What You Need to Know About Vegan Athletes

Michael McKenney, MS, AT, CSCS

Two athletes eating on a bench

The number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan grew from 1 percent to 6 percent between 2014 and 2017, a 600 percent increase, according to GlobalData (Forgrieve, 2018). Likewise, more athletes are being recognized in the media for their preference of a plant-based diet. Examples include Soccer Phenom Alex Morgan, Tennis Star Venus Williams, the NBA’s Kyrie Irving and Tom Brady, arguably the greatest football quarterback of all time, to name a few.

They have chosen the vegan diet for a variety of reasons such as food intolerances or allergies (e.g., gluten allergy), religious reasons, autoimmune disorders or for the proclaimed health benefits for performance. Although these athletes each have different testimonials of how they came to prefer a vegan diet, there are consistencies in their desire to maintain it.

Some of these include reducing chronic inflammation in the body, aiding in recovery from intense physical activity and the promotion of antioxidant consumption and carbohydrate-rich foods. It is important to note that although empirical research validating these claims is either equivocal or missing; their longevity in sport and personal experience should not be discarded as anecdotal. As evidence-based health practitioners, athletic trainers value their professional experience and patient’s beliefs when guiding patients or athletes in health-related decisions.

According to Dr. John Berardi, one of the leading experts in sport and exercise nutrition, a vegan diet can be challenging for the average person to do well. Without proper nutritional guidance, many plant-based eaters suffer from muscle loss, poor performance and a host of nutritional deficiencies ranging from mild to severe (precisionnutrition.com). Some of these negative consequences result from the inability to sustain a positive energy balance, protein deficiency or inadequate amounts of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin D.

Therefore, it is recommended that individuals who want to pursue a vegan diet understand the common health risks with their respective sports and make a conscious effort to maintain nutrition sufficiency (Rogerson, 2017). For example, negative energy balance in endurance athletes or weight classification sports is commonly noted in the literature; therefore, these individuals may likely benefit from an increased frequency of feeding, including the addition of a variety of nuts, seeds and oils to increase caloric density in their foods. Furthermore, supplementation may be required to balance out the deficiencies resulting from increased levels of physical activity and dietary changes.

In summary, when considering a vegan diet as an athlete, it is important to include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and omega 3 rich plants. Focus on what new and exciting foods that you can consume, rather than what is simply emphasizing what is negated from the diet. Finally, for some, this may include the need for supplementation based upon individual needs and the recommendations of an appropriate health care provider.

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References:

• Berardi, J. (n.d.). Vegetarian athletes: Q&A with JB. Retrieved from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/pbe-qna-jb

• Forgrieve, J. (2018). The growing acceptance of veganism. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetforgrieve/2018/11/02/picturing-a-kindler-gentler-world-vegan-month/#709cd3392f2b

• Rogerson, D. (2017). Vegan diets: Practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 36. doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9

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