January is the time of the year where everyone commits to unrealistic resolutions, devised a day or two before new years in a desperate attempt to ‘make this the year you become a better you’.
Thanks to this trend millions of people will try vegan January to reap both the environmental benefits as well as the health benefits but the question is: Can vegan diets support a high level of performance in sport?
Given the recent popularity of veganism, there hasn’t been extensive data on how vegan diets affect athletes. However, whatever research has been carried out concludes in the same way. As long as an athlete can follow a balanced diet with a complete set of nutrients that meets the specific requirements of the sport, it should not affect his or her performance.
Poorly balanced vegan diets tend to provide less energy, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and other micronutrients. For this reason, it is important that those who follow a vegan diet are supervised by a nutritionist or a healthcare professional in order to avoid any deficiencies.
Energy and Carbohydrates
Due to its high content of plant food, a vegan diet tends to provide less energy than an omnivorous diet. So if an athlete is considering becoming a vegan, stamina and energy levels can be maintained by eating more frequent meals that include adequate amounts of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
Vegan diets often provide high amounts of fibre, so they tend to be more satiating. So you can use foods such as pasta or rice or skinless tubers, avoiding more fibre-rich foods such as pulses or brown rice in order to consume the recommended amount of carbohydrates for an athlete.
Proteins and Fats
Protein plays an important role in the diet of athletes, so it is necessary to ensure adequate intake of protein in a vegan diet. It is true that many of the vegetable proteins are not as complex as animal-based protein but the solution is easy: combine the different sources of vegetable proteins: legumes, grains, seeds, nuts. It is not necessary that it is done in the same meal, if it is throughout the day then this should be enough. For example, if at breakfast you eat some oats and nuts and lentils for lunch, you can manage to make a complete protein source.
As for fat, vegan diets tend to provide less saturated and total fat; they may also have less omega-3 content. To achieve a correct synthesis of omega 3 in the organism you would need to consume a variety of seeds (chia, ground or hydrated flax), nuts, green leaves and high-quality flaxseed oil. Other sources such as extra virgin olive oil and avocado should also be included in your diet, which will complete the contribution of fatty acids.
The consumption of refined vegetable oils (soy, sunflower, corn...), margarine or industrial fats should be avoided. In some cases taking supplements with omega 3 can be beneficial for vegan athletes.
Vitamins and minerals, which micronutrients are at risk?
Special attention should be paid to the following vitamins and minerals as they are less present in plant-based foods.
In first place is the B12 vitamin, as plant sources contain hardly any of this vitamin.
Vitamin D deficiency is highly prevalent in the general population and in athletes. Although vegans have a lower intake of this vitamin, their main source is sun exposure. When a deficiency is diagnosed by a professional, supplements will help to improve performance (and of course health), as this vitamin has many functions in the human body.
Iron and zinc are found in legumes, whole grains, seeds, and nuts. These same foods contain compounds that limit their absorption: phytates. In order to inactivate these phytates, you can use culinary techniques such as soaking, fermentation or germination.
On the other hand, iron that is found in vegetables is absorbed in lesser amounts, so you must accompany these foods with vitamin C, which is found in fruits such as oranges or kiwis or in vegetables such as red peppers.
Vegans usually ingest low amounts of calcium, so you must consume foods rich in this mineral, such as: cruciferous (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, ...), nuts, seeds and legumes. It is necessary to separate its intake from oxalates, which prevent its absorption and are found in some vegetables, such as chard, eggplant. The inactivation of phytates would also be advisable.
The last mineral to pay attention to is iodine, which is found in seafood, such as fish or seaweed. Vegans may have low levels of iodine, but excessive levels in those who consume algae too often are also harmful. One way to achieve adequate iodine levels is to use small amounts of iodized salt (as long as no algae are consumed).
Supplements and ergogenic aids
Research says that vegans have low deposits of creatine, one of the sources of energy during exercise. Supplements tend to be beneficial to most athletes who follow an omnivorous diet by increasing deposits, but in the case of vegan athletes, it may be even more beneficial because of lower previous levels.
Similarly, carnosine deposits in muscles appear to be less in vegans. Carnosine helps to reduce the acidity that is generated in the muscle during high-intensity exercise. Carnosine synthesis depends on another substance, beta-alanine. Therefore, beta-alanine supplementation may be beneficial among vegan athletes.
Dr. Helios Pareja Galeano and María Martínez Ferrán are researchers at the European University in the Research Group on Exercise Physiology and Nutrition.