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Sports nutrition for plant-based athletes




Plant-based diets are characterised by an eating style that comprises wholefoods, of which are mostly plants. In respect to health, the evidence conveys that a diet comprising 90% or more plants results in significant health benefits, including living better and for longer. Plant-based diet foundations include consuming a variety of vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. Further to this, they limit or completely avoid the intake of both processed and animal-based foods.

Performance benefits

Optimal nutrition after exercise is paramount. When the right foods, nutrients and fluids are consumed, they support the maintenance of subsequent training quality, facilitate improved training adaptations, as well as support the maintenance of a strong immune system. Those who don’t optimise nutrition after exercise can consequently suffer from fatigue, impaired performance, increased muscle soreness or injury and illness.

Plant-based diets can deliver performance benefits for athletes, including enhanced training and recovery due to their rich content of antioxidants (polyphenols), micronutrients (vitamin C & E), as well as carbohydrates. Further to this, they deliver numerous anti-inflammatory effects due to their nutrient dense variety of foods.

Consequences of poor planning

Despite their benefits, a poorly planned plant-based diet can predispose individuals to numerous nutrient deficiencies, including:


  • Calories (energy)

  • Protein

  • Omega-3

  • Vitamin B12

  • Vitamin D

  • Iron

  • Zinc

  • Calcium

  • Iodine


Calories (energy)


For most athletes, a well-constructed diet (omnivorous or otherwise) should provide sufficient energy in order to achieve energy balance. Insufficient calories can lead to muscle loss, reduced strength, lower work capacity, reduced adaptations and results, as well as comprised immunity. In turn, a low immune system can lead to illnesses and time off from training and competition.


Naturally plant-based foods have a lower calorie content, mostly due to their high fibre and water content. Because of this, plant foods promote satiety and reduce appetite, in turn impacting calorie intake. Evidence shows that on average vegans consume less energy than omnivores, ultimately negatively impacting athletes with high energy needs.

Calorie needs for individuals are determined by their age, gender, activity level, mode of exercise and body mass.


In general, higher calorie needs can be met by increasing feeding frequency, as well as increasing the consumption of energy dense foods such as nuts, seeds, avocado, tahini, olives and oils.


Protein


Proteins are essential for building and maintaining lean body mass (muscle), producing hormones and keeping your immune system strong. All athletes have higher protein needs than the general population, with those undertaking resistance and endurance exercises having the highest needs. Evidence shows that vegan athletes consume less protein than their omnivorous counterparts.


General population require = 0.8 – 1.0g /kg of healthy body weight /day
Athletes require: 1.2 – 3.0g /kg of healthy body weight /day

The optimisation of protein intakes for plant-based athlete requires that attention is paid to the quantity and quality of protein consumed. Further to this, the timing of protein is also very important, with goals on average aiming for 20-30g at frequent bouts (meals) across the day.

Plant-based protein sources are often incomplete, missing important essential amino acids, and typically contain less Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) than their animal-based equivalents. Leucine appears to be a primary trigger of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), and plays an important role in promoting recovery and adaptation from exercise.


Furthermore, plant-based proteins often lack essential amino acids, and animal-based proteins therefore possess a greater biological value due to the presence of all essential amino acids in the food.


It is therefore recommended that a range of plant-based proteins be consumed by vegans in order to meet their protein and amino acid requirements.

Vegan protein powders can be useful in achieving protein needs. These include:

  • Pea+rice protein powder

  • Hemp protein powder

  • Pumpkin seed / pea / rice protein powder


Omega-3 fats


Due to an absence of fish and seafood in vegan diets, they generally consume inadequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for normal growth and development, and appear to play an important role in cardiovascular health, in inflammatory and chronic disease, and might improve exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) and immunity.


Omega-3s may also increase nitric oxide production which improves blood flow, as well as improve heart-rate variability.

Recommendations for omega-3 supplementation:


Aim to achieve a DHA dose of 500 - 1000 mg / day, this would equate to 1–2 g of microalgae oil, or 2–4 capsules in most commercial products.


Further to this, include walnuts, hemp seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds. These are plant-foods that contain and essential fatty acid known as ALA. Some of this can be converted to EPA and DHA.


More blog posts to follow on other key nutrients and supplements for plant-based athletes.
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