By Stephanie Hnatiuk RD, CDE, PTS
Vegan and vegetarian diets used to have a bad rap when it came to supporting the nutrition needs of athletes. When it comes to optimizing performance though, there are actually many plant foods that can do the job. While we now know that plant-based diets can fuel even the highest level of athletes, there are some key nutrients that shouldn’t be left out!
Best plant-based sources: tofu (and other soy foods), lentils, beans, whole grains, quinoa, nuts and seeds.
Because athletes require more protein in their diets than the rest of the population, it may require some effort and planning to consume enough. Not eating enough protein can cause a slump in performance and difficulty building muscle, so protein should be a priority when creating a plant-based meal plan.
Tip: Make high-protein plant foods part of every meal and snack. When quick, on-the-go options are needed, plant-based protein bars or powders can help fill the nutrition gaps.
Best plant-based sources: beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, tofu, cooked spinach, asparagus, beets and beet greens.
Iron is not as readily absorbed by our bodies as some other nutrients, and non-heme iron (the type found in plant sources) is bound by natural substances that make it even harder for us to access. Iron is important for helping the body carry oxygen through the blood to our cells, so if we have low iron levels we may feel tired, irritable and low in energy.
Tip: Pair up sources of iron with foods rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C helps to increase the absorption of iron by changing it to a more readily-absorbed version.
Best plant-based sources: Wheat germ cereals, bran cereals, nuts and seeds, tempeh, tofu, beans and lentils.
Zinc is an important nutrient for the body’s growth and immune function. Without enough zinc in our bodies we may get sick more often, have trouble healing, or lose our appetite.
Tip: The zinc in plant foods is often bound by phytates, which are natural compounds that prevent us from absorbing zinc in the digestive tract. Cooking techniques like soaking beans, sprouting grains, or leavening bread dough improves zinc’s bioavailability.
- Vitamin B12
Best plant-based sources: There are no natural vegan sources of vitamin B12. Foods commonly fortified with vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast, plant-based milks, or soy products.
Vitamin B12 plays a key role in our cells energy metabolism. Without adequate vitamin B12 physical performance can suffer due to weakness and fatigue.
Tip: Get your vitamin B12 level checked regularly to avoid a deficiency. Some people do not absorb vitamin B12 very well, so supplementation may be necessary even if you consume fortified foods regularly.
- Vitamin D
Best plant-based sources: Mushrooms, fortified plant milks (and other fortified foods)
Vitamin D plays a key role in bone health, immunity, and reduction of inflammation in the body. We actually make vitamin D when we are exposed to sunlight, but during the winter this can be nearly impossible.
Tip: It is recommended to take a Vitamin D supplement to ensure adequate levels in the body year-round.
Best plant-based sources: Cooked greens (spinach, kale, turnip greens), almonds, white/navy beans, foods fortified with calcium including tofu, breakfast cereals, orange juice, plant-based milks
Calcium is a key nutrient not only for bone health, but for normal body functions including muscle contractions. There are many sources of calcium available for plant-based eaters including both plant foods and fortified foods.
Tip: Always choose fortified plant-based milks to replace dairy. Vitamin D also increases calcium absorption in the digestive tract so getting enough vitamin D in your diet is also key for optimizing your calcium intake.
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
Best plant-based sources: spinach, soy, mushrooms, almonds, fortified grain products and cereals
Riboflavin is one of the B vitamins that is important for energy metabolism (the body’s ability to turn the food we eat into energy in our cells), among many other important body functions. Athletes have a higher need for riboflavin than sedentary people, so including plant-based sources of riboflavin each day is critical.
Tip: Some bacteria that live in the digestive tract produce riboflavin during digestion, which our bodies can absorb and use. A high-fibre diet can help increase the riboflavin these bacteria produce.
The Bottom Line
Plant-based diets can fuel even very high level athletes, but choosing the right combinations of nutrient-dense foods is the key for optimizing athletic performance.