With more and more people opting for a plant-based diet, even highly active people are choosing to steer away from animal-based products. There are various reasons that an athlete would choose to follow a plant-based diet, including ethical, ecological, environmental, religious, or health reasons.
While there is a higher potential that a person could run into nutrient deficiencies on a plant-based diet, a well-planned plant-based diet can actually be nutritionally adequate and appropriate for many athletic levels.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
First, what is a plant-based diet? Similar to a vegetarian and vegan diet, a plant-based diet limits animal-based proteins and byproducts, while placing a focus on plants. The difference with a plant-based diet is that it doesn’t necessarily mean a person will completely eliminate meat. Rather, they would opt for plant-based foods much more frequently.
Nutrition Considerations for Athletes:
Even the average person who is choosing to eat a plant-based diet should be aware of the potential for nutritional deficiencies and how to prevent them. Here are some of the common concerns to address when first starting a plant-based diet:
Overall Calories: For someone who is highly active, energy needs will be elevated in order to perform their best. Since plant-based diets tend to contain a lot of fiber, it is often found to be more difficult to meet energy needs. This can absolutely be prevented by including calorie-dense foods along with those fiber-filled foods to ensure energy needs are met.
Sources: Avocado, nuts, seeds, oils, and dried fruits
Protein: Surprisingly, getting in an adequate amount of protein on a plant-based diet is not as difficult as many assume. There are a variety of plant-based foods that contain protein. Unlike animal-based proteins, plant-based proteins often do not contain all the essential amino acids. However, contrary to what was once thought, someone on a plant-based diet does not need to be overly concerned about perfectly combining their protein sources to get all those amino acids at each meal. Rather, they should aim to eat a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day.
Sources: Tofu, legumes, whole grains, lentils, quinoa, and nuts
Calcium: While calcium needs do not increase for someone who regularly exercises, consuming adequate amounts of calcium can be more difficult while on a plant-based diet. In general, consuming 8 servings of calcium-containing foods will be sufficient to get in daily calcium needs. The bioavailability of calcium in most of these plant foods is just as good when compared to cow’s milk. However, keep in mind that nuts, seeds, legumes, and high oxalate leafy greens have a lower bioavailability for calcium.
Sources: Low oxalate green leafy vegetables (kale/broccoli/collard/mustard/turnip greens), tofu, fortified rice and soy milk, tahini, and certain legumes
Vitamin D: In general, much of the population has a difficult time getting enough vitamin D and many people are at risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency, regardless of if they are on a plant-based diet or not. Vitamin D is involved in bone health, immune function, inflammation, and skeletal muscle function. Even performance can be impacted by a low vitamin D status making it important for athletes to get adequate vitamin D.
Sources: Sunlight, fatty fish, fortified foods, yogurt, and egg yolks
Iron: Iron plays a vital role in transporting oxygen throughout the body making it impactful in performance. There are two types of iron, heme iron, and nonheme iron. The plant sources of iron are nonheme, which has a lower absorption rate when compared to iron from animal sources. Plant-based athletes will have higher iron needs due to this lower bioavailability of nonheme iron. To help increase iron absorption, pairing non heme sources with vitamin C can help improve absorption.
Sources: Legumes, nuts, seeds, enriched grains, enriched and fortified cereals or pasta, leafy greens, and root vegetables
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 has many roles in the body, but most importantly it is essential for red blood cell formation. Athletes have increased oxygen demands and the primary function of red blood cells is to deliver oxygen throughout the body. This means that vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient for highly active people. Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal-based foods, meaning a plant-based diet that contains little to no meat, eggs, or dairy would be lacking vitamin B12. Luckily, there are many fortified foods and options to supplement for someone who does not consume animal products.
Sources: Fortified foods, dairy products, eggs, nutritional yeast
Zinc: Zinc plays an important role in supporting the immune system, metabolism, and wound healing. Serum zinc levels are often low in plant-based athletes. This is likely due to the reduced bioavailability of zinc from plant foods compared to animal foods. Luckily, zinc is found in many plant-based foods and combining those foods with fruits and vegetables may enhance zinc absorption.
Sources: Legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grain products, fortified ready-to-eat cereals, and soy products
Didn’t have time to read the whole article? Here’s what you need to know! While there is a higher potential that a person could run into nutrient deficiencies on a plant-based diet, a well planned plant-based diet can actually be nutritionally adequate and appropriate for many athletic levels. It is helpful to keep in mind that a plant-based diet may be low in the essential nutrients calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc.
Understanding your risks and how to minimize them is important. When it comes to maximizing your athletic performance, knowing where to start when making changes to your diet and lifestyle is an important step. Meeting with a nutrition professional may help provide additional guidance. Gaining a better understanding of how your body may respond to certain nutrients or eating patterns to further customize your diet and optimize your health can be a great first step. Learn more about how DNA testing and personalized nutrition can help you eat right for your genes.
1. Karpinski, Christine, and Christine Rosenbloom. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017.