In the past couple of years, veganism has become very popular. It is not considered as a specific plant-based diet anymore but as a way of life, and becoming vegan means changing your life upside down and creating a new, healthy lifestyle. But is choosing veganism a good option for athletes and does it really give them enough strength to match their meat-eating competitors?
Over the last few years, more and more athletes have completely altered their eating habits and turned to the vegan way of life. It is a well-known fact that changing your eating habits and following a vegan diet can help you create a healthier life but does it give you enough energy and does it benefit your performance?
Protein replacement and quality fats
A common problem for active individuals is feeling constant hunger after switching to a vegan diet that leads to low energy levels and affects their performance. That happens because your body needs protein and fats that can be found in animal products to use as fuel. Active athletes need more protein than the average people do. The tricky part is that protein is mostly found in animal products so switching to vegan diet means a large portion of it is eliminated and it might be a shock to your body. The same happens when you cut the fat from dairy products (2% milk is in fact 33.5% fat!) out from your diet and your body lacks fuel (in this case fat) to produce energy and burn it. For optimum performance, saturated fat in your food diet should be minimized but cutting all fat out of the diet is not the best option. It can be, for a moderately active person, but it will have a negative influence on an athlete.
The solution lies in carefully thought through, plant-based diet consisting of certain elements that are replacements for the protein intake and of course, adding good quality fats. Therefore if you are doing sports and thinking about adopting a plant-based diet, don't do it by yourself, instead, consult with the experts in the field.
In addition to replacement and alternatives for food, vegan athletes also add organic supplements like brown rice protein powder to their diet to ensure quicker muscle recovery, sufficient dietary protein intake, to gain muscles and improve their performance.
Dietary sodium and calcium intake
What also happens to vegan athletes is muscle cramping and stiffness due to lack of sodium in their body as well as lack of calcium. Calcium is necessary for your heart and other muscles to work properly and if you don't have enough of it, you can increase the risk of developing disorders like osteoporosis. It is extremely important to plan your meals wisely and make sure you are consuming calcium-rich food such as almonds, beans, sesame and sunflower seeds, spinach, kale, etc.
When training, your body produces a high sweat rate so you must make sure you have enough sodium. High levels of sodium can be found in dairy products and most prepared meats such as salami or pepperoni. On the other hand, most plant sources don't contain enough dietary sodium (except some seaweeds) and that is why it is important to increase your intake of sodium if your activity increases.
What you can do is add sea salt to your usual meals to ensure your body receives enough sodium to subside muscle cramping. Consider using sodium tablets as an alternative way to increase sodium levels during time of heavy training and excessive sweating. Including dietary sodium will affect your general health and you will not experience a rise in blood pressure.
Blood tests and iron-rich food
When turning to veganism and cutting animal products out from a diet, active individuals usually have problem with low energy levels and exhaustion. That happens due to the lack of iron in your body and it often leads to anemia. As with sodium and calcium, iron is also lost when sweating and maintaining its stores is extremely difficult during times of heavy training. That is why it is highly recommended to take bi-yearly blood tests to monitor your iron level and take the necessary steps.
Speaking of necessary steps - the solution of the problem lies in iron-rich food in every meal such as soybean nuts, green beans, walnuts, cashews, pecans plus with a little help of vitamin C (to help with the absorption).
All in all, if you are an athlete who is thinking about altering your food habits and becoming vegan, don't hesitate because you can find dietary replacement for all the necessary elements your body needs during training. As long as you are monitoring the levels of sodium, calcium and iron, and making sure you are including enough protein in your meals you can focus on the training part and improve your performance. Make sure you are doing it right and consult with the experts to get ready to compete with (and win!) your meat-eating opponents!