An increasing number of people, including some well-known athletes, choose to eat a vegan diet. Vegans do not consume any animal products. This article examines what nutrients vegan competitors should consider for their optimal health and performance.
Very little research has been conducted on the results of vegan or even vegetarian diets for sports participants. In 2010, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the popular diet book, Eat to Live, published a paper in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports (Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 233- 241). Dr. Fuhrman argues that vegan athletes who follow nutritarian principles (maximizing micronutrients per calorie) will outperform others. He emphasizes high quality, unrefined plant foods such as vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Athletic Benefits of Vegan Diets
In his paper, Dr. Fuhrman contends that high level athletes compromise their immune systems through hard training, leaving them more susceptible to upper respiratory infections. These infections disrupt their training programs. He believes that following a nutrient rich vegan diet bolsters the athletes’ immune systems, reducing their viral infections and loss of training time. Furthermore, Dr. Fuhrman asserts that consuming high-antioxidant plant foods may abate the effects of oxidative stress that occurs from exercising.
He then addresses whether specific micronutrients can be adequately acquired in a vegan diet. Regarding calcium and iron, he suggests that sufficient amounts of these nutrients can be found in a thoughtful plant-based diet. Other nutrients may require supplementation, however. These include zinc, iodine, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, which tend to run low in vegans and vegetarians. Vitamin D levels are often deficient, even in the general population. Finally, taurine supplements appear to boost athletic performance and also tend to be lacking in vegans.
Athletes require an increased amount of protein to synthesize intramuscular protein and reduce muscle damage from exercise. Yet the actual amount of protein needed daily remains controversial. Dr. Fuhrman’s literature review in his article generally cites protein requirements as ranging from about 1.4 to 2 grams protein per kilogram of body weight. Thus, a 150-pound athlete would require from 95 to 136 grams of protein daily.
However, he prefers to cite protein needs in terms of kcals (calories) and protein grams. He offers an example of a 150-pound endurance athlete needing 3600 calories and 120 grams of protein daily. These amounts are based on the person training four hours per day. The vast majority of competitors certainly do not train anywhere near that level. A 150-pound sedentary individual needs only about 55 grams of protein. Extrapolating to a casual recreational athlete, somewhere in the range of 70-100 may be appropriate.
Vegan athletes will benefit from further research into the effects of diet on their athletic performances. In the meantime, Dr. Fuhrman’s article offers information to benefit both high-level and more casual competitors. Veganism appears to offer at least some health and performance benefits to athletes. However, a high quality diet is required, not reliance on processed or low nutrient foods. Vegan athletes should benefit from supplementing certain important nutrients.