Vegan athletes: ¿Is it possible to be vegan and elite athlete?
There are lots of myths and legends about vegan diets for athletes. Beliefs such as their performance is lower or that one can’t be an elite athlete and be vegan have come to an end.
We have interviewed Mª Luisa Epalza, sports nutritionist, to learn the difference between vegetarianism and veganism and what are the nutrients that a vegan athlete must control.
What are the differences between a vegan and a vegetarian?
Theoretically, vegetarian people don’t eat meat nor fish, but unlike vegans, they can eat other food of animal origin.
There are other types of vegetarianism. For example, if you they eat eggs, they are called ovo-vegetarians. If they consume animal milk and dairy (cheese, butter…), they are considered lacto-vegetarians. The ones that include eggs and dairy products in their diets are called lacto-ovo vegetarians.
We could also talk about the beegans who only make an exception with the consumption of honey and the pescatarians, who eat fish but not other food of animal origin.
Lately there is also a great deal of talk about flexitarians, who are people with a vegetarian diet that occasionally eat meat and/or fish.
In short, vegetarianism is more flexible than veganism.
Yes. On the other hand, vegans don’t eat any food of animal origin because they link it to a deeper ethical issue. They have as a principle not to consume products that might have harmed animals and, normally, they extend it to other areas such as the consumption of cosmetics, clothes, etc.
Is it possible to be an elite athlete and vegan?
Absolutely! You can be vegan or vegetarian and an elite athlete too. The key is to follow a well-planned diet to meet all the athlete’s nutritional needs.
It is important to highlight that, a person with a conventional diet can also have some nutritional deficiencies due to a bad-planned diet.
With a well-planned diet and balance of nutrients and micro-nutrients, there shouldn’t be any deficiencies, except for some small exceptions.
I imagine you are talking about vitamin B12…
Mainly to B12, but there are other.
In the case of vitamin B12, it is very likely that a vegan athlete that is not planning his diet well has a B12 deficiency, because we humans can only obtain it, in a significant amount, from animal sources. No matter what, it can be obtained with supplements.
But the risk of having a deficiency of vitamin B12 is not the same for people who have become vegans recently than for people who have been vegans all their lives, because B12 is stored in the body. A person who has stored it for 30 years most likely is going to last longer to have a B12 deficiency. However, that depends on the bioavailability (the fraction of B12 vitamin that food has that the body is able to absorb and use)
For example, there are people who intake iron or calcium through their diet and, nevertheless, they lack these nutrients because their body doesn’t synthesise them well.
It is important to follow a balanced diet and to do a test periodically, especially vegan athletes.
What other nutrients can cause deficiencies in a vegan diet?
Creatine, which is very important in sports performance. Unlike vitamin B12, our body produces creatine through three amino acids: arginine, glycine and methionine. Half of creatine synthesis primarily occurs in the liver and kidney; the other half is obtained from eating meat.
Any elite athlete, even if they are not vegan, has a greater need for creatine because creatine increases performance and muscle strength.
It is also necessary to control protein intake that can be obtained through supplements. Among vegans, the most consumed protein is pea because it has the highest yield.
B12, creatine and protein, along with vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, iodine and omega 3 are the macronutrients that a vegan should control more.
Are there any different nutritional needs between vegan men and women when it comes to practising sports?
The only thing that might differ a little is the iron, due to women’s menstrual cycle.
It must be taken into account that, iron from meat (heme iron) has more bioavailability and is better absorbed than iron from vegetables (non-heme iron).
Therefore, a female vegan athlete must control iron due to menstrual cycles but not for being an athlete or vegan.
Does a vegan athlete that plays football have the same nutritional needs than one that cycles?
If the diet is well adapted, there shouldn’t be any deficiencies. But, if we are talking about high-intensity sports like, for example, cross fit, the muscle might need an extra supply of creatine for the strength peaks and performance.
Does a vegan athlete need to eat more food than an omnivore to get the same nutrients?
The food that vegans eat have more fibre, they satisfy more and, therefore they might not eat as much as an omnivore. But doesn’t mean that they are less caloric foods.
There are foods of vegetable origin that have more calories than red meat, but the nutrients they provide are different. Red meat mainly provides us fat, and most likely, it will be saturated fat. In contrast, vegetable products have more antioxidants, fibre and other micronutrients that the ones of animal origin don’t have.
So, is it better to eat fat from an avocado than from red meat?
When it comes to fat, yes. Because animal fat is saturated, whereas the fat from plants tends to be more monounsaturated, polyunsaturated…
But if we are talking about caloric intake, it is different. For example, meat has an average of 200 calories per 100 grams and, in addition, it provides a complete protein that has all the essential amino acids.
On the other hand, with vegetables, you must know how to supplement them to obtain that same quantity of calories and proteins.
My recommendation for vegan athletes is to visit a professional nutritionist to receive the best advice for their specific needs.