While I am not a professional athlete, I am working on resuming my previously high level of activity. I have been a runner, hiker, backpacker, and a triathlete. The question that has come across my desk today has been “can I do ultra-distances on a vegan diet?”
While the simplest answer is “Yes”, there are some things that you should know.
- It is always best to see a qualified nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian for individualized guidance.
- Accept that eating healthy takes planning and effort.
- A healthful diet is not about focusing on any one specific component of the diet.
See A Qualified Nutrition Professional
It is always best to see a qualified nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian for guidance as they can address the many factors that cannot be included within general guidance intended for diverse audiences. A vegan diet for the non-athlete is different than for those who are highly active in the following ways. Very active individuals may need to modify their day to day intake based on the activities in their day that are not within what most individuals may be doing in their day. The average American will not need to increase their calories or worry about “recovery” or nutrition during their physical activity. For those that are not engaged in high intensity (cardiovascular) activities in excess of 1-2 hours, water will be what you need to focus on consuming. Tip-If you take a pre-workout and post-workout weight (drink water as you normally do during a workout) and your post workout weight is less than your starting weight, that indicates that you need to hydrate more with water.
Eating Healthy Takes Planning and Effort
You need to be realistic about why you want to make the transition to vegetarian or vegan eating and accept that eating healthy takes planning and effort just like any other long-term nutrition lifestyle. Canned (any plan that is oversimplified as seen with food lists or static menus) nutrition approaches have high failure rates which means that individuals can be less healthy because of how they may or may not have decided to change their eating habits.
The type of vegetarian diet that you may choose does vary. I would encourage individuals to find plans that work for their preferences, goals, and lifestyle. The plan you work on may not exactly fit into predefined commonly termed vegetarian diets. According to the Sport Nutrition Care Manual, the most commonly used terms for describing plant-based diets include-
“Lacto-ovo vegetarian: consumes a plant-based diet plus dairy products
Lacto-vegetarian: consumes a plant-based diet plus dairy products
Vegan: consumes only a plant-based diet and no animal products
Pescatarian: consumes a vegetarian diet plus some fish
Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian: consumes a vegetarian diet plus some meat on occasion”
Vegan eating takes planning because we may not have access to healthful vegan meals and snacks in the course of our day. Non-nutritious vegan alternatives are plentiful which presents a challenge for sticking to a meal pattern. Eating healthy on a vegan diet includes consuming sufficient macronutrients (carbohydrate, fats, and proteins) to meet daily as well as specific training needs. Monitoring body weight and body composition (lean versus body fat mass) are helpful in assessing energy intake. Protein is another area of concern. Most Americans consume adequate to excessive protein. Vegan diets can provide a variety of protein sources for those willing to embrace the many flavors provided by beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy alternatives, tofu. A vegan diet which replaced processed grains with unprocessed whole grains such as barley, bulgur, wheat berries and freekeh will also benefit from the higher protein found in unprocessed grains.
A vegetarian or vegan athlete may be at risk for inadequate intakes of iron, calcium, zinc, riboflavin, and vitamin D. While B-12 can also be an issue, it is more of a concern among those who have been vegan or vegetarian for their entire lives or for those with physiological issues that promote a vitamin B-12 deficiency. Men and women process nutrients differently. If you are not being monitored by your health professional or do not have a medical need for supplementation, using an all-inclusive supplement designed for your age group and sex that does not exceed recommended daily intakes could be used.
Micronutrients and macronutrients are not as bioavailable (not absorbed as well) in plant sources when compared to animal sources. That is not to say that our nutrient needs cannot be met through plant sources but that we will need to consume more of a nutrient in order to absorb an adequate amount of the nutrients.
There are No Magic Foods
A healthful diet is not about focusing on any one specific component of the diet. There is not a magic food or “power food” that will make up for other areas of our eating pattern. The foods we eat provide our bodies with macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein), essential micronutrients (essential vitamins and minerals that we need to survive and thrive), as well as functional nutrients (non-essential nutrients that may be associated with improved functioning and decreased disease risk). While diet tracking apps are great for learning about your intake of macronutrients, they only provide limited analysis of micronutrients which are of interest when moving beyond the basics for healthful eating. That isn’t to say that food records aren’t helpful. With an abundance of resources online, you can research nutrients of interest to see how your intake compares. There are also options to subscribe to more detailed diet record programs. Stay tuned for content updates on nutrition for vegan athletes.