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Vegan nutrition for athletes – A natural approach

Vegan nutrition for athletes – A natural approach

I am often asked what my diet and workout regime is and although I am happy to share this information, it should not be assumed what is optimum for me and my lifestyle, would necessarily be optimum for everyone. We are after all individuals with different genetics, levels of fitness, backgrounds, lifestyles and of course goals.

My aim in this article is to give both an overview and tips to those who are concerned that a vegan diet may prohibit them from doing exercise and even affect their athletic performance. I am not focused on any particular sport as of course the needs of an endurance athlete will be different to that of a power lifter.

Similarly, I am not talking about elite level athletes although these tips should enable you to thrive and with slight adaptations for specific needs achieve optimum performance. What I aim to show is that vegan nutrition for athletes can indeed be optimum nutrition.

My vegan challenge

As many of you know I have been vegan now for almost 10 years but what you may not know is that I have spent most of my life being passionate about health and fitness and in particular physical fitness.

vegan female sport
Ivonne at 45 still playing basketball

I have been involved with athletics, boxing and kickboxing and spent most of my adult life in and around gyms.

I am a level 3 qualified personal trainer have a diploma in diet and nutrition and have worked with a diverse range of clients from those just looking to lose a bit of weight to others who have specific competitive goals.

My biggest challenge when becoming vegan was to unlearn many of the things I had been conditioned to believe over the previous 30 years. Now at 52 and after 9 years as a vegan I am the same weight that I was at 19 when I was kickboxing (72kg).

I have renewed energy, have less joint pain, have retained my strength and more importantly for me am never ill. So do I follow a particular vegan diet plan, well no first and foremost I’m not an athlete just a healthy vegan 52 year old that loves to be active and keep fit.

Don’t obsess the macros

Ok what I’m about to say next may sound controversial, but my first tip is don’t obsess about macros. Yes, I know we are constantly bombarded with statistics about the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat that we need but the fact is that obsessing and tracking your macros and calories just isn’t natural and in the long term isn’t ideal for health.

I never weigh food or count calories I simply don’t believe it is needed. There are many reasons for this, for a start it’s often inaccurate. Unless you are able to weigh every gram of food that you eat with a calibrated food scale and that includes every teaspoon of oil you cook with well then, your quantities are likely to be off.

Tracking can lead to an obsession and can actually limit your diet if you feel you are not matching your requirements. If you’re tracking your macros with the intention of limiting or increasing one of them you are less likely to listen to how your body feels.

And when does this stop, do you continue tracking your macros for the rest of your life? Or do you learn how to listen to your body and take a more natural approach to fitness.

A natural approach – eat what you like!

What do I mean by a natural approach, well instead of fixating on macros or calories you listen to your body, it is what is sometimes known as mindful eating and it is understanding when you feel hunger and when you feel full. This approach gives you the freedom to choose whatever foods you fancy in whatever portion size your body is hungry for.

The more you become accustomed to listening to your body the more your will crave nutrient-dense foods and more importantly in the quantities you require. This is the approach I take to eating and is the method I use with clients so that they are able to learn sustainable habits for long-term health.

The caveat to this is of course it should be well-balanced, nutrition rich, wholefood plant based diet

Vegan seeds and beans

Meet your needs by eating!

So as we have said a well-balanced vegan diet that includes a mix of foods including grains, nuts, fruits, seeds, vegetables and legumes can meet all the nutritional needs of even the hardest training athlete. The foods that have a higher protein content such as quinoa, beans, lentils, peas, edamame, soy, and rice will easily ensure that we meet any protein requirement that we may have.

Even when bodybuilding needs can be met through diet although there is no harm in having a protein shake if you limited for time. The beauty is of course that plant-based protein does not put the same load on the liver as animal protein.

Other excellent nutrient rich foods include leafy greens like spinach or kale, fruit is great for glycogen store replacement and raw nuts make a great snack for additional calories, should they be required.

Despite all the mega hype we have in the media these days with low carb high fat and keto diets don’t forget that actually carbs are your friend! Yes that right they are and they should be the main source of fuel for our bodies. Of course what is essential here is that they should all be natural unprocessed ideally coming from starches grains and fruits.

Professional plant built athletes

Ok so I have told you that actually I do nothing special with my meal plan apart from make sure that it is diverse. I eat when I’m hungry and maybe adapt my diet if I am doing a certain type of training or training for something specific. I do the same with clients and make slight adaptions depending on their needs, but what about the pros?

There are now more elite athletes than ever who are at the absolute top of their profession and who are vegan. They include footballers, boxers, mma fighters, bodybuilders, athletes and many more. This is a topic explored by James Cameron in his new documentary the game changers and is a movie that we recommend any athlete, vegan or otherwise watch.

Athletes who have transitioned to a vegan diet have experienced numerous health and training benefits. These have included aiding muscle metabolism and strength. Reduced muscle soreness, fatigue and recovery time. Also a decreased rate of inflammation and injury occurrence much of this after just a few months of dietary change

So why is this? Well basically it is due to the nutritional density and diversity of a vegan diet. A wholefood plant-based diet means a larger number of antioxidants, complementary proteins, as well as essential vitamins and minerals that help the body’s process of muscle synthesis and shorten recovery times.

If we compare a vegan bodybuilding diet to that of a traditional bodybuilder’s diet, which is dense in pro-inflammatory meat and dairy products, as well as cholesterol and saturated fats we can see why that even they are starting to take note. As even Arnold Schwarzenegger says in the Game Changers, if someone tells you that you need to eat meat to be strong they are lying.

Going back to the macros!

Ok so I have said not to fixate on the macros and it is something I am adamant about. Yes at an elite level of course we may need to adapt them slightly by I just wanted to reiterate two important macro nutrients facts.

Carbohydrates; our body is a carbohydrate burning machine. We are designed to eat carbs and plenty of them, we just have to make sure that they are whole unprocessed carbs rather than processed junk.

Good quality carbs will not make you fat and is one of the biggest myths we are sold today. It takes a lot of energy for the body to store carbohydrate as fat. If you don’t believe me listen do a range of doctors and nutritionist explain more.

Protein; If I had a pound for everyone who said that I’d be protein deficient not eating meat I’d be rich, well less poor! But seriously I’m pretty sure that “Where do you get your protein from?” is the most asked question to vegans. If you want an in-depth answer you can read our article Protein The Myths – Do Vegans Get Enough. But for today just let me just say this again! Proteins are made up of basic building-blocks called amino acids.

Every vegetable, nut, seed, grain fruit and legume contains amino acids. Our bodies only need between 5-10% of daily calories from protein to thrive and excess animal protein is actually bad for you. Protein sources are extremely varied and rich and by simply eating a varied vegan diet throughout the day you are guaranteed to meet the body’s daily needs for every amino acid. But don’t take it from listen to what the doctors have to say below:

What else you need to know

Ok so we have ascertained that you can indeed be an athlete of any level on a vegan diet and that vegan nutrition for athletes should actually be easier to manage than non vegans. So let’s just take a minute to discuss a few other things you may need to consider.

I take a natural approach to fitness and do the same with my clients however I do have over 30 years’ experience and even then, I have certain clients which I will refer to a specialist if I feel I can’t help them.

I recently had a client who was an experienced marathon running and was changing his diet from vegetarian to vegan but really want to work on reducing his times. Endurance sport is not one of my specialism so I referred him to a colleague.

If you are a vegan athlete with specific goals then I always recommend you consult a personal trainer and or nutritionist with experience in your area to help construct an appropriate training plan and make any adaptations to your diet.

For the vast majority of us though I recommend eating a mix of vegan unprocessed wholefoods and listening to your body, eat when you’re hungry and what you fancy. Find something physical you like to do and you are more likely to stick at it. If you can find someone to do it with you even better.

Don’t fixate on calories and macros if you really want to move to the next level learn how the human body really works in terms of nutrient absorption and digestion, and how this affects us.

Even if you find an exercise or sport you enjoy try to mix the training and respond to what your body tells you. This is particularly true of gym work. Realise that we are all individuals and do not compare yourself to others. Don’t obsess over your shape or size of particular body parts it really isn’t worth it.

Much better to learn about your body and focus on optimum performance. There is no point looking super fit and strong on the outside at the expense of overall health and performance.

And finally the last two super important things to remember when training, regardless whether you are vegan or not, are… make sure your stretch well and get plenty of rest. Both things that get neglected in today’s hectic world but are both so important to help avoid injuries and aid recovery.

vegan athlete warmup

Conclusion

A vegan diet is wholly appropriate for any level of athlete. Eat a nutrient dense and varied mix. Eat what you fancy and listen to your body.

For general fitness find an activity you love and try to find someone to do it with you. If needed seek professional specialised advice for training plans and any diet adaptions.

Don’t fixate on macros or calories and don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on your internal health and the rest will follow.

Most of all enjoy the food that you eat and the exercise that you do!



8 thoughts on “Vegan nutrition for athletes – A natural approach”

  • I’ve always dabble on the idea of a vegan diet regime while training for my run. Many people said that it wouldn’t provide you the kind of energy from meat-based diet, but I like to think otherwise. So it’s great to come across this article and actually see someone doing it. I have a question though – between plant-based powders (supplements from GNC and such) and natural plant ingredients (generally home made stuff), which one would you recommend for someone who’s transitioning into a vegan diet? Thank you for the input.

    • Hi Cathy, thanks for your response. I would always recommend natural fresh food instead of supplements. Thats not to say supplements don’t have a place they do but for me they should be secondary to a healthy balanced diet. We will soon be uploading lots of recipes including things such as energy balls made from dates, coconut oil, oats and nuts. There are loads of options however a good supplement for the day you have been super busy or after a heavy training session if you are really short of time is fine.

  • Hi Kevin

    My son is 17 and plays football for his high school. He has never really been a big meat eater. It is always like pulling teeth to get him to eat it. He has been eating less and less since he started playing football a year ago. Recently he announced that was going to become a vegan.

    Needless to say I was a bit concerned about his choice. I was always told by my parents that meat was one of the most crucial food groups and a necessity. I have been reading a bit about the subject and came across this article. I have to say I do feel better about his decision but still have some concerns.

    Is it healthy for him to just stop eating meat or should he slowly change his diet to a vegan diet? Given his age, I am a bit concerned about the effects that a sudden diet change may have on him.

    Tina

    • Hi Tina, thank you so much for reading the article. Changing his diet to plant based is perfectly healthy the caveat to that is to make sure that it is a balanced diet. So if he (or you as mum!) are not used to preparing food with for example quinoa, chickpeas, brown rice etc then I always say start by replacing meals rather than jumping in. Like anything a vegan diet can be unhealthy if it is not balanced and these days unfortunately there is more and more vegan ‘junk food’ on the market. My recommendation is keep it natural, unrefined and mixed and he will be fine. We will be adding lots of vegan recipes to the site over the coming months so do pop back and have a look. Let us know how he gets on

  • Hi Ivonne and Kevin,

    first of all – I love your site, I will for surely follow you and bookmark this! I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t eat eggs, I still consume milk, but I try to replace it for like almond milk and similar… I played basketball for 5 years and also chess. I realised that plant-based food really suits me and I also left meat because of the moral issue.

    It is important, as you mentioned, to try different types of food, to realise what is good for your organism. I can feel when I eat for example – banana and hazelnut – that it gives me the energy, and I’m more positive, ready to work and similar.I don’t play any sport now, I just jog almost everyday, but it is just what I need for now.When I started jogging, I realised that I ate peanut butter a lot more… and also consumed more of sesame oil.So, I think that our bodies are smart, we just have to learn to listen to them.  : )Thanks, best wishes,Susan

  • Hi, I am glad that I stumbled across your website.   While I am not actually an intentional vegan by any means, I do place a high value on a natural, balanced diet and lifestyle.   So, much of what you said here resonates with me.    I don’t measure or weigh my food.   I don’t obsess of what each food contains or how many calories it has.  

    Much like you suggested, I listen to my body and eat what I am hungry for.  I stop when I am full.   If I find that I am craving something, I eat it.   When I am getting lots of exercises, my appetite goes up.   When not, it goes down.     I may go for weeks at a time, eating what would be described as a vegan diet.   Other times, I may have a diet that would be classified as vegetarian diet.   My kids are convinced that I am a vegetarian based on their observation of my eating.    Yet every so often, I may choose to eat a juicy steak if that is what I want.  

    So, essentially what I am trying to say is that I agree with your conclusions.    Learn to listen to your body.  Eat what you fancy.   Eat a nutrient dense and varied diet.  Eat when you are hungry.  Stop eating when you are full.  Do not eat just because you are bored.   Most importantly, listen to your body.   A marathon runners body will be saying it wants very different things than 5k runners or a person that thrives on yoga.    Thanks again.    

  • I loved that you mentioned we don’t have to be obsessed with the macros. In my opinion, I believe that being natural and organic with what you eat will let you achieve your goal with less stress. As you mentioned, by listening to your body you will know what to eat and the quantities that you need.

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