It’s common knowledge that a healthy diet can have a number of great benefits, particularly when coupled an effective training programme. These include increased energy levels and the much sought-after lean muscle mass. An important component of a healthy diet is protein and meat is one of the most readily available sources of this. Whey protein, particularly in powder-form, is also go-to for many exercisers, but where does this leave vegans and vegetarians who don’t want to overly rely on supplementation? Can plant-based protein ever be enough?
Vitamin B12 is essential for energy but is only naturally present in animal products, and iron, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are all also careful considerations for those who are vegetarian or vegan, or fitness professionals working with clients following those aforementioned diets.
Types of Meat Free Diets
A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat, poultry or fish, but still eats dairy products and eggs. It’s unlikely they’ll consume ‘hidden’ animal products such as gelatine in chewy sweets or fish derived omega 3 supplements.
A vegan is someone who avoids animal products all together, including dairy, eggs and honey. A strict vegan will also avoid household and beauty products tested on animals and won’t wear leather, fur or any other animal derived material.
Finally, a pescatarian is someone who eats dairy and eggs, and also eats fish and seafood, but avoids all meat and poultry.
The Question of Protein
Protein is essential for cell growth and repair all around the body, not just in the muscles. One gram of protein contains four calories, as does one gram of carbohydrate. Conversely, one gram of fat contains nine calories, so it’s easy to see why we need more protein than fat in order to maintain a lean body mass.
It’s an incredibly outdated view that a vegan or vegetarian can’t get enough protein. After all, the animals that become the meat protein so many people readily consume have all usually been fed a plant based diet and they thrive and become muscular. Beans, pulses, peas, tofu, nuts and to a lesser extent, grains and green leafy vegetables are all vegan-friendly sources of protein.
However, eating a vegetarian or vegan diet does not automatically equal a healthy diet. Some following a plant-based diet can seriously lack in protein and other essential nutrients. Also, a diet devoid of animal products can mean a diet of only fruits and vegetables; low calorie foods, unlikely to sustain any kind of rigorous training regime, at least on its own.
It’s also worth looking at complete protein vs incomplete protein.
Protein is made up of long chains of amino acids, the so-called ‘building blocks of protein’. There are 20 different types of amino acids, all with different roles, but all mainly involved in protein synthesis. Nine of these are known as ‘essential amino acids’ because it’s essential that we include them in our diet as our body cannot produce them alone. Protein is considered a complete protein if it contains all nine of these essential amino acids and they are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs are all complete protein sources. Vegetarians and especially vegans need to take special care to eat enough complete protein, especially to meet their training goals. There are many plant based complete protein sources, including lentils, soya bean (in tofu for example), peanuts and chickpeas.
Spirulina is also an excellent source of complete protein, and every other vitamin and mineral that we all need daily. Spirulina is a blue-green algae native to South America and is harvested and dried into a powder that can easily be added to smoothies. Spirulina is such a nutrient powerhouse that it’s been heralded a ‘food of the future’ by the UN. It’s around 60% protein and a daily spoonful in a breakfast shake is ideal. A study entitled ‘Marine Bioactives and Potential Application in Sports’ published in the Marine Drugs journal concluded that microalgae, such as spirulina, could make “good supplements in the diet of athletes because of their richness in protein, and their amino acid profile”.
Omega-3 and -6
Two other essential nutrients are omega-3 and omega-6 and oily fish is a great source of both. Chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil are excellent for omega-3, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds are great for omega-6.
Both omega-3 and -6 are required for a healthy brain, heart and immune system; all essential for general health, and to help maximise athletic performance. A study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that supplementing with omega-3 could minimise delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and help reduce the fatigue-inducing inflammation that can occur during strenuous exercise. It’s unclear if the omega-3 supplement given was from fish or plant based sources, but it’s encouraging research nonetheless.
Calcium, Vitamin D and Iron
All three of these micronutrients are vital for good health. Calcium is needed for the growth and development of bones and teeth and vitamin D also supports strong bones. Iron is required for the synthesis of protein, in particular haemoglobin, which is essential for oxygenating the blood and carrying oxygen around the body – even more important during aerobic exercise.
Calcium and vitamin D are synonymous with dairy products, and therefore vegetarians eating enough dairy should get enough calcium and vitamin D. One way vegans can ensure they’re getting enough calcium is by consuming almonds, almond milk, broccoli, kale and tofu. Twenty minutes a day exposed to sunlight will ensure we all get enough vitamin D, but mushrooms are also a great source. If you think you’re not getting enough vitamin D, it’s a good idea to take a supplement.
To ensure you’re getting enough iron on a vegetarian or vegan diet, spinach is a great food source. We’re probably all aware that meat is a good source of iron and if you eat meat, then you’re probably getting enough. It’s packed with iron and can easily be blended into smoothies, eaten raw or added to soups, casseroles and curries. Other iron rich plant based foods include lentils, beans, chickpeas, chia seeds and cashew nuts. Eating these foods at the same time as vitamin C rich oranges, pineapple or kiwi fruit will help in the absorption of iron.
If a vegan is going to take one supplement, it should be vitamin B12. Both PETA and the Vegan Society recommend it. Vitamin B12 is present in large amounts in red meat but there are few plant-based sources. It’s for this reason that foods such as nutritional yeast, yeast extracts, dairy-free milks and breakfast cereals are often fortified with vitamin B12.
Being deficient in vitamin B12 can lead to anaemia and will certainly lead to a lack of energy and stamina.
As with anyone, taking a few careful steps to getting a vegetarian or vegan diet right, will help achieve dividends in the gym. Eating plenty of leafy green vegetables and pulses, snacking on wholesome nuts and seeds and adding nourishing spirulina to your diet is a simple win all round. But it’ll also give you the energy and stamina to train to meet your goals.
There are some notable sportspeople who are vegans, including boxed David Haye, Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton and England footballer Jermain Defoe which proves that a non-meat based diet doesn’t have to impede on training goals or performance.