Among the many popular diets of today is the vegan diet. Some do it for health reasons, others for the environment and still others for religious or philosophical reasons. Regardless of your reasons, the vegan diet poses some nutritional challenges – especially for the unique needs of strength-power athletes, team-sport athletes and those who want to build muscle and/or sculpt a lean, athletic body. If you are an athlete or you want to look and feel like one while eating a vegan diet, the following will help get you there.
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Disclaimer: I’m not trying to push vegan eating on anyone. I’m not a vegan and I have no intention of becoming one. However, many people for a variety of reasons choose to be vegans and I respect their decision and want to help them reach their goals. I have no intention to use this platform to pick a fight or start at vegan vs. meat-eater debate. The following is not intended to be an individualized nutrition plan or health advice. Rather, I simply wanted to share some things I have learned as a Sports Nutrition professor and nutrition coach. I want to help people who have already chosen to be vegans.
Here is what I would do if I were a vegan.
Keep eating a ton of fresh vegetables
The single most important thing you could ever do for your nutrition is to eat less junk and eat more vegetables. This is the most important thing about a vegan diet. This, I believe is the main reason why the average vegan is healthier than the average meat eater. Every successful diet does this – even those that may seem like a polar opposite to a vegan diet such as Paleo.
Avoid vegan mock health foods
As with any other popular diet, there are always mock health foods. Just like there are lots of gluten free junk foods on the market, there are also many vegan junk foods. Yes, some of these can be used as occasional treats, but junk food is junk food. I don’t care if a hot dog is made with a soy bean or pork by-products – it is still junk food and can’t be a dietary staple.
Eat a variety of whole grains and legumes
Most people fall into a rut of eating the same grains all the time. If you live in North America that means wheat and corn are your staple grains. Since grains and legumes need to be a staple in a vegan diet, you need a wide variety of them. This helps gives you a variety of nutrients and helps prevent food intolerances which can occur from over-consumption of a particular food.
Get some saturated fat
Back in the fat-phobic 80’s, saturated fat was demonized. Today, many people still fear it. While too much is bad, (as with any food) you need some saturated fat. Saturated fat and cholesterol are important for your body’s natural production of testosterone. Most folks get all the saturated fat they need from animal products. If I was a vegan, I would add some saturated fat from plant sources such a coconut oil and other tropical oils (e.g. rep palm oil).
Use caution with processed soy
Soy is a controversial topic. I like Dr. Kayla Daniel’s approach to soy – eat traditional fermented Asian style soy and avoid the highly processed, non-fermented North American-style soy.
Related: Be Soy Smart
Eat more omega-3’s and less omega-6’s
For a long time now, omega-3 fats have gotten a lot of media attention – and for good reason. These are essential fats that your body needs to get from your diet and they are low in the typical North America diet. As a result, when people increase their omega 3 fat intake, they correct a nutrient deficiency. Fats are used the make up the membrane of every cell in your body. When you get more of these omega-3 fats, it can improve your health at the cellular level. As a result, omega-3 fats can offer tremendous benefits including: brain health, vision, heart health, joint health, insulin sensitivity, fat loss and much more. However, don’t take my word for it. Go on Pub Med, type in “fish oil” and search the medical journals for yourself. You will be amazed.
One huge benefit for anyone who trains hard is that omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory. Omega-6’s however are more pro-inflammatory. If your diet is too high in omega-6’s and low in omega-3’s you can have increased inflammation which can lead to joint problems and chronic diseases.
The challenge for vegans is that they miss out on the essential fatty acid DHA found in fish oil. Also, many eat at lot of omega-6 rich foods such as sunflower seeds and vegetable oils (e.g. soy oil). To get as close to the optimal ration of omega-6-to-3’s (typical North American is 20:1 and 4:1 is ideal), I would limit my intake of omega-6 foods and use ground flax seeds. I would also follow Precision Nutrition’s advice and supplement with algae oil. Algae is where the fish get their omega-3’s and it’s the best vegan source of omega-3’s.
Related: More on fish oil
Check for nutrient deficiencies
As with any diet, you want to make sure you don’t have any nutritional deficiencies. Ideally a full diet analysis by a dietician would be the best way to screen for dietary deficiencies. However because I’m cheap, I would likely use start with a website/app program (e.g. Cronometer.com). If any deficiencies are found I would then look to add the necessary foods or supplements to correct these deficiencies.
Supplement to fill in the gaps
When you remove a major food group from you diet, you often find you are missing or lacking in certain nutrients. However, many of these gaps can be addressed with supplements. I don’t sell supplements and I’m not trying to push any on you, but here is what I would use if I was a vegan.
Vitamin B12 is really only found in meat. If you are not eating meat, it is wise to supplement.
Vegan protein powder
Yes, you can get protein from plant foods and you can combine grains with legumes or nuts to get create complimentary proteins (i.e. the combination of 2 different foods that are each deficient in a different essential amino acid). However, you still run into two challenges:
1. Protein quality. Plant-based proteins have a lower quality protein than animal based proteins.
2. Protein amount. Foods that vegans often use for protein are relatively low in protein. For example, in my Sport Nutrition Class, I get my students to calculate their optimum protein intake, divide that number by the number of meals they eat in a day and then calculate the appropriate serving size of their favourite protein-rich foods. One year I had a student try to do this with quinoa. While quinoa has complete protein, its levels are quite low. This student found out he would have to eat 5 cups of quinoa in a meal to reach his optimum requirements.
Related: Finding Your Optimal Protein Level
As a result of these challenges, a quality vegan protein powder can provide concentrated amounts of plant proteins and make it much easier to get optimal levels of protein to support hard training. It also helps to have the desired balance of macronutrients (i.e. percentages of proteins, fats and carbs). I would use a mix of various plant-based proteins such as rice, pea and hemp.
Aside from fortified foods (i.e. foods where they add the vitamin D supplement to the food for you), there are few food sources for vitamin D. Supplementation needs for vitamin D have more to do with sun exposure than diet. Depending on where you live in the world, the season and how much sun you get, you may benefit greatly from a quality vitamin D3 supplement.
Related: More on vitamin D
See above section on omega-3's
Leucine & BCAA’s
Leucine is the only amino acid that can stimulate protein synthesis on its own. While a variety of methods have been used over the years to determine protein quality, leucine content remains one of the best methods. By supplementing leucine or branched-chain amino acids (which contain leucine, isoleucine and valine) you can improve protein synthesis. This can be a helpful addition to a plant-based meal.
About half of normal creatine levels are naturally produced by the body and the other half is from eating meat. As a result, vegans typically have lower than average creatine levels. Creatine monohydrate supplementation is very helpful for building muscle and improving performance in short-duration strength, speed and power work. Over the last few decades mountains of research papers have been published on the benefits of creatine. It is cheap and effective.
Due to regular menstruation, ladies are more susceptible to iron deficiencies. This risk goes up if combined with intense training. While there are plant-based foods that have iron (e.g. spinach) plant-based iron is less absorbable than iron found in meat. However, over-consumption of iron can be harmful. If you are vegan, get your iron levels checked. If you are low, supplement to get them up and (if needed) keep them up. If you correct an iron deficiency, you will feel like a million bucks!
Close the goal gap
Yes, you can build muscle, get leaner and improve performance on a vegan diet. However it is extra-challenging on a vegan diet. Sure you can find examples of vegans on the internet who are very strong, muscular, lean and successful in athletics. However, here are 2 quotes to consider:
“The exception does not dictate the norm” Charles Poliquin
Key point: just because you can find someone who achieved spectacular results on a vegan diet does not mean that you will be able to do the same.
“Sure there are some very strong vegans but the best lifters in the world eat meat.” Corey O’Gorman
Key point: most successful vegan athletes are endurance athletes. Yes you can find vegans who have built impressive physiques and put up impressive numbers in the gym. However, the question for you is: will a vegan diet be enough to get you to your goals? If not, you have a gap between you and your goals. At this point you must choose to adjust your nutrition or adjusting your goal to close this gap.
About a year ago, I had a friend and colleague who became a vegan. It didn’t work well for him and he lost a lot muscle. More recently he introduced a modest amount of healthy meats into his largely plant based diet. As a result, his strength went up and he quickly re-gained the lost muscle. You don’t have to go all or nothing. You can eat a mostly-vegan diet and add some quality animal proteins to the mix.
The following is not intended to be an individualized meal plan for you, but here is how I would adjust my personal nutrition plan if I was on a vegan diet. I thought I would through it in as a practical example of the info given above.
Oatmeal with apple, walnuts, hemp hearts, cinnamon and a few organic raisins
Stir fry: mixed beans, tomato, spinach, onion and garlic in coconut oil
1 scoop vegan protein powder
Leucine or BCAA’s
1-2 capsules of algae oil
2 cups of unsweetened almond milk
¾ cup frozen blueberries
1.5 scoops vegan protein powder
1 cup Kale
2 tbsp ground flax seeds
Brown rice & black beans
Salad with mixed greens, pepper, tomato, almonds and avocado, olive oil, spices and sea salt
Leucine or BCAA’s
1-2 capsules of algae oil
1 serving of BCAA’s
Power shake (same idea as above)
1 tsp creatine monohydrate
1 serving of BCAA’s
Yams roasted in coconut oil with apple and cinnamon
Steamed mixed veggies with olive oil, sea salt and seasoning
¾ cup quinoa
1 cup roasted chick peas
1-2 capsules of algae oil
Leucine or BCAA’s
Note: other supplements listed above would be worked in throughout the day as needed
How about you? Have you ever tried a vegan diet? If so, how did it go for you? I invite you to leave your questions and comments below or on my Facebook page.
Smith-Ryan, AE. & Antonio, J. (eds.). (2013). Sports nutrition & performance enhancing supplements. New York: Linus Publications.