Does a plant-based diet provide enough nutrients for athletes?
Seven nutrients that plant-based athletes may not get enough of – and RD approved tips to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
If you’re an athlete who is considering switching to a plant-based diet, you may be wondering if you can get all the nutrients you need only by eating plants.
As a plant-based Sports Dietitian who has worked with hundreds of vegan and vegetarian athletes, I can assure you that it’s possible to get all the nutrition you need on a plant-based diet.
That said, there are 7 nutrients that many plant-based athletes don’t get enough of, so let’s chat about those and how you can prevent deficiency.
What is a plant-based diet?
There is no true definition of a plant-based diet. Some people define it as strictly vegan, meaning they do not eat any animal products like dairy, eggs, or honey.
Others think of plant-based as vegetarian, which means including dairy, eggs and honey in the diet. And some even consider plant-based to mean predominantly plants with some animal products mixed in.
It’s up to you to decide what plant-based means to you. If you’re new to a plant-based lifestyle, choose an eating pattern that fits within your lifestyle and is sustainable. Don’t go all in on a vegan diet if you don’t understand how to get protein and other nutrients without dairy and eggs [Read more: The Ultimate Guide To Vegan Diet For Athletes].
It’s also important to think about your “why” for plant-based eating. Some choose this diet for animal welfare, while others are concerned with the environment or their health. Whatever the reason, make sure it’s compelling enough to keep you motivated.
For example, setting an intrinsic goal, such as “I want to feel stronger when I’m working out”, rather than an extrinsic goal, such as “I want to be X pounds lighter” will help keep you focused on making healthy choices.
The benefits of plant-based eating for athletes
There is a ton of research on the benefits of a plant-based diet, especially as it pertains to disease prevention. Since a plant-based diet consists of healthy whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, soy, seeds and whole grains, it provides many beneficial nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.
It probably comes as no surprise that many health agencies recommend plant-based diets, such as The American Institute for Cancer Research, which suggests that Americans consume two-thirds of their dietary intake from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends vegetarian diets as one of three healthful dietary patterns.
The research on plant-based eating is overwhelmingly positive. For example, vegetarian diets have been linked to heart and metabolic health, including positive effects on abdominal obesity, blood pressure, blood lipids and blood glucose.
Plant-based eating also decreases markers of inflammation and protects from plaque formation in the arteries. Scientists attribute these advantages to the fiber and antioxidants in a plant-based diet, as well as the lack of saturated fat.
In addition, vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cancer, especially gastrointestinal cancer. Furthermore, a vegan diet appears to offer greater protection against overall cancer incidence than any other style of eating.
Can athletes get enough nutrients on a plant-based diet?
With the omission of certain foods, many athletes wonder if they can get enough nutrients on a plant-based diet. As a plant-based Sports dietitian, I work with many athletes that get all the nutrients they need while eating plants.
That said, these athletes are very aware of the diet limitations and the foods they need to incorporate to prevent deficiencies. [Want to learn more about plant-based eating for sport? Join Greenletes U for expert advice!]
Let’s take a deeper look at the most common nutrient deficiencies among vegetarian and vegan athletes and how to prevent them.
Iron is a mineral that is used to make hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Iron plays a role in physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and the synthesis of some hormones.
There are two forms of iron– heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal foods, like poultry, fish, beef and pork, it’s the most easily absorbed form of iron. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods, such as grains, fortified cereals, beans, nuts, seeds and vegetables, and it’s absorbed as well as heme iron. [Read more: 12 Plant-Based Iron Sources]
Some of the best sources of non-heme iron are chickpeas, spinach, oats, tofu, lentils, potatoes, cashews, edamame, sesame seeds, flax seeds, beets and white mushrooms.
How much iron do you need?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for iron is different for men and women. Men ages 19 to 50 need 8 milligrams (mg) of iron per day, while females of the same age need 18 mg. Both men and women over 51 need 8 mg of iron per day. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that vegetarians eat 1.8 times more iron than meat-eaters, which is about 14 grams for men and 32 grams for women
Vegetarians and vegans may have lower iron stores overall due to the consumption of non-heme iron. Other factors that inhibit and increase the absorption of iron also play a role. For example, Vitamin C increases iron absorption, while phytates (present in grains and beans) and certain polyphenols in some non-animal foods (such as cereals and legumes) interfere with the absorption of iron.
Evidence on vegetarian athletes and long-distance runners shows that they are at greater risk for developing an iron deficiency due to losses in urine, sweat and feces. In addition, iron status can be negatively influenced by injury, training at high altitudes, menstruation, foot-strike hemolysis and, of course, dietary intake.
Athletes that are diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia should speak to their doctor before taking a supplement. Iron supplementation can improve athletic performance in those with a deficiency, however, unmonitored supplementation is not recommended because too much iron in the blood can be toxic.
Most known for its role in maintaining strong bones, calcium is also stored in the teeth, hair and nails. Calcium is also used for blood clotting, sending and receiving nerve signals, squeezing and relaxing muscles, releasing hormones and maintaining a normal heartbeat.
How much calcium do you need?
Men and women ages 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, while everyone over 50 needs 1,200 milligrams per day. This important mineral is most prevalent in dairy foods, with 300 milligrams (30% daily value) in a glass of milk and 240 milligrams (24% daily value) in a 7-ounce Greek yogurt.
Most vegetarians meet or exceed their calcium needs each day, but intakes can vary widely for vegans. You can get plenty of calcium from non-dairy sources, like white beans, edamame, tofu, chia seeds, collard greens, kale, butternut squash, almonds, figs, tahini and fortified orange juice. [Read more: 12 Best Plant-Based Sources of Calcium]
Without proper calcium intake, athletes may be at risk for low bone mineral density and stress fractures, as well as menstrual dysfunction in female athletes. If you have a calcium deficiency, your doctor may recommend taking up to 1,500mg/day to optimize bone health.
Vitamin B12 is most known for its role in energy production. This B vitamin contributes to the proper formation of red blood cells, nerves and DNA.
Vitamin B12 is abundant in animal products, such as eggs, meat, dairy, poultry and fish, but plants aren’t able to make Vitamin B12. Consequently, you won’t find much Vitamin B12 in plant-based foods.
There are some rare instances of fermented foods, like tempeh, nori, spirulina and algae possessing natural Vitamin B12 because the bacteria in the food produced this vitamin.
But in general, it’s best not to rely on Vitamin B12 from these fermented foods, but rather to seek out plant foods that are fortified with B12, like nutritional yeast, plant milks, meat substitutes and breakfast cereals. [Read more: Vegan & Vegetarian Sources of B12]
For vegetarians, milk and eggs also provide natural Vitamin B12, but only about ⅔ the amount you need each day. Therefore, those following a plant-based diet should eat fortified sources of Vitamin B12.
How much Vitamin B12 do you need?
Men and women over 19 years old need 2.4 mcg of Vitamin B12 per day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that vegetarians and vegans take precautionary measures to get enough Vitamin B12.
All vegetarians and vegans should be screened for a Vitamin B12 deficiency through a simple blood test. Since only a small amount of supplemental B12 is absorbed, most vegans should supplement with 250 mcg per day. Vegetarians should consider taking a 250 mcg B12 supplement a few times per week.
A Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause unusual fatigue, tingling in fingers and toes, poor cognition and digestive issues, none of which are ideal for athletes. Over time, bone health can be compromised when B12 status is low. Inadequate B12 intake has been linked to low bone mineral density, increased fracture risk and osteoporosis.
Protein plays a role in muscle building, organ function and many other bodily processes. Many people think of protein when they think of animal foods, but plant-based foods are also full of protein.
Soy foods, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and even some vegetables supply protein on a plant-based diet. With education and planning, it’s absolutely possible to get plenty of protein on a vegan or vegetarian diet. But some plant-based eaters may miss out on protein if they don’t choose their meals carefully.
How much protein do you need per day?
An endurance athlete (runner, swimmer, triathlete, boxer) needs about 1.0- 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.45 – 0.63 grams per pound) per day.
A resistance athlete (focused on strength training) needs 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.54- 0.77 grams per pound) per day.
Plant-based athletes don’t need more protein than those who eat animal foods, but they need to pay attention to their protein source at every meal. Make sure you fill your plate with protein at breakfast, lunch and snacks to ensure proper muscle building and appetite control.
A protein deficiency can cause intentional weight loss and extreme hunger. It may also make you more susceptible to injuries.
Omega-3 DHA and EPA
Omega-3s are unsaturated fatty acids that contribute to healthy cell structure and energy production. Research has found that eating enough omega-3s can help with cognition, heart health and reducing inflammation.
There are three types of omega-3s—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While ALA is easy to get from plant foods, like walnuts, flax seeds, soybeans and a variety of oils, EPA and DHA are only found in fish, shellfish, seaweed and algae.
How much omega-3 do you need?
There is no set value for the amount of omega-3s you should have in a day. However, the National Institute of Health recommends 1.1 grams of ALA for women and 1.6 grams of ALA for men. The Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED) suggests taking 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day.
EPA and DHA are linked to heart health and cognition, and the Dietary Guidelines recommends eating fish 2x/week to get your dose of these omega-3’s. Obviously, plant-based eaters tend to fall short on these types of omega-3, unless they eat a lot of seaweed.
Technically, there is no true deficiency from omega-3’s, since they are not an essential vitamin and mineral. But having these in your diet definitely helps keep your heart and mind strong. If you’re not eating fish or taking fish oil, consider supplementing with a plant-based omega-3 supplement.
Vitamin D is another nutrient that plays a large role in bone health. Not only does it help with calcium absorption, but it also protects from the development of osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens the bones.
Vitamin D is also involved in the immune system, working to fight against invading bacteria and viruses. Lastly, adequate vitamin D intake has been associated with reduced inflammation in the body.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble vitamin, meaning that it needs fat to be absorbed. It is naturally present in only a few foods, such as fatty fish, eggs, beef and mushrooms. Obviously, this poses a problem for vegetarians and vegans.
Vitamin D is also produced when ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight hit the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis within the body. Yet, Vitamin D absorption from sunlight varies widely based on skin tone, sun exposure and climate.
How much Vitamin D do you need?
Adults need 600 IU of Vitamin D per day. Because of the few food sources of Vitamin D, most people are deficient at some point in their lives. Supplementation may be required to maintain sufficient vitamin D status.
Everyone should have their Vitamin D levels checked by their doctor to assess their levels. Athletes with a history of stress fracture, bone or joint injury, muscle pain or weakness should ask their doctor to draw blood to determine if Vitamin D supplementation is necessary.
Choline sends signals from the brain to working muscles and is crucial for early brain and spinal cord development. It’s a recommended nutrient for pregnant women and children, but most people could benefit from more choline.
How much choline do you need?
According to recent research, 65% of Americans have never even heard of choline and more 90% of people don’t get the recommended 550 milligrams (mg) per day.
With choline only in a few foods, like liver, eggs, leafy greens and lima beans, it’s no wonder that it’s under-consumed. If you’re pregnant, definitely choose a prenatal with choline in it. And plant-based individuals that don’t eat eggs should consider supplementing with choline as well.
A choline deficiency can cause muscle and liver damage.