Nutrition Tips for Vegan Athletes
Whatever your sport, from CrossFit to triathlon, bodybuilding to martial arts, it can be done eating a plant-based diet. These nutrition tips for vegan athletes will help you perform at your best and recover well so you can do it all again in your next session.
Nutrition Tips for Vegan Athletes
1. Stay hydrated.
Staying hydrated applies to anyone but it’s so important I thought it deserves to be on the list. Your body can’t function to it’s full potential if you’re dehydrated. Dehydration can cause fatigue, headaches, cramping and affect our health in a number of other ways.
Be sure to drink enough water not only during your workouts but throughout the day as well. I find a big glass first thing in the morning really helps kick start my day and improves overall energy. I’d recommend investing in a nice water bottle and lugging that thing everywhere with you!
Some athletes enjoy coconut water for an athletic drink as well. I think it’s a good alternative to high-sugar sports drinks. If you’re exercising intensely for more than 60-90 minutes, I’d recommend considering a drink like coconut water that can help to replace electrolytes, especially in warmer climates. You can also make your own healthy sports drink by adding a little sea salt and fruit juice to your water.
2. Consider supplements.
Although not required, I think certain supplements can be beneficial when added to a whole food vegan diet. I use protein powder and supplement my diet with B12, vitamin D and omega-3. The suggestions below are only supplements to consider and I recommend doing your own research as to what might be helpful for you. Nothing is as powerful as a whole food plant-based diet so start there and then consider supplements to fill in the gaps.
Supplementation will depend on your diet, your goals and your activity level, so do some research and consider working with a nutritionist or RD if you need some help.
Ideally, we’d get all these vitamins and minerals through the foods we eat so be sure to include plenty of dark leafy greens, beans and almonds in your diet for calcium, pumpkin seeds, kale, peanut butter, molasses and apricots for iron and flax, chia and hemp seeds for essential fats.
SPORTS SUPPLEMENTS OR VEGAN ATHLETES
- Fermented L-Glutamine
- Protein Powder
Vitamin and Minerals CONSIDERATIONS
Here are some other vitamins and minerals that you might want to look into to. You shouldn’t have to supplement all of them just be aware that they’re the most common deficiencies for vegan athletes. I’ve written about this in detail in my vegan nutrition guide and guide to vegan protein sources.
3. Stick to whole foods and eat the rainbow.
If you do a plant-based diet right, there’s not too much to worry about in terms of macro and micro-nutrient deficiencies. As often as you can, stick to foods as close to their natural state as possible. A wide variety of whole, plant foods in as many colours as you can find will help ensure you’re getting plenty of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, protein and essential amino acids. Eating colourful foods like berries, dark-coloured fruit, vegetables and green tea can help to reduce the risk of disease, speed physical recovery and protect cellular health.
A good place to start is loading up on a wide variety of vegetables. I always recommend eating one big, raw salad every day. Load it up with as many vegetables as you like, then add a small amount of healthy fat such as hemp seed or avocado, add some protein if needed, such as lentils or edamame, then top it off with a homemade fat-free dressing.
4. Eat well after training for optimal recovery.
The meal you eat following a workout is the most important meal for aiding recovery and maintaining the ability to train again soon. It’s important to pay particular attention to fluids, carbohydrates and protein intake. An ideal post-workout ratio of carbs to protein at this meal is considered to be 4 grams of carbohydrates for every gram of protein however some prefer a ratio of 3:1 or even 2:1. Experiment with different meals and see what works best for you. Failing to replace depleted carbohydrates, protein, and fluids after a workout can decrease performance in the days so it’s a very important aspect of your nutrition plan.
If you’re in a pinch, any whole food within 30-60 minutes is a great place to start. Ideally, a post-workout meal should contain a lot of carbs, a decent amount of protein, some antioxidants and a small amount of omega-3 fatty acids to support a reduction in inflammation.
VEGAN POST-WORKOUT MEAL IDEAS
- oats with protein powder, chia seeds and cherries
- chickpea “egg” salad
- sweet potato and black beans
- pasta with lentils
- quinoa salad with tofu
- chia pudding with protein and fruit
- vegan protein shake with banana and cherries
- wild rice broccoli and edamame salad
5. When in doubt, eat more vegetables.
I can’t stress this one enough. Make the base of your diet vegetables. Snack on loads of raw veggies, add vegetables to all your main dishes, throw some nutrient-dense greens like spinach and kale into your smoothies and eat up those big salads every day! Vegetables are a nutrient-dense food meaning for the amount of calories they contain, they’re very high in key antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. I do think eating plenty of raw foods has it’s benefits, it all comes down to nutrient-density so try to enjoy fruits and vegetables in their natural state to get the most nutrient-bang for your buck.
Pay particular attention to green vegetables such as kale, spinach, chard and a variety of lettuces, as well as fibrous, mineral-rich vegetables like asparagus, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, celery and beets.
Check out this post on how to food prep to make buddha bowls all week!
6. Eat enough.
I think some plant-based athletes struggle here, especially if you’re training hard so make sure you take the additional energy requirements into consideration. A lot of plant-based foods have a very low calorie density, so be sure to consider that as well and reach for nutrient-dense foods as needed.
There’s a fine line between eating too little to perform and too much that may cause weight gain. You probably won’t feel very good or have the energy to train if you just eat fruits and vegetables. Include a variety of nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes to increase the amount of quality calories you’re getting in order to support training.
CALCULATE YOUR Calorie and MACRO REQUIREMENTS
I like the IIFYM.com calculator because you can easily adjust the numbers to your preference. Once you have your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) in calories, then you can adjust as needed to suit your macro requirements and goals.
Head over to this post for how to get started with flexible dieting.
7. Start a food journal.
Finding the right balance of macronutrients at the right amount of calories needed for weight maintenance, gain or loss as well as performance, can be tricky. Using an app like My Fitness Pal can be handy to experiment and see what works for you. I would recommend recording everything you eat for 1-2 weeks as well as writing down how you felt and how your workouts went.
This can help to pinpoint what balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates works best for you, as well as determine how many calories you need to fuel everything you want to do, as well as acheive any weight goals you might have. It can be helpful to check in on your diet every few months as well, just to record a few days to see where you’re at and adjust as needed. Flexible dieting has been very popular within the CrossFit community and may be something you want to read more about, at least to get you started with eating for performance.
VEGAN FLEXIBLE DIETING Articles
- Week One Experiences – A Snapshot of How I Eat
- Week Two Experiences – Tips, Tricks and Sample Meal Plans
- Week Six Follow Up and Experiences – Tips and Tricks
- Best Plant-Based Flexible Dieting Foods – Part 1
- Best Plant-Based Flexible Dieting Foods – Part 2
- Best Plant-Based Flexible Dieting Foods – Part 3
- Best Tools for Flexible Dieting Success
8. Always be prepared.
Preparedness is key to doing a plant-based diet right. That means taking the time to prepare your meals ahead of time, if needed. I always prepare my lunch for the following day the night before. I make sure I have a healthy lunch and a number of snacks ready to go. I usually throw some extra fruit and nuts in my lunch bag just in case I need some additional fuel at some point during the day.
HOMEMADE VEGAN SNACKS
- Nut-Free Chewy Vegan Granola Bar
- No-Bake Trail Mix Bars
- Almond Coconut Protein Bars
- Mocha Protein Balls
- Apple Oat Protein Muffins
- Hemp Protein Bars
- Hemp and Maca Balls
I also like to prepare my breakfast the night before because I eat overnight protein oats almost every day. I recommend preparing 5 containers with all the dry ingredients you’ll be using, then adding almond milk and popping them in the fridge as needed. There are a number of other time-saving food prep methods I use and I’ll be going more into that in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!
9. Reduce your consumption of inflammatory foods.
Inflammatory foods include things like refined sugar, gluten and dairy, as well as trans fats. If you’re doing your best to stick to a whole food diet, reducing these foods to a minimum will happen naturally. Try to avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup and eating foods made with wheat flour in moderation.
I would also completely avoid foods like margarine, vegetable shortening and any products that list them, or hydrogenated fats, as ingredients. Instead enjoy fats from foods like avocado and nuts, especially walnuts, cashews, seeds and almonds and use olive or coconut oil for cooking.
10. Increase your consumption of anti-inflammatory foods.
Some good anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet are turmeric, ginger and tart cherries, all of which are very easy to throw in a smoothie. Turmeric and ginger blend into smoothies nicely without adding too much flavour but they’re also wonderful in everything from salad dressings, to soups and stir fries.
Including a range of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet can help to reduce inflammation in the body, prevent illness, improve recovery times, boost immunity and keep you healthy.
11. Natural pre-workouts.
Dates and bananas are an easily digestible sources of carbohydrates you can use for energy before or even during workouts. Carbs give you energy, so before, during and after workouts is the best time to consume them. Those natural sugars provide a nice boost in energy that can help carry you through a tough workout. You might want to consider adding a little protein and fat to those to help balance them out. Try 1/2 a banana with a spoonful of almond butter, or dates with some nuts or seeds. A small, balanced meal of some protein, some carbohydrates and a little bit of fat about an hour before a workout usually works best for me.
I also love caffeine pre-workout but I train first thing in the morning, so it’s the perfect time to enjoy a cup of coffee before training.
PRE-WORKOUT MEAL IDEAS
- coffee with protein + MCT oil blended in, half a banana
- oatmeal with protein
- dates stuffed with peanut butter, half a protein shake
- low-fat granola with almond milk, half a protein shake
- sweet potato mashed with almond butter and vanilla protein
- fresh berries with hemp seeds, half a protein shake
- chia seed pancakes
- fruit juice with protein powder and nut butter
- toast with small amount avocado
- half an english muffin with nut butter, half a protein shake
12. Stock up on super foods.
I’m all about getting bang for my buck when it comes to nutrition. That means reaching for nutrient-dense foods as much as possible. I eat superfoods like hemp seeds, chia seeds and spirulina on a regular basis but there are many amazing foods out there that all offer a valuable range of nutritional benefits.
SUPERFOODS FOR VEGAN ATHLETES
Of course, I don’t include all of these foods in my diet on a daily basis. But keep them in mind as another way to boost performance and recovery when you can include them. One easy way to use superfoods is to add them to smoothies. Check out this post for the best superfoods to add to smoothies.
13. Get those phytonutrients in.
To fuel up on phytonutrient-rich foods and improve recovery times, eat plenty of berries, tomatoes, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and some soy. Green and white tea and dark chocolate with at least 85% cocoa content are also great choices. Yes, I said chocolate!!
15. Reach for alkaline-forming foods.
Maintaining a balanced pH in the body is an important part of overall health. When the body becomes too acidic it can negatively affect our health causing fatigue and other ailments. Low body pH can lead to the loss of lean muscle mass and an increase in body fat production.
To prevent this, try to consume more alkaline-forming foods and less acid-forming ones. The best sources of alkaline-forming foods are all green vegetables as well as seaweed and algae. This is where adding spirulina and chlorella to your diet comes in! Foods like hemp seeds, quinoa, dates, buckwheat, pumpkin and sesame seeds are also alkaline-forming.
16. Don’t be afraid of carbs.
We need carbs to train hard and recovery properly. Depending on your training schedule and goals, the majority of carbohydrates you consume should come from complex carbohydrates. Try to avoid overly processed carbohydrates and reach for carbs like whole grains, starchy vegetables and fruits to get the most nutritional value.
CARBOHYDRATES FOR VEGAN ATHLETES
- starchy vegetables like sweet potato, potato
- grains like oats and quinoa
- fruits like banana, dates, figs, berries and oranges
- lentils and beans
17. Get protein from plants.
While I don’t think protein-deficiency is room for alarm if eating plant-based diet but I do think it’s important for vegan athletes to make sure they’re getting enough. I use both flavoured protein powder that I’ll drink with water right after a workout, as well a plain hemp and brown rice protein powders that I used to increase the amount of protein in my diet. I’ll add these to smoothies and use them in baking and other recipes.
Athletes need more protein than the moderately active individual but it’s not something you have to be too concerned with. I eat about 0.65 grams of protein per lb. of bodyweight and I’m able to reach that through almost all whole foods. I try to include whole food sources of protein in every meal and snack and then fill in the gaps with a protein powder. The protein in vegetables adds up surprisingly quick and can amount to a good chunk of your daily protein requirements.
Including plenty of beans like chickpeas, black beans and black-eye peas really helps as does plenty of lentils. I love tempeh as a protein source and I eat tofu regularly, as well as edamame. Including these foods at every meal really adds up and you’ll be surprised how much protein you can get simply by being aware of it.
BEST SOURCES OF PLANT-BASED PROTEIN
- Soy products like soy beans, tofu, tempeh, edamame
- Beans and lentils
- Chia, pumpkin and hemp seeds
- Grains like quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth
- Vegetables like broccoli, peas, spinach, kale and asparagus
Keep it Simple
As I went through this post, I realized there’s a common theme throughout. All of these aspects of sports nutrition for vegan athletes happen naturally when you eat a wide variety of whole food, plant-based foods and minimize your consumption of highly processed foods. I don’t think to myself, oh I need to eat anti-inflammatory foods today. I just do because I eat a wide range of colourful fruits and vegetables. It’s that easy.
Eat real, whole food and you’ll be able to fuel performance, recovery well, train hard and feel great while doing it. Please keep in mind everyone is different caloric requirements and macronutrient ratios will vary person to person however we can all benefit from eating nourishing, whole foods.
I hope you enjoyed my first post of nutrition tips for vegan athletes! I get a lot of questions on the subject so I thought I’d start to delve in and share my experiences.
My main form of fitness is CrossFit and I’ve been able to steadily progress over the last 3 years in the sport, all while eating a plant-based diet. For now, just now that it is possible, more than possible…in fact, eating plant-based just might become your secret weapon.
Disclaimer: Please note I am not a doctor, dietitian or nutritionist and this is all based on my own research and experiences.