The vegan diet is increasing in popularity. Everyone keeps talking about it.
In terms of sports, you can hear it all. Some argue that for athletes, vegan diet is not only inadequate, but it also threatens their health. On the other hand, others claim it's the best diet out there.
Who's right? Who's wrong?
Let's look into it, shall we?
The fundamental question
Can a vegan diet work for an athlete or not?
The answer is double-edged.
Some vegan athletes have achieved unprecedented highs (e.g., Novak Djoković), while others lost their competitive edge and their health in one fell swoop.
It may seem a little black and white, but most likely a vegan diet can work for an athlete if they make it work for them. That is, if it is well-planned and fits the athlete's lifestyle.
A vegan diet can work for an athlete, but not unconditionally.
Many athletes, vegan or not, don't consume enough energy and especially carbohydrates throughout their day.
This leads to numerous health issues, especially for female athletes.
Whatever diet you follow, you need to sustain a sufficient caloric and carbohydrate intake!
A vegan diet has no problem getting you there. Most vegan-friendly foods are high in carbohydrates. The only problem is that vegan carbohydrate sources can have lots of fiber.
If you ingest too much fiber, you may block your appetite and prevent a sufficient energy intake. And on top of this, too much fiber can cause digestive issues during exercise.
It's important to choose carbohydrate sources wisely.
Vegan diet and protein
It's what you always hear. A vegan diet doesn't provide enough protein!
But is it true?
To a certain degree, yes. But plant origin food can very well be rich in protein (e.g., pumpkin seeds, lentil, beans, tofu, quinoa). There are also some other very good protein sources available in certain regions such as Mycoprotein.
But protein is not just about quantity. It must be digestible and have a good composition of amino acids, too.
It's a fact that most plant protein sources have poorer digestibility and amino acid profile compared to animal protein sources.
The first problem can be solved by eating more protein. The second problem can be solved by eating different sources of plant protein with each meal, as different sources lack different amino acids.
By combining different sources of plant protein, you can get the full amino acid profile.
Carbohydrates and fats
No need to sweat over carbs. On a vegan diet, you'll get plenty of those.
On the other hand, fats often get overlooked. This can cause problems.
Don't forget that fats are essential. Fortunately for all you vegan diet fans out there, plant-based food is rich in quality fat – nuts, seeds, quality oil, avocado.
Pay special attention to omega 3 fatty acids. You find them in walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds. Or, if that fails, you can always use supplements.
Don't forget about fats. They are your friends.
The good news is that plant food is rich in micronutrients.
The bad news is that not all of them.
There are some important ones missing, like vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iron.
This vitamin can hardly be found in plant-based foods. It's why many vegan athletes have vitamin B12 deficiency.
You'll probably have to rely on supplements for this one.
Oh, and take a blood test. It will reveal your actual vitamin B12 levels as well as iron status by looking at especially ferritin levels.
Yes, plant-based food is rich in iron. Unfortunately, it's bioavailability is most likely lower than your needs.
Vegan athletes should go for iron-rich foods and avoid foods that limit its absorption – coffee, cocoa, tea.
They should also increase the intake of vitamin C. It improves iron absorption. Great combo.
Iron deficiency is even more prevalent in female athletes. Constant monitoring is recommended.
So, is the vegan diet a yes or a no?
As it seems, it's a yes, if that's what you're after.
But, like any other diet, it can lead to micronutrient deficiency. This decreases athletic performance and leads to health issues.
I recommend you switch to a vegan diet slowly. Monitor your body's response, athletic performance, and wellbeing.
I advise against changing diets during periods of intense exercise.
Also, if you can, consult a nutritionist. They will help you avoid any deficiencies.