A vegan diet for athletes and sportspeople

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Nutrition plays a key role in athletic performance. A vegan diet has numerous advantages for athletes and sportspeople, allowing them to optimise their results. If planned correctly, plant-based eating can provide the full range of nutrients required by an active body.

A balanced diet is crucial for athletic success. Whether for endurance training, muscle building, or body toning, proper nutrition and calorie intake are key components of any successful training regime.

Food supplements are not necessary for recreational sports

People who do sports in their free time have roughly the same nutritional needs as non-athletes, vegan or otherwise. Even people who exercise for up to one hour a day can usually compensate for the increased energy demands through regular food intake, making supplements unnecessary for this level of activity. Although everyone engaging in physical exercise should ensure they’re properly hydrated.

Loss of fluids and minerals through perspiration

The body loses between 0.5 and 1 litre of sweat per hour of moderate exercise. In addition to water, sweat also contains minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. The lost fluid and minerals need to be replenished after or during exercise. Consuming fruit and vegetable juices diluted with mineral water in a ratio of 1:2 or 1:3 helps replenish the loss. 1

Frequent nutritional mistakes in athletes’ diets

Sportspeople often make the same dietary mistakes as the general population, consuming too few complex carbohydrates, paying too little attention to the composition of fatty acids in their diet, and eating too much animal protein. A growing number of researchers in the field of sports science recommend a vegan diet to resolve these issues. 2

Recommendations for competitive athletes

The basic recommendations of a balanced diet, as presented in the guidelines provided by our vegan food plate, apply to the needs of competitive athletes as well, although they have higher nutrient requirements than the general population. Exact recommendations cannot be made since the precise nutritional needs depend on the discipline, intensity, duration, and frequency of exercise, as well as on the age and gender of the athlete.3 Preparing for competitions also has an influence on individual requirements. The macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements mentioned below should provide the basis of a balanced diet and play an especially important role for people engaging in physical activity.

A simple guide to healthy nutrition

The vegan food plate is an improved version of the traditional food pyramid.

Carbohydrates improve athletic performance

Complex carbohydrates should form the foundation of vegan/vegetarian nutrition for athletes, as these nutrients are vital for the functioning of muscles as well as nerve and brain cells. Complex carbohydrates are found mainly in fruits and vegetables as well as in wholegrain products (pasta, bread, oat flakes, muesli, couscous, brown rice, etc.), potatoes, and pulses. In addition, these foods contain a high proportion of dietary fibre, which prevents blood sugar levels from rising too quickly, thus ensuring stable performance. Complex carbohydrates are also beneficial for weight management as they stave off feelings of hunger.45 Other good sources of carbohydrates include millet and pseudo-cereals such as quinoa and amaranth.678

Fats bolster energy reserves

Like carbohydrates, fats are a source of energy and play an important role in athletic success. However, the dietary recommendations for fats do not vary according to the level of exercise. The share of fats in one’s diet should constitute about 30-35% of overall calories, which means that a daily requirement of about 2,000 kcal should be met with 66 grams of fat (as well as calories from other sources).9 The German Nutrition Society, along with researchers in the field of nutritional science, states that fats should come primarily from plant-based sources.10  

Saturated fatty acids (contained primarily in dairy and meat products) should be replaced with polyunsaturated fatty acids. These can be found in rapeseed and walnut oil, for example. Walnuts, shredded linseeds, and chia seeds are ideal sources of fat and can easily be added to one’s daily diet by adding them to smoothies or cereal. Microalgae oil is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.11 Omega-3 fatty acids can guard against inflammatory responses in muscles and joints and are thus especially important for people who exercise a lot. Puff pastry and fried foods should be avoided as far as possible since they generally contain trans fatty acids, which increase the risk of fat metabolism disorders.12

Proteins for muscle development

Protein is used primarily to build and maintain body tissue, including muscles. Depending on the type of sport engaged in, a person’s protein requirements may increase. Here are the recommendations for daily protein intake depending on activity level:

 

Level of activity Grams of protein needed per kilogram of body weight
Sports as a casual hobby 0.81.0
Frequent endurance training 1.21.4
Frequent strength training 1.21.7

 

The increased protein requirement can usually be met by food intake alone, so protein shakes and the like are generally not necessary.13

Along with strength training, a sufficient intake of protein-rich foods containing all essential amino acids is the basis for targeted muscle growth. It is widely recommended to consume protein immediately after strength training as this is accompanied by a significant increase in muscle mass. New studies question this recommendation, suggesting that consuming protein within three hours of exercising is sufficient.14 Tofu, chickpeas, beans, and wholegrain products are good choices for vegan sportspeople since they are particularly rich in protein.15 After a training session, it is recommended to eat protein in combination with carbohydrates which leads to a release of insulin and has a positive effect on muscle growth due to its anabolic hormonal effect. In order to capitalise on this effect, consumption of the protein-carbohydrate meal within two hours of training is considered optimal. As always, individual needs need to be taken into account.16

Vitamins, minerals, and trace elements vital for sportspeople

Sportspeople on a vegan/vegetarian diet should keep an eye on critical nutrients such as calcium, zinc, vitamin B12, and iron. The latter is an essential part of the body’s oxygen delivery system,17 and is found in wholegrain cereals (oats, millet), legumes (lentils, white beans), nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds), as well as vegetables (fennel, rocket, green peas, spinach, and so on).18 Iron-rich foods should always be combined with fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, as this will improve iron-absorption levels.

Plant-based nutrients

Whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or meat-eater, a healthy body requires a balanced and varied diet that includes all the necessary nutrients.

Calcium for a stable bone structure

The main function of calcium is to build up and strengthen the bone structure. Calcium is of particular importance for athletes since a lot of calcium can be lost through perspiration. The consumption of calcium-rich mineral water or plant milk enriched with calcium can counteract this.19

Absorption rates of calcium can be improved by the presence of vitamin D, which is produced by the skin when it is exposed to sunshine. It is therefore recommended to get at least 15 minutes of sunshine daily.20 During the darker winter months, foods enriched with vitamin D, such as margarine, cornflakes, and soy yoghurt, can also help, as can dietary supplements.

Excretion of zinc due to sports

Among other things, zinc is involved in processing stress, healing wounds, and the functioning of the immune system. Symptoms of zinc deficiency, such as fatigue, weakness, and exhaustion, can easily be confused with signs of overexertion, particularly since zinc excretion via sweat and urine rises with the level of physical activity. Particularly zinc-rich foods include oats, millet, and wheat germ.21 Since the absorption of zinc is reduced by caffeine, a zinc-rich meal should not be eaten within 12 hours of ingesting coffee and black tea.22

A plant-based diet is recommended for athletes and sport enthusiasts

A balanced vegan diet supplies athletes with all the nutrients they need. Its main advantage is the fact that, compared to a mixed diet, it generally contains less fat and, at the same time, is rich in carbohydrates and fibre. Also, researchers in the field of nutritional science agree that fats should ideally be absorbed primarily from plant-based sources. A well-planned vegan diet really can help to increase and maximise your athletic performance.

Pro Health

These are general nutrition guidelines. If you have concerns about your diet, please talk to your doctor about seeing a dietitian. Discussing the use of supplements with a health professional will help to ensure that they are suitable for you. Never stop taking prescribed medications without first talking to your doctor.

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Last updated: 11.02.2020

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