Health & Wellbeing
Vegan fitness: Let’s do some myth-busting
So you have signed up for the gym, the marathon, the yoga teacher training, bought your gear and are ready to embark on an athlete’s journey. But you also want to eat more plant-based food and are asking yourself if you can perform well on a vegan diet and if you actually need to worry about your protein intake.
After all, they say “abs are made in the kitchen,” “the most important part of sport is recovery” and “you can’t get strong on carrots and peas alone”. Well all of this is… true. The reality is that food does play a crucial role in your physical and mental well-being and that will affect how you perform, how you feel while doing sports and your overall energy levels day to day. Sport has a lot of short- and long-term benefits but can also take a toll on your body. Learning how to fuel your body properly for recovery is therefore of utmost importance. So let’s bust three myths around vegan fitness to get you to your goals:
Myth 1: Eat meat to build muscle
The international society of sports and nutrition recommends 0.8g/kg per day of protein for sedentary people, 1-1.6g/kg per day for endurance athletes and 1.6-2g/kg per day for strength athletes. For example, if you are 70kg, 70kg x 1.6 = 110g protein per day. Ironman Brendan Brazier, track and field Olympian Carl Lewis, world heavyweight champion boxer David Haye and tennis champion Venus Williams, have all proven that you can meet these requirements on a plant-based diet (1,2).
However, systematic reviews have shown that, on average, vegan diets are lower in protein compared to other diets (3). As one cannot rely on animal products on a plant-based diet, it is important to pay attention to include a protein source with every meal. Different plant foods have the twenty different building blocks of proteins - called amino acids - in different quantities. The amino acid lysine is the lowest in the plant world, but good news, beans and legumes are all high in lysine (think black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, red, yellow, green lentils etc), so make sure you include protein-rich foods.
Another easy way of making the most of legumes is to get lentil or bean pasta. They are neutral in taste, easy to digest and add a fun colour to your meals (win-win-win). Including protein powder can be helpful if required, but it should never be the main or only protein source - variety is key. Sync is a great protein powder brand that minimises additives.
Another great source of protein are meat replacements. Meat replacements get a bad rap for being processed compared to meat for example, but the truth is, meat does not have all the ingredients on the package that the animal consumed before it was slaughtered. Also, there are brands of meat replacements with only a handful of ingredients. Planted, Heura and Outlawz all do a great job. Seitan, or wheat gluten, is also a fantastic source of protein. You can make your own too, check this YouTube video.
Myth 2: Veggies are not an athlete’s food
Plant foods are absolutely essential for athletes. While working out, humans break down muscle fibres, and these fibres grow back in recovery. Athletes can have a suppressed immune function because of the stress they put their bodies under (2) and high-antioxidant foods can fight this. And what are those antioxidant foods? Right. Plants. The median levels of antioxidants from plant-based foods are almost triple that of animal origin (4). Incorporating a wide variety of vegetables will be most beneficial. Dark leafy vegetables (kale, bok choy, collard greens, rocket) are absolute nutritional stars, also they are important to incorporate for anyone with a menstrual cycle, to maintain good iron levels (2). So be an adult, and eat your vegetables.
And if you are a real gym bro who thinks plants are a waste of space on your calorie-dense plate, just look up the Tennessee Titans NFL team. This plant-based American Football team eats more veggies than ever needed to make their mothers proud.
Myth 3: All supplements are unnecessary or harmful
“Vegans need to supplement, therefore this diet is inferior to an omnivorous diet.” This, again, is a myth. First, most people who are serious about sports take some kind of supplement. Protein powder and creatine are common ones. Not just for vegans. Second, animals are supplemented with vitamins and minerals so taking supplements rather than eating supplemented animals cuts out the middleman. Third, vegans are not more prone to deficiencies, they are prone to different deficiencies. Vegans are more prone to deficiencies in B12, zinc, calcium and selenium. Vegans are also less prone to deficiencies in fibre, vitamins A, B1, B6, C, E, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, copper and folate compared to other diets (3,5). Unless you opt for Oreos dipped into Biscoff spread all day, and instead eat a variety of plant foods at each meal, it is possible to cover nutritional needs mostly with whole foods.
Regular blood tests can be helpful to check and B12 supplementation is of course a must. A creatine supplement can also be great. Just 3-5g a day every day - whether it’s a workout day or a rest day - should do the job, it is a very well-researched supplement that has performance-enhancing effects on muscle growth and strength (6,7). In case of doubt, always check with a doctor.
Ok, you are ready to lift some serious iron and sprint some serious miles, so start your vegan fitness journey! If you are not exactly a kitchen prince(ss) and are feeling at a loss with delicious wholesome plant-based recipes that cover your nutritional needs as an active person, these are great cookbooks: The Plant-based Athlete by Robert Cheeke and Matt Frazier, The Proof is in the Plants by Simon Hill, and Naturally Stefanie by Stefanie Moir. Also, Andrew Bernard’s high-protein vegan cooking videos are epic. Added bonus, they put you in a great meditative state that will make you veg out (and maximize that recovery).
Interested in health and vegan fitness? Take a look at these 7 esteemed plant based doctors worth following or how a plant-based diet helps these famous vegan athletes.
1. Rogerson, D. Vegan diets : practical advice for athletes and exercisers Vegan diets : practical advice for athletes and exercisers. (2022).
2. Foster, C., Fuhrman, J. & Ferreri, D. M. Fueling the Vegetarian ( Vegan ) Athlete. Nutr. Ergogenic Aids 9, 233–241 (2010).
3. Bakaloudi, D. et al. Intake and adequacy of the vegan diet . A systematic review of the evidence. Clin. Nutr. 40, 3503–3521 (2021).
4. Carlsen, M. H. et al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods , beverages , spices , herbs and supplements. (2010).
5. Maziarz, B., Chojęta, D., Zygmunt, E. & Wróblewski, H. Influence of vegan diet on physical performance of athletes. J. Educ. Heal. Sport 10, 209–215 (2020).
6. Buford, T. W. et al. Journal of the International Society International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand : creatine supplementation and exercise. 8, 1–8 (2007).
7. Cooper, R., Naclerio, F., Allgrove, J. & Jimenez, A. Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise / sports performance : an update. 9, 1 (2012).