Feeding a Vegan Athlete

The notion of a vegan athlete is not an oxymoron, and there are many athletes today who are eliminating meat and dairy from their diets. The assumption that athletic performance is dependent on eating large quantities of meat is not as pervasive as it once was. There is a greater awareness nowadays of plant-based proteins and the negative effects of excessive meat eating on the human body. More athletes are discovering they can ditch the meat and still build muscle and maintain their energy with a protein rich, vegan diet.

What About Protein?

“What about protein?” is the question that confronts many people who adopt a vegan lifestyle. This is even truer for an athlete, especially bodybuilders, who require a large amount of protein to nourish and build muscles. A lack of protein can cause a number of problems such as diminished energy and a slowing of muscle growth. People who eat too many carbohydrates and not enough protein may experience volatility in blood sugar levels and sudden hunger. In addition, they may feel less energetic, which can be disastrous if it happens during an athletic event.
If an athlete doesn’t consume enough protein, the body breaks down muscle tissue along with fat.

This is another reason why every athlete has to be conscious of protein consumption, particularly the vegan athlete. Fortunately, there is an abundance of plant proteins that can provide the same benefits as animal proteins. The drawback is that plant- based protein may lack iron which can be supplemented and other forms. Vegan athletes should consume a large amount of soy, nuts and replace regular flour with high-protein flour made with soy or chickpeas.  Many athletes eat soy products to increase their strength even if they are on a regular diet, and are already aware of the benefits of soy.

Getting Enough Fat

While not athletes often try to avoid fat as much as possible, people who burn a lot of calories in athletic events and training need fats to keep their energy levels up, prevent the body from processing carbohydrates too quickly and aid in muscle development. There are plenty of vegan fats that you can add to your meals, such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, and other plant-based oils.

You don’t have to give up your favorite meat-based sandwich if you go vegan, but you can make a vegetarian BLT with tempeh bacon, tomato and lettuce on whole wheat toast with Hampton Creek Just Mayo spread.  This mayonnaise alternative contains no eggs and has all the flavor of regular mayonnaise. It is also a convenient way of incorporating healthy fats on your vegan training table.

Calcium, Sodium, and Iron

Many people have retired the saltshaker because they feel that sodium is unhealthy, but athletes need a healthy amount of salt to prevent muscle cramps. Sodium should not be taken in the form of processed foods, but should be consumed by adding all-natural sea salt to your meals. Contrary to popular belief, you can easily get enough calcium without milk. Sesame seeds, which are present in tahini dip, contain more than five times more calcium than a cup of milk. Add toasted sesame seeds to your salads and cooked vegetables or eat them by the spoonful to maximize your bone health.

Iron is a special concern for athletes because it affects muscle development and energy. Iron allows your body to produce a healthy amount of red blood cells and needs to be taken in sufficient amounts to prevent anemia and weakness. You should have your blood tested from time to time to monitor your red blood cell count and include iron-rich foods into your diet. Blackstrap molasses is rich in calcium and iron. An abundant amount of dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale as well as black-eyed peas and other legumes provide substantial iron.

More athletes are debunking the conventional wisdom and proving that they do not need meat in order to perform well. A greater awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet and the availability of vegan products on the market have made the vegan diet a viable option for athletes. Just as you would with any diet, make sure you are getting enough protein fats, iron, calcium, and sodium. You do not need meat or dairy on your training table to perform your best. 

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