There is a common misconception that people who are vegan simply don’t get enough nutrients through their diet and that they need meat for proper development and functioning.
However, if you are a vegan, you know that is simply not true. You are aware of how different types of plant-based foods can provide you with all the nutrients your body needs.
Furthermore, people also don’t believe that vegan athletes can perform as well as those that eat meat because they need meat to gain muscle.
It’s quite the opposite, actually, as studies have shown that vegetarians and omnivores were pretty much on the same level of performance and body composition – what is more, vegetarians might even have a slight edge.
Research also shows that plant-based diets can decrease the risk of developing heart disease, prostate cancer, and other types of cancer, as well as prolong life expectancy.
If you too are an athlete considering whether they should go vegan, you might be on the fence about whether you will be able to perform at a high level.
If the previous study results were not enough to convince you, keep in mind that you will be in great company as top athletes like the six-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton, the United States women’s national soccer team player Alex Morgan, strongman Patrik Baboumian, tennis player Venus Williams, and powerlifter Pat Reeves are all vegan.
However, even if you’re not planning on becoming a professional athlete and only like physical activity to improve your mental health, you can still benefit from a vegan diet. If you need some help in creating meal plans and making changes to your lifestyle, keep on reading for some top tips.
Consult with a nutritionist
First of all, the most important thing to note is that each and every body is different, meaning that your body might have different requirements than someone else practicing the same sport.
This means that, while you can look for what a famous athlete eats every day and follow the same diet, it doesn’t mean that you will have the same outcome.
Instead, you should set up an appointment with a nutritionist and go over your goals and eating habits with them. You can show them a few examples of what successful world champions eat and let your nutritionist explain whether that would be a good approach for you or not.
They might tweak it a little bit and tell you which parts could be beneficial for you and which you should avoid. Take these suggestions into account and do your best to implement them into your diet. If you notice they are not creating the effect you wanted, set up another meeting to personalize your meal plan even further.
Keep a food journal
While keeping a food journal is something that you can do regularly, it will be vital to do so when you start a new diet. For example, your nutritionist suggested a certain meal plan.
What you should do is write down every time you ate something, the nutritional value of the meal, what you did afterward, if you were tempted to eat more, if you succumbed to the temptation and had an unhealthy snack, and so on.
Having these detailed records of your eating habits can help a lot in adjusting your meal plan and finding one that works for you best.
Learn to read nutritional labels
Something you should learn early on is how to read nutritional labels. While whole foods are something you should eat more of, they don’t come with labels. When you buy a banana, you know exactly what you are getting.
However, chances are that you will not stick purely to whole foods, which is why you need to understand which ingredients you are putting into your body.
While it might not seem so, many products use unnecessary amounts of sugar and salt as well as various other additions that are not healthy or that you’ve never heard of.
What is more, if you’re sticking to a vegan diet, you want to ensure there are no animal products and byproducts in your food. You might not even notice that certain sports nutrition products use honey as a sweetener.
Come up with a meal plan
Even if you don’t enlist a nutritionist to help you, you should still have a meal plan that you will follow. For instance, if you practice early in the morning, you want a pre-workout snack that you can use for energy before and during your workout.
Then, you need a protein-rich breakfast, lunch, preferably a snack in the afternoon, and dinner. Consider having some superfood as a snack. Having a plan is very important as you have to keep in mind the fact that you might not be able to find vegan food on the go.
Do meal prep on weekends
To always be prepared and have tasty food within reach, you should dedicate a few hours during the weekend to meal prep.
This way, you can make meals for the entire week and not have to order in something that you might not be sure is vegan or simply rely on a protein bar for a meal.
Many dishes can be made in advance and put in the freezer, so all that’s left to do when mealtime arrives is reheat them.
Work on your cooking skills
However, you might not be as skilled in the kitchen as you are in your sport of choice. By setting some time aside for working on your cooking skills, you will be able to make a wide range of dishes and keep a balanced diet, without having to spend tons of money on delivery.
Even if you are a complete novice when it comes to cooking, there are so many easy-to-follow vegan recipes that will provide you with all the nutrients your body needs.
In the beginning, you could think that the food you make feels a bit bland but once you master spices like turmeric, every dish will taste amazing. Plus, this way, you can ensure every meal you eat is 100% vegan.
Eat a variety of foods
Even though you can see a list of the ingredients that restaurants put in your food, making your own meals is the best way to ensure you are eating a variety of foods.
A good approach to this is to try to eat the rainbow, as they say. You should incorporate all colors into your diet, as each color has unique health benefits.
For example, when it comes to blue foods, you can eat blueberries, blackberries, and blue tomatoes as these are high in anthocyanins that promote heart health and reduce the risk of various diseases like cancers and type 2 diabetes.
Then, yellow foods can promote gut health and ward off oxidative stress. Purple ones like acai berries, white ones like cauliflower, and black ones such as black rice are all healthy and need to find their place on your plate.
Moreover, try out some new green and red foods that never crossed your mind before.
Find various sources of protein
A balanced, rainbow-like diet will provide you with plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fibers but you cannot overlook the importance of protein for athletes, as diets high in protein promote muscle repair, growth, and recovery.
Luckily, there are many sources of protein vegans can opt for. For example, lentils can be used in plenty of dishes, from salads to soups.
They also have plenty of fiber and are rich in iron, folate, and manganese. Chickpeas and green peas, as well as pinto, kidney, and black beans, along with most other bean varieties, all have high amounts of protein per serving and are a great source of iron, potassium, and complex carbs.
While you’ve most certainly heard of tofu, tempeh, and edamame which all provide your body with the essential amino acids that it needs, perhaps you haven’t heard of the nutritional powerhouse that is the blue-green algae spirulina and seitan, which is often used as a meat alternative.
Hempseed, amaranth, and quinoa as well as Ezekiel breads, oats and oatmeal, and soy milk can all find a place in your diet. However, if you have celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, you’ll be glad to hear that there are also gluten-free sources of protein.
In addition to legumes, nuts and seeds, and soy and tofu products, you also have whole-grain alternatives such as buckwheat, teff, and millet in addition to the aforementioned amaranth and quinoa.
Something else you can consider is adding protein powder to your diet. The best thing about these foods is that plenty of them also provide your body with the necessary carbs.
Get enough calories
Eating a vegan diet could mean that you are not consuming enough calories. As an athlete, your body needs plenty of calories to perform at its peak level.
On the other hand, you don’t want to eat too much and gain unhealthy weight. Keeping track of the calories in your food diary is vital as it will let you know if you need more or less. Nuts and seeds, beans, and legumes will all help you increase the calorie count.
Intake enough healthy fats and essentials amino acids
Your body also needs healthy fats that contribute to cognition and heart health. Seeing as how you can’t eat fish, eggs, and fermented dairy, you need to find another way to obtain the important macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
For example, coconut, chia seeds, nuts, avocado, and olive oil can all provide you with healthy fats. We all know that omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in fish but walnuts and walnut oil, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, and tofu are all good sources of it as well.
We mentioned how tofu, tempeh, and edamame provide your body with amino acids but you can also look into BCAA powder to fuel your workouts and improve your recovery.
Consume plant-based meat in moderation
It’s normal that you want to use plant-based meat in your diet. However, you should eat it in moderation seeing as how these products are often packed with added sugars and sodium. Your goal is to stay healthy by consuming fresh and healthy ingredients and these foods might not provide you exactly with what you need.
Beware of deficiency signs
Vegans are often prone to specific nutritional deficiencies because they don’t consume animal products. Therefore, you should be aware of the signs that you might be lacking in iron, calcium, or vitamin B12.
If you’re lacking iron, you could see grooves in your fingernails and if you develop anemia, you will experience fatigue and vertigo.
Plenty of protein-rich foods that we mentioned earlier are also a great source of iron, so you should have no issues if you eat those regularly.
Seeing as how calcium is vital for athletes to keep their bones strong, you need plenty of green veggies, soy products, and cereals that are fortified with calcium.
A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause extreme exhaustion which is something you definitely don’t need. Mushrooms, tempeh, nutritional yeast, and fortified plant milks are great vegan options.
Consider taking supplements
However, if your physical checkup shows deficiencies, you can look into supplements. There are plenty of vegan supplements out there that will provide you with all the nutrients your body requires.
However, consult with your physician or check online reviews before you start taking them.
Regardless of their diet, every athlete knows that they have to stay hydrated. So, don’t let it slip your mind. Your body needs water to recover, so drink it throughout the day.
Keep a water bottle within arm’s reach and sip all day long. If you ever start feeling thirsty, that’s a sign that you are already dehydrated.
As you can see, being a vegan athlete is not super easy but it is achievable. Work with a professional to create a meal plan, learn more about the foods you are eating, consider supplements for the areas you are lacking in, and remember to stay hydrated.