With most of my writing, I try to stay focused on the science and data and my interpretation or understanding. With this article, there will be a fair amount of personal experience and some opinion. I am human after all.
I believe in transparency whether in person, presence, or writing. So, I feel the need to preface this by saying that I have always been weary of the vegan diet. I believe that it’s rooted in a misconception called the naturalistic fallacy, or the idea that anything natural is automatically good or better. I also believe that it is parallel to keto as far as being a fad diet. If one is, then both are (and vice versa).
That being said, I have always taken the stance that if someone approaches me wanting to perform at their best while remaining on a certain diet, my job is to help them follow it in the healthiest way possible. So, While I am not personally a huge fan of the vegan diet, I am here to offer guidance on how to ensure you are still reaching optimal performance if you choose to follow this diet for any of the many reasons. We will cover some of the areas of the vegan diet that may need extra consideration and/or care.
Common Pitfalls of Veganism in Athletes
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but there is still some food for thought here. While working with some players on the Miami Dolphins, I had several guys get meal plans assigned with the standard protein recommendations for a high activity athlete. They all came back to my office a few days later asking how in the world they could get that much protein. None of them were vegan. If protein can be difficult for your garden variety athlete to get enough of, imagine removing all meat, eggs, cheese, and yogurt from their diet.
One of my biggest pieces of advice is to ensure you do your research and plan ahead before jumping into this diet. There are some great plant-based protein sources, however most of them are not just high in protein, but can also come with additional carbs and fats. Chickpeas and beans, for example, are higher in carbs. Nuts and seeds have some fat in there and quinoa is mostly carbs. This just means it might take a little extra planning to ensure you are getting the right amounts of all three macronutrients.
I also advise all vegans to utilize a plant-based protein supplement. Bodylogix has one of the best mixing ones on the market. In my personal opinion, most vegan protein powders are quite grainy and can sometimes taste like drinking sand. However, I notice this a lot less with the Bodylogix Vegan Protein and it is actually enjoyable.
This is one of the only vitamins you can ONLY get from animal sources. Vegetarians are usually okay because they can get it from eggs and dairy. Otherwise it is highest in liver, shellfish, seafood, and beef. It is now fortified in breakfast cereals, breads, and energy drinks. But please don’t drink those things. They will not help with your athletic performance in any way.
Your best bet is talking to a doctor or dietitian and taking a supplement if you feel you aren’t getting enough.
The RDAs for B12 are pretty low, falling between 2 and 3 micrograms per day, depending on life stage.
B12 is involved in red blood cell production and nervous system function, so deficiency is not an athlete’s friend as it can cause anemia (poor oxygen/energy circulation due to decreased red blood cells), fatigue, and balance issues. The fortunate part is that B12 is water soluble, so taking too much at once is likely to just leave the system. It is a rare water-soluble vitamin that stores in the liver, but there is no known toxic amount of B12 known at this time.
If you noticed, I emphasized that B12 is tough to find in non-animal sources. Well, iron can be found, but its tricky. Iron exists in two main nutritional types, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is how it’s found in our body 95% of the time. This is the binding of iron to hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen through our blood) or myoglobin (which is how it stores in our muscle). This type of iron can only be found in animal sources. Non-heme is primarily found in plant sources.
Why do you need to know this? Because heme iron is much more absorbable by the body. Not only is the plant form of iron less preferred by the body, but many plants contain compounds that block the absorption of iron. Oxalates and phytates are common in leafy greens and bind iron to block its uptake by the body. Spinach is so rich in phytic acid that you get less than 5% of the iron that’s in spinach.
There is hope, however. Kale has around a 50% absorption rate of iron. Phytates and oxalates are also broken down in cooking, so cooked greens are much more rich forms of the iron they contain. Vitamin C can also increase the absorption of iron, so some lemon or red peppers with your greens can do wonders.
You should absolutely talk to a doctor before taking an iron supplement. While iron can be found in the supplement aisle of most stores, it is quickly toxic and can cause problems if you have too much. Our body is more equipped to regulate the nutrients found in food than isolated supplements.
My point in all of this is just to offer some tidbits on how to optimize athleticism if you want to go on a vegan diet. I offer my transparency to let you know that even though I’m not an outspoken fan of veganism, I will put thought and care into steering you in the right direction. I will be coming out with a podcast episode on veganism that goes deeper into my reasons behind my beliefs on it. If you are interested in listening or discussing with me further, feel free to comment on the podcast, on YouTube, or message me on Instagram.