Most nutritional advice available today is aimed at those on a diet which contains animal products, but an increasing number of people are adopting a more plant-based diet which may or may not contain dairy, fish, eggs and honey. While those who choose this approach are able to make just as much progress as anyone else who undertakes a new fitness regime, there are a few steps which must be taken to ensure you are still getting everything your body needs to be healthy and perform at its best.
**The bulk of this article will be aimed at vegan athletes as they have far more things to bear in mind when it comes to their nutrition, but I would urge vegetarians to still read through as a lot of the information will still be relevant. Vegetarian athletes should eat in the exact same way as those on a meat-based diet, only they should focus the bulk of their meals around vegetarian protein sources such as dairy (low fat if calorie needs dictate it), eggs, fish and seafood (if eaten) and whey/casein protein powders, alongside vegan sources I will mention below.**
The main things that vegan athletes need to bear in mind as they are often deficient in these are protein, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and Omega-3 fats, and I’ll address each in turn.
Before I do though, I’ll direct you to my article, Nutrition Advice for Beginners, because regardless of your dietary preferences it is important that you first establish the basics towards better health. Fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds should make up the vast majority of your intake because these are the foods which will provide you with the widest possible spectrum of nutrients.
Another thing to talk about here is calories. While the average person needs no help getting enough food, the switch to veganism can restrict your food choices so much that you might find it difficult to meet the demands of a highly intense boot camp session. The most important thing you need to bear in mind is that typical raw vegan foods like green salads, fruit and most vegetables are incredibly low calorie and you will likely need more than this. Vegan sources of fat like nuts, seeds, avocados, coconuts and chocolate need to become your friends along with not skipping out on the carbs.
The first nutrient I’ll cover will be protein as this is the main thing most vegans struggle with when they are looking to improve their health and their nutrition. Before I throw out some food suggestions, I think it’s important that we discuss what exactly protein is and how we use it in our body.
Protein is the term used to group together 20 different molecules called amino acids, of which 9 are considered essential. This means that we must ingest them through our food as we cannot synthesise them from anything else. When you eat a protein source, it is broken down through your digestive system into it’s constituent amino acids to be used for various jobs around the body, no least of all muscle repair and hormonal production.
These amino acids are present in all foods in different ratios, some have a better ratio than others when it comes to being ideal for use by human beings. A protein source is considered to be ‘a complete protein’ if it contains these essential amino acids in the correct ratios as this would give your body everything it needs. Complete proteins with a few exceptions are animal based products or dairy, which poses a problem.
There is a way around this, though, which is known as protein combining. Protein combining is the practice of pairing two or more ‘incomplete’ proteins which have complimentary amino acid ratios to create a meal which has a complete protein and amino acid profile. This chart courtesy of www.govitarobina.com is a fantastic and easy resource to show you what needs to be combined with what and why.
Each amino acid has a very different role to play, and they are used independently of each other. This means that you don’t actually need to combine all of these proteins within the same meal. So long as, over the course of a day, you are eating a wide variety of vegan protein sources and you are still getting somewhere around the 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, you don’t actually need to worry too much about protein.
Typical vegan sources of protein are:
And this is by no means an extensive list, so keep your eyes open and experiment with different foods. With a little planning ahead (I recommend you check out Nutrition Part 2 for information about how to track your food more accurately) you should have no problem getting just as much protein into your daily intake as meat eating athletes.
Both of these are typically found in fish, seafood and dairy, but these may be off the menu for you so you need to look for alternatives. The common belief is that zinc and calcium are both available in various green vegetables, and this is true. The problem is that plant-based sources of these essential minerals carry a very low bioavailabilty meaning that you may be EATING enough, but it’s likely that you aren’t able to absorb around 50% of it, so you will need approximately double the RDA of calcium to just cover your bases (1).
For calcium, I advise that you start to include foods such as tofu on a regular basis, and rice and soy milks which are fortified can be lifesavers. Provided you are keeping these things as one of your staples you should be set, but for those who don’t want to or don’t like these foods, a high quality supplement is a great idea that won’t break the bank.
Likewise for zinc where the plant bioavailability is also poor, you could be looking at needing 150% of the RDA. To illustrate, that’s around 16.5mg. There is 1mg of zinc in:
So as you can see, your needs will be quite difficult to fit in to a diet with a low calorie load, such as one aimed towards fat loss. Zinc is another mineral I would personally consider supplementing on a vegan diet.
EPA and DHA are two fats grouped into the umbrella of Omega-3 fats, and they are vital for human health, but they are quite hard to come across in a diet, especially one which cuts out the single most important dietary source – fish.
The typical supplement which people take to cover Omega-3 needs is Fish oil, but there are a number of vegan options available. By far the most effective one can be found here, which is available for around £17. Three of these capsules will get you well into the 2-3 gram range of EPA and DHA which is suggested for optimal health.
The final supplement I would suggest is vitamin B12 which is found almost exclusively in animal products, because it’s source is bacteria found in soil. If you clean your vegetables of dirt, you are likely not getting any vitamin B12 which can lead to a host of health complications.
By supplementing calcium (or increasing your intake of tofu and fortified vegan milks), zinc, Omega-3 and Vitamin B12, then taking care of your protein needs by simply being mindful and eating a varied diet, there is no reason at all that a vegan boot camp athlete can’t reach any goal that they have!