Vegans are individuals who, whether for health, environmental or ethical reasons, choose to avoid all animal products.
Similarly to the Paleo way of eating, veganism puts a strong emphasis on whole, non-processed foods. These foods, however, do not include any red meat, poultry and fish, nor animal-derived products such as dairy, eggs, gelatin and honey.
TOP PERFORMANCE ON A VEGAN DIET
‘Despite what you might have read or heard, veganism and top athletic performance can definitely go hand in hand.’
You don’t need to take me for my word of it. A simple glance at top vegan athletes will provide confirmation enough!
- Bodybuilder Robert Cheeke
- MMA champion Mac Danzig
- Powerlifter Melody Schoenfeld
- CrossFitters Billy Prusinowski and Ed Bauer…
Here are a couple of points to keep in mind in order to follow in their footsteps (or at the very least, strive to):
GET ENOUGH PROTEIN
One of the common mistakes made by vegans is to cut out animal products without replacing them by high-protein equivalents. Since protein is needed for muscle function and repair, getting too little can make reaching those PRs harder and the post-workout soreness last that much longer.
To get your fill of all the essential amino acids your body needs, simply make sure to consume a wide variety of protein-rich plant foods throughout the day. Great sources of plant-based proteins include:
- Sprouted grains
Just keep in mind that, since plant foods are slightly less digestible than animal products, vegans should aim to eat ± 10% more protein per day than non-vegans (1).
BE SMART ABOUT YOUR CARBOHYDRATES
Vegan diets are generally higher in carbohydrates, which can be an advantage, especially when it comes to performance in high intensity metcons. That being said, it’s important to put an emphasis on getting your carbohydrates from non-processed foods.
Yes, Oreos and potato chips are considered vegan foods. But they’re unlikely to help you achieve the nutrient-rich, performance-boosting diet you’re after. Instead, focus on foods such as:
- Brown Rice
- Starchy Vegetables
And don’t forget to include a carbohydrate-rich meal pre and post-workout, especially on days where you have < 24 hours between sessions (2).This will help provide your muscles with the energy they need to boost performance and recovery.
CHECK YOUR FATS
Some vegan diet variants put an emphasis on keeping dietary fat levels very low. This can, however, be counterproductive — both from performance and health standpoints.
Fats play, amongst others, an important role in absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and production of hormones. So getting enough is important. The trick to achieving a good balance lies in getting your fats from whole foods such as:
- Coconut flesh
Unlike oils and margarine, these foods will provide fat while also contributing to your protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and mineral needs. Keeping your intake of processed fats low will also help contribute to lowering your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which, when too high, is known to contribute to inflammation.
SUPPLEMENT WHEN NEEDED
A varied vegan diet with a strong emphasis on whole foods will provide your body with most of the vitamins and minerals it needs. That being said, there are a couple of exceptions you might want to keep an eye out for:
1) Vitamin B12
Our bodies use B12 to make protein, for muscle repair and to produce enough oxygen-transporting red blood cells. Because whole plant foods lack B12, vegans should rely on fortified foods and / or supplements to ensure an adequate supply. Adequate intakes can be achieved through either:
- 3 micrograms from fortified foods consumed each day
- 10 micrograms from a daily B12 supplement
- 2000 micrograms from a weekly B12 supplement.
Iron is important for oxygen transport in the body as well as energy production. Too little can lead to muscle fatigue, lowered performance and a weaker immune system. Research shows that at similar levels of iron intake, vegetarian athletes have lower iron stores, possibly because iron from plant-foods is less well absorbed (3). For this reason, vegans are encouraged to aim for a 40-80% higher iron intake than omnivores (4, 5).
- Iron-rich plant foods include:
- Leafy greens,
- Tomato puree,
- Heart of palm,
- Leek, lentils,
- Dried fruit,
- Whole grains,
- And, my personal favorite, dark chocolate.
To boost iron absorption, aim to consume your iron-rich foods in combination with a source of vitamin C (i.e. fruits and veggies). Soaking and fermenting foods can also help increase iron absorption.
Zinc is a mineral involved in energy production, immune function and muscle repair. Intense exercise increases zinc losses through urine and sweat, further increasing requirements. What’s more, vegetarians and vegans seem to have lower zinc intakes and/or reduced absorption (6). To maintain adequate zinc status, vegans should thus aim to up their intake of zinc-rich whole foods such as:
- Whole grains
The greatest dietary source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) remains fatty fish. As such, vegans are unlikely to get their fill of these two fatty acids. It’s important to note that these two fatty acids are not essential per-se — our bodies can produce them from conversion of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), commonly found in foods such as:
- Chia seeds
However, since the conversion rate in the body is considered to be low, an algae-based DHA / EPA supplement might be worth considering.
Calcium is critical to bone health but also needed for muscle contraction and a healthy nervous system. Findings from a large study showed that vegans with calcium intakes of less than 525mg per day have a 30% increased risk of bone fractures (8). So it’s definitely worth getting enough!
Vegan sources of calcium include:
- Dark leafy veggies
- Calcium-set tofu
- Some seeds.
Cooking the veggies will reduce their oxalate content, helping increase calcium absorption. Getting enough vitamin D (see below) will also help increase absorption.
6) Vitamin D
Also known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D plays a critical role in the absorption of calcium. It’s also necessary for your bones, skeletal muscle and nervous system. Not many foods contain vitamin D but 15 minutes of sun-exposure mid-day (without sunscreen), on a day where sunburn is possible is sufficient to get your fill. But, since this can be difficult to achieve depending on the time of year and/or your geographical location, supplements might be worth considering.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
A whole food-based vegan diet can provide your body high levels of many of the nutrients needed both for health and optimal CrossFit performance. And, when well planned, can definitely rival many diets considered as more conventional.
Keep these points above in mind and you’ll be on your way to ringing that PR bell in no time!
1 American College of Sports Medicine. ‘Nutrition and athletic performance.’
2 African Journals Online ‘Sport Nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition.’
3 National Centre for Biological Information (NCBI)
4 Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc.
5 NCBI ‘Vegetarian diets : nutritional considerations for athletes.’
6 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.