LEARNING CENTER: HEALTH

Nutrition Considerations for the Vegan Athlete

by Stephanie Nunes, RD

Many athletes are adopting vegetarian diets for health, ecological, spiritual, religious, economical, or ethical reasons. Vegan athletes CAN meet all of their nutritional requirements, however may benefit from a few tips on food choices that provide adequate nutrients to promote optimal performance.

Practical tips for Vegan Athletes

Protein

Make sure protein needs are met due to lower digestibility of plant protein compared to animal. Vegetarian athletes can easily achieve adequate protein if their diets are sufficient in calories and contain a variety of plant-based protein foods.

Vegan Sources of Protein:

  • tofu
  • nuts
  • soymilk
  • soy yogurt
  • nut butters
  • tofu based products (burgers, hot dogs, patties)
  • lentils
  • beans

Calcium

Monitor your calcium intake. Low calcium intake has been associated with increased risk of stress fractures and decreased bone density.

Vegan Sources of well absorbed Calcium (low oxalate):

  • collard, mustard, and turnip greens
  • tofu
  • fortified soy and rice milk
  • tahini
  • calcium fortified OJ
  • almonds
  • blackstrap molasses

Vegan Sources of poorly absorbed calcium (high oxalate):

  • spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • beet greens
  • rhubarb

Note: Continue to eat these foods, just don't rely on them to meet all of your calcium needs.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is required for adequate calcium absorption and bone health.

Vegan Source of Vitamin D:

  • Sunshine
  • some fortified cereals
  • some brands of soymilk and rice milk
  • some margarines

Note: The form used to fortify cereals is often not vegan.

Iron

All athletes are at risk for iron depletion or iron-deficiency anemia, especially female endurance athletes. Insufficient iron intake OR reduced absorption are the most probable causes of poor iron status.

Vegan Sources of Iron:

  • pumpkin seeds
  • sunflower seeds
  • almonds
  • raisins
  • cereal (cheerios, cornflakes, Total, oatmeal)
  • pasta
  • rice
  • dried apricots
  • prunes
  • baked potato
  • sweet potato
  • beans
  • legumes
  • turnip greens

Note: Common foods that inhibit the absorption of non-animal sources of iron are bran, soy, coffee, and tea. Try to drink your coffee or tea 1 hour before or 1 hour after an iron rich meal.

Note: To enhance the absorption of non-meat iron sources, eat Vitamin C rich foods at the same time. Example: Orange juice and a bowl of cheerios, salsa on a baked potato, bowl of beans and a cup of juice or strawberries.

Zinc

Zinc is very important for your immune system. Absorption of zinc from plant protein is somewhat lower than from animal products, so make sure you are getting enough daily zinc in your diet.

Vegan Sources of Zinc:

  • legumes
  • whole grains
  • fortified cereals
  • nuts
  • soy

B Vitamins

B-12 and Riboflavin status may be low in athletic vegan individuals. Cobalamin (the active form of B-12) is of particular interest because it is found exclusively in animal products.

Vegan Sources of Riboflavin:

  • whole grains
  • fortified breads and cereals
  • beans
  • peas
  • lentils
  • tofu
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • bananas
  • asparagus
  • figs
  • avocado
  • most sea vegetables (seaweed, kombu, arame, sulse).

Vegan Sources of B-12:

  • B-12 fortified foods (some soymilks, breakfast cereals, and meat analogs)
  • Redstar brand nutritional yeast
  • B-12 containing multivitamin

"Fuel the Machine and See the Results"

Stephanie Nunes is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and runner residing in San Luis Obispo, California. Her private practice is "Rock Solid Nutrition" and she provides individual counseling, on-line counseling, lectures or presentations for specific groups, and nutrition related articles. If you would like to contact Stephanie for any of these services, her e-mail address is Rocksolidnutrition@sbcglobal.net