Episode 21 – Nutritional Considerations for Plant Based Athletes

Key Topics Covered

The most common nutrition issues that plant-based athletes face, as well as our recommendations on overcoming:

  • Meeting elevated protein requirements
  • Meeting elevated calorie requirements
  • Avoiding gastrointestinal issues
  • Managing a low FODMAP diet
  • Micronutrients to be conscious of

Most Common Nutrition Issues

1. Meeting elevated protein requirements

  • It’s easy to meet general protein requirements for good health, but athletes require much more. It can be hard for plant-based athletes are able to meet their protein requirements on a consistent basis.
  • The amino acid profile of plant-based proteins are typically not as well suited for muscle building.
  • Therefore, plant-based athletes require 10-20% more protein.
  • A good target is at least 2g protein/kg of body weight (BW).

Many plant-based foods have a low protein efficiency, meaning they often have higher amounts of carbs and fat per gram. This can be difficult for those who are trying to keep their calories low.

Athletes in a large calorie deficit and trying to preserve muscle (ie. bodybuilding) require ~2.3-3.1g/kg of fat-free mass (almost 3 x their body weight). Plant-based athletes can try focusing on efficient sources; soy-based foods, textured vegetable protein, tofu, etc. But sometimes, it’s just not feasible.

  • Protein powder recommendation:
    • Soy protein isolate – It has a similar anabolic process to whey, in terms of building muscle.
    • Pea and rice protein blend – Protein from legumes and grains are complementary in their amino-acid profile.
  • Is a lot of soy safe?
    • There is no strong research to show that it causes feminisation or changes estrogen levels in men.
    • There is research to show that the phytoestrogen in soy is protective against breast cancer in women and potentially prostate cancer in men.
    • A certain amount of soy can increase rates of fertility, however, having too much can have the opposite effect. There is not strong evidence around the quantities though.

2. Meeting elevated calorie requirements

  • Plant foods are high in fibre and low in calories, this can be a barrier for plant-based athletes trying to gain weight. To overcome this, we first look at:
    • Reduce fibre intake – by reducing fruit & vegetable intake. This will allow adequate protein intake and the quality of diet to be maintained.
    • Replacing whole grains with refined grains – Eg. Rye bread -> white bread or Weetbix -> Nutri-Grain.

3. Avoiding gastrointestinal issues

  • Reducing fibre intake – to 40-50g/ day compared to 60-90g/day can show quick results.
  • Replacing meals with liquid calories – easier to digest.
  • Chewing fibrous foods well.

4. Managing low FODMAP diets

  • Reduce fibre intake if it is high! This will have the greatest benefit.
  • If symptoms continue then, swap high FODMAP foods to low FODMAP options.
  • Otherwise, this issue is almost unavoidable as most plant-based foods will contain some level of FODMAP’s.

5. Micronutrients that matter more for plant-based athletes

  • B12 – Non-negotiable, take a supplement.
  • B12 is found in predominantly plant-based foods, therefore is difficult to meet requirements consistently.
  • Developing a B12 deficiency can take up to 3 years in plant-based individuals, BUT it’s guaranteed (with no supplement). If the deficiency proceeds there are irreversible consequences, inc. brain damage and nerve damage.
  • Iron – Particularly for women or those in a calorie deficit.
  • Requirements increase by 1.8 times when vegan because plant-based iron has a lower bioavailability.
  • Some individuals can consume adequate amounts when incorporating iron-rich sources and pairing them with vitamin C.
  • However, most women struggle to consume enough iron anyway. Therefore, incorporating a low-dose iron supplement for plant-based athletes is often beneficial.
  • Zinc – Particularly for men.
  • Requirements increase by 1.5 times for individuals on a vegan diet.
  • There aren’t many plant-based foods that are high in zinc. Therefore, this is a nutrient that should be considered supplementing.
  • Selenium, iodine & vitamin D – These nutrients are limited in plant-based foods.

The difference between vegan and plant-based.

  • Plant-based diet – when an individual eats predominantly plant-based foods and very few animal products.
  • Vegan – More or less a lifestyle/ ethical choice. It’s based on an individual’s opinions on animal cruelty and the environment. Vegans are very strict and will have no animal products, inc. Household items, clothing, etc.

Relevant Links/ Resources

Useful Blog Posts