Can athletes thrive on a plant based diet?

According to the Association of Dieticians of Canada, four percent of Canadian adults are vegetarian, and roughly two percent are vegan. There are many reason they make this choice – ethical, health, religions, etc.

Regardless of the reason why, the number one question is always “Where do you get your protein?”

And for an athlete, that is a valid question. Can athletes train hard, be successful and stay healthy on a vegan diet?

The answer is definitely yes but care should be taken to make sure they are getting all of their nutrients, not just enough protein.

Olympic figure skater Meagan Duhamel has been vegan since 2008. In an interview with Global News, Duhamel explains that she is very meticulous as to making sure she consumes adequate amounts of nutrients to remain healthy.

According to Brendan Brazier, there are three common problems for vegan athletes: hunger, muscle stiffness or cramps and low energy levels. These are all avoidable with the right combination of plant-based foods.

Hunger can be eliminated by eating protein and good quality fat at each meal and snack. Some good protein sources include

  • Hemp seed nut and flour
  • Tofu
  • Beans (kidney, black, garbanzo, soy, adzuki)
  • Legumes

And to make sure that protein does everything it is supposed to, pair it with a quality fat such as

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Flax seed oil
  • Hemp seed oil
  • Avocado
  • Non-roasted nuts and seeds

Another problem that a vegan athlete may encounter is muscle stiffness and cramps caused by a lack of sodium and/or calcium.

Sea salt can easily be added to a meal to help increase sodium and calcium is found in these vegan options:

  • Almonds
  • Beans
  • Dark, leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Sunflower seeds

And finally, an athlete may experience low energy levels. Brazier says that “When red meat is eliminated from an active person’s diet, the long-term effect is often a reduction in red blood cells often leading to anemia. Vegan or not, athletes have traditionally had trouble maintaining satisfactory iron levels for optimal performance.”

This is not only bad for an athlete’s performance but can compromise the athlete’s overall health. A bi-yearly blood test and reveal any deficiencies before they get too serious. And of course eating iron rich foods alongside foods rich in Vitamin C will help:

  • Fortified cereal
  • Split pea soup
  • Cookies or other baked foods made with molasses (also high in calcium)
  • Dried peas and beans (kidney, lima, lentils)
  • Bran
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Soybean nuts
  • Prune juice, raisins
  • Enriched rice
  • Peanut butter
  • Apricots
  • Green beans
  • Walnuts, cashews, pecans, almonds

For anyone thinking about converting to a vegan diet, or wondering if your diet is meeting your body’s needs, visit a registered dietitian, especially one well-versed in the vegan diet.

Happy Vegan Day!