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Eight Nutrition Tips For Vegan Athletes

These 8 simple nutrition tips for vegan athletes will help you craft the perfect plant-based athlete meal plan.

Although I’m not vegan, I receive many questions from readers who are vegan or want to try a vegan lifestyle. More and more, endurance athletes are adopting a vegan diet for a variety of reasons–health, environment, performance.

However, whenever you limit your diet to certain food groups, it’s important to understand the nutrition implications in order to do it healthily. This post provides all the info you need to know about trying a vegan diet as an athlete.

What is a vegan diet?

Quite simply, a vegan diet is one that omits all animal products. In other words, someone following a vegan diet only eats plants.

A vegan does not eat meat, dairy, eggs or honey. Instead, the eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, grains and soy products.

Although often used synonymously, the terms “plant-based” and “vegan” don’t always mean the same thing. The term “plant-based” isn’t strictly defined, and it can refer to a variety of ways of eating.

Some people describe their vegetarian diets as “plant-based”. Others use the term “plant-based” to refer to a vegan diet. And some people even use the term “plant-based” to describe a plant forward diet that includes some meat. [Related: Should Athletes Try A Plant-Based Diet?]

On the other hand, a vegan diet is strictly defined. It does not include any animal products and focuses on eating plants.

Is it good for athletes?

It absolutely can be! It depends on how you go about it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of eating junk food on a vegan diet and not getting enough nutrients. After all, Oreos, chips and fries are all vegan!

If you’re an athlete who decides to go vegan, it’s important to focus on eating a well-balanced diet. That means making sure you eat a variety of foods, stay away from processed junk and think about the nutrients that may be more difficult to get without eating meat.

The tips below will give you a jumping off point to build a healthy vegan diet for your athletic training.

8 nutrition tips

1. Plan ahead

Every athlete, vegan or not, should have an eating plan. You need to think about pre-workout fuel, recovery nutrition and hydration on a daily basis. The following tips will help you do just that! [For more on those topics, check out The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner.] 

Vegan athletes aren’t always able to find food on-the-go, so it’s important to plan your meals ahead of time. When making an eating plan, certain nutrients, like protein, fiber and healthy fats, need to be top of mind. These nutrients will ensure that you’re never starving throughout the day and have enough fuel to perform at your best.

The following tips will help you create a vegan meal plan, so you’re never left eating a protein bar for a meal.

2. Know your protein

This a no-brainer, right? The number one thing that people wonder about veganism is how to get enough protein. Not only is protein necessary for muscle growth and recovery, it also helps keep you full throughout the day.

But don’t worry, getting enough protein is totally doable, but you need to be mindful of vegan proteins and incorporate them at every meal– even breakfast.

healthy plant-based protein

Aim to spread your protein intake throughout the day and get equal portions at breakfast, lunch, dinner and just a little bit less at snack time. Protein needs are different for everyone, but this guide will help you determine how much is right for you. As a rule of thumb, aim to get at least 20 grams of protein at every meal.

Check out the best vegan proteins for athletes to get recipes for all of the foods listed below.

  • Beans (all kinds)
  • Soy (like tofu, tempeh and edamame)
  • Lentils (brown, green and red)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, farro, amaranth, oats)
  • Peas (yellow and green)
  • Nuts and Nut Butters (all kinds)
  • Seeds (chia, hemp, sunflower and pumpkin seeds)

Join the FREE 5-Days of Fueling Challenge to learn about post-workout protein for recovery.

3. Eat plenty of plant-based calcium

I’m a stickler for calcium because people in my family have Osteoporosis.  I’ve written about bone health for runners, but let me stress again how important calcium is for athletes. You put stress on your bones on a daily basis, so calcium is necessary to keep the bones strong throughout the lifespan. 

Calcium is most abundant in dairy, but vegans can eat these plant-based sources of calcium:

  • Green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, bok choy, turnip greens and spinach
  • Soy products, such as tofu or soy milk
  • 100% Orange juice and cereals that are fortified with calcium
  • Check out this list for more options: 12 Best Plant-Based Sources of Calcium

4. Don’t skimp on healthy fats

Chances are that you burn plenty of calories while participating in your sport, but you don’t eat the majority of high calorie foods, like meats, cheeses and milks. If you don’t replace the calories that you use during exercise, you may start to lose weight, which can actually hinder your performance.

That’s where healthy fats come in! As compared to carbs and protein, fats have more calories per gram and can make up for the calories that you burn during intense exercise. Not to mention that fat keeps you full after a workout, so that you don’t binge on empty calories, like junk food.

cinnamon roasted almonds

Vegans need to eat enough calories and omegas from plant- based healthy fats, like seeds, avocados, nuts and oils. Healthy fats also contribute to heart health and cognition, both of which are important for active individuals. Learn more here: How Much Fat Do Plant-Based Athletes Need?

5. Make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient that many vegans fall short on because it’s most prevalent in meat and eggs. A B12 deficiency causes extreme exhaustion and tingling in your fingertips, both of which can be detrimental to an athlete.

There are some sources of vegan B12–see a list of 5 sources here– but if you think you’re diet may be lacking, get a yearly physical and ask your doctor to check your B12 levels.  If you are deficient, a daily supplement will help keep you at normal levels.

6. Keep “fake meats” to a minimum

There are so many “fake” meat products on the market.  These products are easy (and sometimes yummy), but they are often packed with sodium and added sugars. The benefit of being a vegan is eating healthy whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains.

Straying from that diet can cause vitamin, mineral and protein deficiencies. Feel free to have the “fake meats” every once in a while, but stick with the whole foods the majority of the time.

7. Check the labels on sports nutrition products

Some gummies contain gelatin, and many protein powders are whey based–both of which come from animal products. Many other sports nutrition products are sweetened with honey. Here are a few of my favorite vegan sports products (affiliate links):

Clif Bloks— These are my go-to long run fuel. Not only do they taste like watermelon flavored gummy bears, but they are easy to carry, provide a caffeine boost and aren’t too rough on my stomach.

These UnTapped Organic Raspberry Waffle, Box of 16 UnTapped Maple Syrup Waffles make a great vegan alternative to the traditional Honey Stinger waffles.

8. Try simple recipes

Being a vegan athlete may sound overwhelming, especially when you’re cooking your own meals. But trust me, vegan recipes don’t need to be complicated. Sure, there are plenty of vegan recipes that call for soaking cashews or following a detailed recipe, but there are also a ton of vegan recipes that are quite easy.

I have plenty of simple vegan recipes on this site (you can find all of them here). Here are the simplest ones that come together in minutes.

Vegan sushi bowl with quinoa, edamame, cucumber, avocado, carrots and a miso dressing

6 Comments

  1. Jamie @ Dishing Out Health

    Great post, Natalie! I tried veganism for 1 week and honestly really struggled. I just always felt HUNGRY lol likely due to the fact that I do a lot of weight training and I’m used to getting in ~130 grams of protein/day and I didn’t come anywhere near that amount eating vegan. I definitely felt great outside of the increased hunger, though. But you’re spot-on with needing to know how to cook because it challenges you to get extra creative with your meals. Thank you for including my bars in your recipe round-up; if only I had that list to reference during my experimental week! Lol xoxo

    Reply
  2. Matt Ruscigno

    Hi Natalie- interesting post. Like any dietary change, switching to veganism does take some extra effort and time. But shouldn’t everyone be mindful of what they are eating and take some time to learn more about nutrition? There are lots of active vegans (check out Plantbuilt, No Meat Athlete, Strong Hearts Run Team, etc) and vegan RD’s are who are experts on this topic. Many of these ‘issues,’ like mentioned by Jamie, can be fixed by simply eating more. The volume of plant foods is higher, so it feels like more, but is often fewer calories. I’m a 20-yr vegan and an RD, so if you have any more questions please lmk.

    Reply
  3. Steele Honda

    Thanks for the tips on sports nutrition for vegan athletes. I like that you said that you should have a plan to help make sure that you are getting everything you need. I think it might be smart to look into vegan meal plans that are already set up to make it easier and so that you will know that it will work.

    Reply
    • Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD

      Thanks so much! And I completely agree. I’m developing one as we speak 🙂

      Reply
  4. Patrick Cummins

    These are so important thing. Every athlete should follow this. So informative & brilliant also. Keep up the great job. Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Teresa

    What if a teen wanted to stay vegan in a sport that burns 5,000-6,000 calories a day in a sport that travels every day for 3 months in sometimes extreme heat?

    Reply

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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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