With more athletes following a vegan diet, Rishi Kumar Nursimloo explains sports nutrition and optimising performance
Veganism is constantly growing and the increased prevalence is now crossing over into professional sports, where we are seeing more athletes following a vegan diet. From the average gym goer to professional athletes, we all want to perform at our best.
However, there are concerns surrounding whether a vegan diet can meet the needs of sports athletes; the position statement of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states: “To train and perform optimally, athletes of all levels — from recreational to elite — should consume a diet comprised of wholesome foods high in carbohydrate, low to moderate in fat, and adequate in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fluid.” A vegan diet can provide this.
So, whether you want to improve recovery, build muscle or performance in your sport, we are going to provide you the latest scientific and evidence-based information on fuel and supplementation in order to help you build muscle, improve body composition, recover better and give you the edge in your chosen sport.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy utilised in the muscle during exercise. Carbohydrates have had a bad rap in the past but they have been shown to improve body composition, well-being and are now been increasingly used to manage clinical symptoms of epilepsy and other neurological conditions.
Carbohydrates are essential to restore ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an essential part of intracellular (between cells) energy transfer. Therefore, if you want to maximise energy during your workout, consuming a high carbohydrate diet will renew ATP faster to allow you to work harder for longer. Therefore, for active individuals, carbohydrates should be set at between 50-60 per cent of daily overall calorie intake. For professional athletes, targets for carbohydrates should be provided in grams in relation to the athlete’s body mass, rather than as a percentage of total energy intake.
Consuming adequate amounts of protein is important for the maintenance and growth of cells, organs, muscles, and the immune system. One concern for vegan athletes is the intake of essential amino acids including leucine. However this can be easily overcome by consuming a range of proteins from plant based sources, such as tofu, quinoa, buckwheat and edamame, which contain complete proteins.
Protein timing is a regularly used strategy to optimise exercise sessions. Protein timing involves eating proteins before, during or just after a training session to allow muscles to repair more quickly. Recent studies have shown that only has a small effect on muscle mass increase (hypertrophy) with no significant impact on muscle strength. Therefore, protein timing does not seem to be essential; it is more important to ensure that you are consuming enough protein throughout the day.
If you are performing light to moderate exercise several times a week, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight is sufficient.
Limiting fat and cholesterol in your diet is important to reduce your risk of preventative chronic disease; diets high in fat are linked to the UKs two biggest killers — cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Whilst vegans tend to have low to moderate intake of fat, it is extremely important not to go below 15 per cent fat, as this has been shown to have serious health consequences such as an increased risk of hormonal imbalances, decreased cognitive function and deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are important for skin, bones, and cardiovascular health.
Make sure you focus on limiting intake of saturated and trans fats, whilst boosting intake of monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. A low to moderate fat intake of 20-35% of total calories should be consumed to avoid negative health and performance impacts. Vegan Omega 3 is available in algae oil form, available from from Nothing Fishy.
Micronutrients – Vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals
Colourful vegetables offer fibrous carbohydrate, a rich source of vitamins and essential minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Consuming these micronutrients through fruits and vegetables is far more beneficial than taking supplements, which are not absorbed as easily. Foods high in nitrates, such as beetroot and blueberries have been shown to support enhanced exercise and performance. Consuming vitamin C rich foods is also beneficial for its support in cartilage formulation and immune health, as well as increased iron absorption.
Supplementation for Improving Sports Performance
Prior to consuming sports nutrition supplements, or any form of supplementation, you must ensure that you are consuming adequate levels of protein, carbohydrates, fat and micronutrients. Without this strong foundation the additional benefits of supplementation will be extremely limited.
Creatine Phosphate is a high-energy compound stored and created in the liver and is extremely important in the synthesis of ATP (essential for intracellular energy transfer). During intense exercise, the amount of ATP diminishes and therefore it is important, especially in strength sports, to top up these creatine phosphate stores. Supplementing with creatine has been studied thoroughly to show increases in muscle energy, endurance strength and lean muscle mass.
Iron deficiency anaemia is very common for athletes. Women are at a higher risk of anaemia than men, especially during menstruation where haemoglobin losses are highest. The lack of haemoglobin means less red blood cell production, which can lead to detrimental impacts on health, recovery and performance.