Why a vegan diet can be beneficial in sports

Sport and veganism are not in competition with each other, on the contrary: athletes who eat vegan often perform better than their non-vegan competitors. You can find out why in this article.

Sports nutrition needs to be well planned

With increasing demands for performance, the intensity of dealing with nutrition increases. For most athletes, it is not just about an optimal distribution of macronutrients , but also about the high quality of the food they choose . A runner could theoretically eat mostly pasta and vegetables; a lifter of eggs and meat. Quantitatively they would keep their macronutrient balance, but qualitatively it is far from there. In order to exploit the potential of a varied diet and benefit from the health benefits of a quality diet, athletes usually expand the range of foods significantly.

The vegan diet in sports

In addition to the high quality of food - i.e. high vitamin, mineral and fiber content - the sustainability aspect is also a priority for many. Animal protein is often swapped for plant-based, milk and butter for plant-based drinks and vegan margarine. The side effects of this: often better performance and shorter/faster regeneration phases than before with an omnivorous or vegetarian diet. With the advertising slogan “Meat brings it” in the back of their minds, many a legitimate question arises: And does it work?

Yes, that can work. Top athletes like Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1), Venus Williams/Novak Djokovic (tennis), Fiona Oakes (long-distance runner), Andreas Kraniotakes (martial arts), Derrick Morgan (football), Patrick Reiser/Patrik Baboumian (bodybuilding) or Ultra marathon runner Scott Jurek are proof that a plant-based diet can lead to sporting success .

The basic building blocks of "healthy" nutrition are roughly identical

Athletic vegans eat or should not eat much differently than non-athletes or non-vegans. According to the vegan food pyramid or the sports food pyramid, they eat a balanced, varied and varied diet with different types of fruit and vegetables, whole grain cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, etc. and supplement vitamin B12 and other nutrients in which a (medically diagnosed) deficiency present. (We have already published an article on the potentially critical nutrients in the vegan diet !)

With a varied diet, vegan athletes can basically cover their increased calorie requirements and the increased need for some micronutrients and continue to provide themselves with many proteins and/or carbohydrates.

Critical nutrients in the vegan diet - the lion's share

Critical nutrients in the vegan diet

5 reasons for a vegan diet in sports

The advantages and reasons for this type of diet are broad and disadvantages - according to studies - hardly exist. In addition to factors such as ethics, the environment, sustainability, etc., there are other factors that speak in favor of a vegan diet in sports.

1. Optimal ratio in the macronutrient distribution

Probably the most important argument for a vegan diet in sports is the optimal ratio of macronutrients. A vegan diet is characterized by a high proportion of carbohydrates and a low proportion of fat , from which endurance athletes in particular benefit. Surveys of (top) endurance athletes showed that over the years they switched to a vegan diet precisely because of the good carbohydrate supply, because it enabled them to achieve better performance.

Strength athletes also benefit from a vegan diet, as they can easily cover their protein requirements with plant-based foods, plant-based protein is digested quickly and plant-based protein sources (mostly) provide more micronutrients, which in turn accelerate regeneration.

2. Rapidly available energy

Many plant-based foods provide readily available carbohydrates that athletes of all types of sports, but especially sprinters and the like, make use of. Fast sources of energy mean simple carbohydrates , such as those found primarily in fruit, but also in white bread. The body can quickly draw energy from it, since simple carbohydrates do not have to be broken down first, but go directly into the bloodstream or the muscles.

3. High micronutrient density

The body only functions adequately if it is supplied with a large number of micronutrients. For athletes, a diet rich in micronutrients is more important than for non-athletes because some nutrients are depleted due to physical and mechanical stress, higher sweat loss, etc. have a higher need than non-athletes.

Some studies show that (non-/) athletes with a plant-based diet generally do better than meat-eaters in terms of nutritional status . The reason lies in the variety of foods consumed as well as the omission of animal products, which tend to be less nutritious.

4. A wealth of antioxidants for regeneration

Antioxidants play an important role in sport, as athletes are regularly exposed to increased oxidative stress through physical activity and the immune system is dependent on well-stocked antioxidant stores, especially during the regeneration period.

In athletes, antioxidants ensure that blood flow and oxygen supply to tissues increase, muscles recover more quickly, and inflammation and other symptoms of oxidative stress are reduced. However, this does not mean that athletes should supplement with antioxidants , on the contrary: According to studies, the additional administration of antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E has even proven to be counterproductive , since the body's own antioxidant protection system is inhibited/inactivated, resulting in an overall higher number of free radicals circulating in the body. Furthermore, it has been proven that the endogenous protection system improves itself through sport anyway, which is why athletes with a balanced, varied diet and not too intensive training are generally sufficiently supplied with antioxidants.

5. High water content in plant foods

Vegetable foods have a much higher water content than animal foods and can therefore hardly be put in relation to each other. Many types of fruit and vegetables, such as watermelons or cucumbers, are over 90% water and therefore not only provide the body with calories or nutrients. Especially for athletes who sweat a lot, a sufficient intake of liquids, including through nutrition, is essential. Water-rich foods can fill up the fluid balance better and sufficiently and also increase the intake of micronutrients.

Positive side effects of a vegan diet in sports

Reduced risk of immune system disorders and chronic diseases

Due to the high content of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, trace elements, antioxidants and fiber in plant-based foods, vegan athletes are less susceptible to immune system disorders . Especially in top-level sport, a cold reduces performance because unplanned breaks have to be taken and/or regeneration is slowed down. Chronic diseases can also be prevented by the combination of a vegan diet and exercise, since high cholesterol levels or arteriosclerosis, among other things, are comparatively rarely diagnosed when people do not eat animal foods.

Better cardiovascular health

Cardiovascular health is an important parameter in performance, especially in endurance sports. The better this is, the better services can be provided.

With increasing age, the risk of deposits in the blood and coronary arteries increases, which are mostly due to too many trans fats and saturated fatty acids in the diet. By doing without animal products, these can be prevented or reduced, which also lowers cholesterol and blood fat levels, the risk of diabetes or high blood pressure.

Larger volume of oxygen

Vegan endurance athletes achieve a higher maximum oxygen volume (VO2max) than non-vegans; This means that they can utilize more oxygen per minute during physical exertion and thus have better endurance .

Reduced risk of developing depression

Vegans and vegan athletes tend to be better protected against the development of depressive illnesses than those who are omnivores. On the one hand, this is due to the high number of polyphenols and vegetable omega-3 fatty acids . Polyphenols (particularly epigallocatechin gallate (e.g. in green tea) and curcumin) have antioxidant properties, are essential for maintaining cognitive and mental health, and in recovery from neurodegenerative diseases. They improve concentration and mood and last but not least protect against some brain diseases.

On the other hand, it is exercise - both strength and endurance sports - that is proving to be an excellent preventive measure for depression.


What to do with digestive problems caused by too much fiber?

The vegan diet is characterized by a higher fiber content than an animal diet. What is good and healthy per se can be fatal in sport:

  • Energy deficit : dietary fibers from eg beans, whole grain products, etc. are digested slowly or not utilized by the body. As a result, less energy is supplied overall, which can affect strength and endurance.

  • Long-term satiety : Athletes with a high calorie requirement (> 3000 kcal) need a lot of food to cover their high calorie requirement. If this is mainly covered with bulky and/or fiber-rich food, there is a strong and long-lasting feeling of satiety. Being unwell not only negatively affects training, but also makes regular eating a challenge; a possible calorie deficit follows.

Therefore, athletes - especially those with a high calorie requirement - should not consume too much fiber - especially before physical activity . It is better to rely on simple carbohydrates such as rice, seedless bread or white pasta, as these are digested more quickly and provide a lot of energy.

A high daily calorie requirement can also be covered with energy-dense foods. Nuts, seeds, avocados, oils, etc. provide a lot of energy with little volume ; these hardly stretch the stomach, which means that the unpleasant feeling of fullness can be avoided. Try our energy balls for this. They consist mainly of nuts and dried fruit, which means they provide a lot of energy and are hardly heavy on the stomach.

Nevertheless, athletes should not do without fiber altogether. Fiber is essential for digestion, the immune system and well-being and the daily recommended 30g does not usually lead to digestive problems. In addition, most vegan diets are used to the high amount of fiber anyway; If you still have problems, you should reduce the amount of fiber for a short time and/or increase it slowly. The body cannot adapt to a high-fiber diet in a few days.

Can Vegans Cover All Nutrients?

Yes you can. However, only if they eat a balanced and varied diet and keep an eye on potential risk nutrients . The most frequently diagnosed deficiencies in vegans relate to vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. In all, there are ten potential risk nutrients to look out for, but which (with the exception of vitamin B12) can be met with a plant-based diet. These can be read here .

In the case of athletes, there is also the fact that they have a higher need for some nutrients than non-athletes. This can also be covered with a vegan diet.

Can vegans meet their protein needs?

Yes! Many plant-based foods contain enough protein to meet your daily needs. However, it is true that meeting your needs with a purely plant-based diet is more difficult . This is mainly due to the fact that vegetable proteins usually have a less favorable amino acid profile than animal proteins and are absorbed in smaller quantities . It is therefore possible that only 10 grams of the 15 grams of protein consumed are absorbed. Therefore, proteins from many different foods should be eaten and combined with each other. The combination ensures a sufficient supply of all amino acids and raises the biological value to or above 100, eg grain with beans.

Protein-rich plant foods are:

  • Legumes: peas , beans, lentils etc. and products made from them such as tofu, soybean chunks , tempeh

  • seitan

  • Many alternative products based on soy , wheat, peas (protein), e.g. yoghurts, vegan schnitzel, etc.

  • Some vegetables, eg broccoli

  • nuts, seeds, kernels

Of course, you can also help with vegan protein powder.

You are just as well taken care of with our dishes. Each glass of lion's share provides at least 30g of protein.

In this article you can find out about plant-based, protein-rich protein sources that you may not have known about.

Isn't it complicated when you eat vegan as an athlete?

Of course, vegan sports nutrition means a little more effort than vegan nutrition for non-athletes. But that applies to sports nutrition in principle and, strictly speaking, is only partially correct. If you want to eat a healthy and balanced diet, you have to get information, acquire knowledge and try out what works and what doesn't, regardless of your diet . After a few weeks you will feel comfortable in your new routine and have long since overcome initial problems. Shopping vegan is very easy these days and information about food, its ingredients and recipes can be found almost everywhere. Take a look at our recipe blog .

This article was written by our author Lisa. Her greatest passions are nutrition/health, cooking and sport.