Last week we considered some of the logistical considerations around the application of taking on a plant-based diet.
In addition to considering how you might apply a plant-based diet, and if & where it suits your lifestyle, training demands and goals – you also want to consider the nutritional impact it will have plus whether it meets all your nutritional needs.
Foods derived from plants and animals have significantly different nutrient compositions. Therefore, if you choose to eliminate all animal-based foods, there are certain nutrients that are more difficult to attain. It is crucial that athletes pursuing a vegan or vegetarian diet are aware of these nutrients and their functions and sources, as inadequate substitution will impact health and/or performance.
Some of the key nutrients are outlined below.
Protein is a macronutrient that is crucial for all individuals due to its structural and functional roles in the body. It is especially important for athletes due to its role in muscle repair/recovery/growth. The richest dietary protein sources are animal-derived foods. Therefore, exclusively plant-based athletes need to ensure they are substituting them with adequate plant-based proteins.
Plant-based sources of protein include legumes, nuts, seeds and soy-based foods like tofu, tempeh, milk and edamame. To attain an adequate dose of protein from these foods in athletes, it will often require a combination of sources. For example, including both tofu and chickpeas in a curry dish.
For plant-based eaters who still consume yoghurt, cheese, milk, eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarians) and/or fish (pescatarians), these are also excellent sources of protein.
Omega-3 is a form of healthy fat that provides health benefits to the brain, eyes, heart as well as having an ability to improve mood. For athletes specifically, it has anti-inflammatory properties that can aid recovery from heavy training or competition loads, and also support injury rehabilitation.
The richest dietary sources of omega-3 are fatty fish including salmon, mackerel. Therefore, if you do not eat fish, it makes this nutrient harder to consume. Plant-based sources of omega-3 include chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds. Adding these as a topping to breakfast cereals or into smoothies can provide a good omega-3 boost.
Iron plays a key role in oxygen transport around the body, and iron deficiency (low iron) typically involves symptoms like fatigue. Athletes and females have higher iron intake needs due to training demands and menstrual losses, respectively.
The richest dietary sources of iron include organ meat and beef or animal-based foods. Therefore, exclusively plant-based eaters are at greater risk of iron deficiency.
Plant-based dietary iron sources include fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, dark leafy greens and quinoa. The iron found in plants isn’t as effectively absorbed as that from animals, but there are certain foods to combine/avoid with your plant-based iron source to maximise absorption. Tannins in tea and coffee reduce absorption of iron so should be avoided with meals, whereas vitamin C found in citrus, kiwi, capsicum, tomato, enhances iron absorption, so should be combined with meals.
Read more on the importance of iron for athletes.
Calcium is a fundamental nutrient for optimal bone health. The food group highest in calcium is dairy found in milk, cheese, yoghurt. Therefore, eliminating dairy can make adequate calcium intake more difficult, and inadequate calcium intake can lead to greater risk of fractures.
Plant-based sources of calcium include fortified milks like soy and almond milk (be sure to check ingredients list), green leafy vegetables, almonds and hard tofu. For pescatarians, sardines are also a great source of calcium.
Other nutrients found in higher qualities of animal and meat products which are important for athletes to also consider are creatine, zinc and vitamin B12.
Before making any rash decisions or big changes to what you eat, regardless of the ‘diet’ you choose speak through it with an Accredited Sport Dietitian to make sure its right for you, your lifestyle, your training and your individual needs.