athlete’s body mass, activity level, and exercise intensity.
A note on fibre
Vegans consume more fibre than omnivores, which may promote early satiety. This could lead to problems where a high-caloric diet is required to support energy expenditure. In order for vegans to ensure that adequate energy consumption is achieved, increasing eating frequency and energy-dense foods (like nuts, seeds and oils) may be useful.
Maintain your protein intake
Maintaining a Net Protein Balance (NPB) between the Muscle Protein Breakdown (MPB) and the Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is an important facet of an athlete’s diet. Having a positive NPB via a positive MPS aids in exercise recovery, anabolism and adaption.
The general guideline for most non-active adults is 0.8 g/kg a day, while endurance athletes should aim for 1.2 - 1.4 g/kg a day, and strength and power athletes for 1.6 - 1.7 g/kg a day. Research suggests that the poor digestibility of plant-based protein sources needs to be accounted for when designing a vegan athlete’s diet. It has been suggested that vegetarians may need to consume more protein than omnivores to account for this, with suggested recommendations of 1.0 g/kg a day for non-athletic vegetarians, and the upper end of 1.4 - 2.0 g/kg a day for active vegans.
Attention should be paid to both the quality and quantity of protein consumed. Plant-based protein sources are sometimes considered incomplete, as they do not contain optimal amounts of certain essential amino acids, and less branch chain amino acids than animal protein sources. It’s therefore recommended that vegans consume a variety of protein-rich plant-based foods.
If, as a vegan athlete or fitness enthusiast, you find it difficult or inconvenient to achieve your protein targets through whole foods, you may consider a plant-based protein supplement. You can find high-quality isolates or blends of pea, hemp and rice protein powders at your nearest Wellness Warehouse.
Carbohydrates (in moderation) are king
Vegan diets are characterised by higher carbohydrate consumption, specifically derived from fruits, vegetables and fibre. These contain beneficial antioxidants, micronutrients and phytochemicals, which may mitigate the effects of excess inflammation and promote recovery. Depending on the type of exercise, athlete’s gender and goals, carbohydrate intake requirements range from 4 - 12 g/kg a day to support high training volumes.
These requirements are easily met by consuming grains, legumes, tubers, root vegetables and fruit. However, these foods are resistant to digestion and absorption, and promote early satiation. For athletes who require a higher energy target, consuming such foods to achieve protein and carbohydrate requirements could prove difficult, and - in some cases - a high-fibre diet can also promote gastric discomfort. It may then be prudent to also consume some lower-fibre foods (such as rice or pasta), being mindful of achieving sufficient micronutrient requirements.
Fill up on good fats
Although a contentious topic, the reduction of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer in those who consume a vegan diet could be attributed to the fact that vegan diets tend to be lower in total and saturated fats, and higher in beneficial omega-6 fatty acids than their omnivorous counterparts. Achieving the 0.5 - 1.5 g/kg a day (or 30% of daily energy) is feasible through plant-based sources like nuts, seeds, avocados and oils.
Unfortunately, the absence of marine-sourced fats appears to result in vegans consuming fewer omega-3 fatty acids. These are important for normal growth and development and maintain cardiovascular health, and play an important role in inflammatory and chronic disease. Because omega-3s may improve nitric oxide production and possess anti-inflammatory benefits, vegan athletes will benefit from consuming omega-3 ALA plant-based sources like flax seeds, walnuts and chia