Conventional wisdom holds that athletes need to eat a lot of protein, and that means eating meat and dairy products. This is not the case, however. Athletes in any discipline, at any level, can maintain or even enhance their performance by choosing a vegan diet. Eliminating animal products from your diet does not mean you will be protein-deficient or miss out on nutrition. It is an opportunity to take control of what you eat and maximize the health benefits of a balanced, well-planned diet.
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Athletes need ample carbohydrates to give muscles the fuel they need, according to registered dietitian Nancy Clark. Vegan athletes are at an advantage because plant-based sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, grains and root vegetables are also high in carbohydrates compared to meat, fish or poultry. Clark notes that "many exercisers eat too much protein," and she recommends focusing on getting a healthy balance of carbohydrates and protein--such as that found in a balanced vegan diet.
Athletes need high quality protein, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat meat. “Athletes do not need much more protein than the general public,” notes registered dietitian Reed Mangels. He notes that a balanced diet that includes a variety of different types of grains, nuts, vegetables and legumes provides an abundant and adequate mix of protein, including all the essential amino acids. Suggested sources of high-quality vegan protein include tofu, quinoa, soy beans and spinach.
Balanced vegan diets are naturally high in vitamins and minerals, due to including a range of fruits and vegetables. However, vitamin B12 naturally occurs only in animal products, so vegan athletes should ensure they get adequate B12 by taking a supplement, or eating fortified foods. Many vegan foods including tofu and brewers yeast are routinely fortified with vitamin B12.
Vegetable-based diets are naturally less caloric than those based on meat and dairy products. This may seem like an obstacle to athletes who need to consume a lot of calories to fuel their training, but it is possible. Vegan ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek eats as much as 6,000 to 8,000 calories per day during peak training, but does so with a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. He achieves this by eating a balanced diet with a range of fats including: “avocados, rich monosaturated fats, almonds, [and] olive oil."