There are several reasons why vegan athletes choose a vegan dietary pattern – ethics, religion and health are probably the main factors associated with that decision. A well-structured vegan diet can contribute to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease by providing an array of nutrients through vegetables, whole grains and fruit consumption. A few years ago, for most athletes, being vegan was an unthinkable idea. Today, several athletes, motivated by these questions or even by the media (i.e., documentaries like The Game Changers), begin to take the initiative to opt for a vegan diet and lifestyle. Hence the question arises – can a vegan diet have a negative impact on sports performance and recovery?
First, it is important to look at the sufficiency of a vegan diet on nutritional needs. Regarding caloric needs, a vegan dietary pattern can be perfectly suitable and sufficient. However, given its richness in fibre (satiety promoter), it can be difficult for some vegan athletes to achieve a high caloric intake. In order to overcome this difficulty, liquid or pasty meals (smoothies, porridge, purees) can be added to a vegan athlete’ food plan. Likewise, a vegan eating pattern allows for the supply of carbohydrate needs, since the foods richer in carbohydrates (such as whole grains, rice, pasta, and fruit) are plant based.
One nutrient that raises many questions is protein. Plant-based protein sources are generally incomplete – that is, they do not contain all the essential amino acids in the “ideal” proportions, namely branched chain amino acids (BCAA). These amino acids (particularly leucine) appear to play a role in exercise adaptation and recovery. To meet the needs of amino acids and, consequently, promote recovery, it is important that vegan athletes consume, throughout the day, different sources of protein, and that they take into account its quantity and quality. Supplementation with plant-based protein sources (from peas, for example) may also be of interest to vegan athletes.
Regarding fat, vegan athletes should ensure an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids (supplement it, if necessary), and adjust their intake of omega-6 fatty acids, to achieve a ratio that results in a synthesis of pro and anti-eicosanoids compatible with health and sports performance.
The micronutrients that require most attention in vegan athletes are vitamin D, iodine, calcium, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12. The digestibility and absorption of some nutrients (namely iron, calcium and protein) must also be taken into account.
Taking all these questions into consideration, now is time to look at the impact of a vegan diet on sports performance. According to the studies carried out over the past few years, a well-structured vegan dietary pattern, based on all the aforementioned particularities, is suitable for athletes, without any advantages or disadvantages compared to a standard omnivorous diet. There are not significant differences between a plant-based and an omnivorous diet when considering strength, power and aerobic and anaerobic performance. However, there’s a need for more studies, in order to provide evidence on vegetarian diets and their effects on physical performance in athletes.
Vegan athletes may benefit from the consumption of creatine and β-alanine supplements. Creatine is endogenously synthesized and can also be obtained through food, namely through the consumption of meat, fish, and eggs. For this reason, in vegan individuals, muscle creatine stores are reduced. Since creatine has an ergogenic effect, its supplementation in vegan individuals can lead to an increase in sports performance. Interestingly, vegan athletes are thought to respond better to creatine than their omnivorous peers. In turn, β -alanine is a precursor to carnosine – a compound that leads to improvements in high-intensity exercise performance. Similarly to creatine, β-alanine is found in foods of animal origin (meat and fish). Thus, muscle carnosine reserves in vegan individuals are also low. Consequently, it is possible that the effectiveness of β-alanine supplementation can also be increased.
Given all this, we advise vegan athletes to consult a specialized dietitian, to manage and plan food intake, so as not to compromise sports performance, well-being, and health.