How to Do a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Right (as an Athlete)

by Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN

8 Replies

Diet

How to Do a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Right as an Athlete

Perhaps it’s the earth consciousness of the prototypical climber, but vegan and vegetarian diets seem to be more popular than normal in climbing circles. There are a number of famous vegetarian and vegan climbers, such as Steph Davis and Alex Honnold, and their public commitment to these animal-friendly diets only increases such diets’ popularity further.

Popular or now, however, there is an extremely low adherence rate to both vegetarian and vegan diets, with an astounding 84% of vegan and vegetarian eaters abandoning their diet and resuming the consumption of animal products. The aforelinked to report lists the top reasons for diet failure as social (feeling as if you “stuck out”), identity-related (no longer identifying as vegetarian/vegan), and taste-related (craving animal products), but don’t mention what I would consider the most likely root cause of failure: general health. In fact, this report only includes “health” as the top reason why some people choose to become vegan or vegetarian in the first place.

Now don’t get me wrong, eating vegetarian or vegan can be extremely healthy—that’s what this article is about! For many people, though, it’s not. This is because eating a nutritious (as in, providing complete nutrition) plant-based diet is challenging for an organism that adapted and evolved to a diet that contained meat, and requires careful planning. Without that planning, the obvious markers of health may improve (like weight), but hidden markers (like the status of vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and protein) decline, ultimately leading to malaise. When this happens, it becomes much easier to abandon a diet for whatever reason seems convenient at the time.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, or want to become one, then this article’s for you. I want you to succeed. I want you to be healthy. And both require more than ideology.

First Things First: Are There Health Advantages to a Plant-Based Diet?

As briefly mentioned, a majority of vegans and vegetarians make the shift because they feel such a diet is healthier. It’s not. I don’t say this to discourage you, but rather to position you for long-term success. There are many reasons to eschew animal products, but improving your health isn’t one of them.

Simply put, there is no advantage health-wise to removing animal products from your diet that could not be gained in other, often easier ways (adherence-wise). The problems associated with the Standard American Diet have little to do with meat itself so much as over-consumption of calories and reliance on processed foods, including processed meats. And notably, the only type of meat that has consistently been associated with all-cause mortality is processed meat (here’s one meta-analysis of many)—but even there the overall risk is low.

On the other hand, there are a few marked disadvantages health-wise to a plant-based diet—some well-known, like the need to take vitamin B12 supplements, and some more under-the-radar. This is because there are a handful of nutrients that humans have obtained primarily from animals for the last 100,000+ years, and without a plan to obtain these nutrients from other sources, long-term health will decline.

In short, “general health” is not a particularly compelling reason to go vegetarian or vegan. While all the disadvantages can be circumnavigated, if your only goal is improve your health, you would probably be better off focusing on other aspects of your diet—including overall plant-based food intake—without adding unnecessary restrictions in.

With that covered, let’s look at what you should do if you’re already vegan or vegetarian—or plan on becoming one—and wish to remain as strong and healthy as possible!

1. Keep Track of Your Protein

First—and it should go without saying—getting adequate amounts of protein for an athlete is more challenging on a vegan (less so on a vegetarian) diet. Animal products are some of the most convenient, most concentrated sources of high-quality protein, and eliminating them from the diet often ends up reducing total daily protein intake.

I’ve recommended that all athletes consume at least 100-120 grams of high-quality protein daily, but vegans often only get 55-75 grams daily (based on these two surveys: 1 & 2)—and it’s unclear based on these surveys how much is coming from high-quality sources (including legumes, cashews, and soy, pea, and rice protein supplements) vs. lower-quality sources such as grains and pseudograins, most nuts and seeds, mushrooms, and vegetables. Regardless, 55-75 grams is not an optimal amount of protein for an athlete, and if much of that protein is coming from low-to-medium quality sources then it’s even less optimal.

There’s no sugarcoating the truth here: it’s harder to get 100-120 grams of protein on a vegan diet and will probably require some shortcuts (e.g., supplements). You’re going to have to love eating beans and lentils and be OK with using protein shakes when you need a protein boost during a meal. While you certainly can (and should) count protein from lower-quality sources, you shouldn’t rely solely on them; if your meal doesn’t provide 20 grams of protein from high-quality sources, you should aim for 25-30 grams total to help make up for the missing quality.

Vegetarians have it much easier than vegans in this case. Depending on the specifics of their diet, they may incorporate dairy, eggs, or fish into their meals, all of which are great sources of protein. Again, though, if you don’t include these sources with every meal, be sure to include other high-quality sources or extra protein to make up for it.

Side Note: You’ll sometimes hear vegans describe how broccoli is higher in protein than steak on a caloric basis, or how elephants are the largest land animals on the planet and only eat grass—these are amusing aphorisms, but of little relevance to a vegan’s reality. Broccoli is higher in protein, but lower in protein quality (such as essential amino acid content and digestibility), not to mention difficult to consume enough of to get 20 grams of protein. Elephants are vastly different animals than humans, with vastly different physiologies; you could no more thrive on their diet than they could on ours. 

2. Find Alternative Sources of Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat essential to human life. We can get a shorter-chain version of an omega-3 fat called “alpha-linolenic acid” (ALA) from plants, but it must be converted to a longer-chain active form (mostly EPA and DHA) in order to be used by the human body. Alternatively, we can obtain the preformed, long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA directly from animals to better effect.

For vegans and vegetarians, the latter isn’t an option (or it’s less of an option), and it’s reflected in their physiological levels of these fats: on average, “plasma, blood and tissue concentrations of EPA and DHA are about 30% lower in vegetarians and 40%–50% lower in vegans than in non-vegetarians.” That’s quite significant.

There are two main problems for vegans and vegetarians at play:

  1. There are far fewer edible plant-based sources of omega-3s than animal-based sources.
  2. Conversion of plant-based omega-3s (ALA) to biologically active forms (EPA and DHA) is 5% or less in humans.

Basically, this means that vegans and vegetarians will not only be likely to eat less omega-3s than their omnivorous counterparts, but the activity of that omega-3 fat they eat will be only about 1/20th of the activity for those who get their omega-3s from animals. With this combination, it’s hard to keep levels at an adequate level (which some would argue is actually still not particularly adequate for optimal health).

Now, there are a few naturally high plant-based sources, such as chia seeds and flax seeds, but since they still suffer from the limitation of conversion, it’s going to be difficult to get enough omega-3s from these sources alone. For this reason, a better solution is algae-based EPA and DHA supplements. While they are more expensive than their fish-based counterparts, they’re worth the price to keep your omega-3 levels adequate.

3. Watch Your Minerals

Most minerals are found in copious amounts in plant-based foods and should not be worried about. Iron and zinc, on the other hand, deserve a bit of thought.

Iron is found in large amounts in many plants, but almost always alongside phytic acid or oxalic acid, both of which inhibit its absorption. Furthermore, iron from many animals is more bioavailable (it’s in a form called “heme iron” that is the same as is used by humans), and so easier to meet your total necessary intake.

The story is similar with zinc, except that it also suffers from being slightly less common in many plant-based foods. Unlike iron, which is abundant in many leafy greens that are easy to cook down and eat large quantities of, zinc is found mostly in grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds—all of which are more challenging to boost in the diet without also affecting total caloric load.

Thankfully, most studies indicate that iron deficiency anemia and inadequate zinc status are not significantly more prevalent in vegans and vegetarians than they are in omnivores (although some studies do suggest otherwise). If you’re female and prone to heavy or more frequent periods, you may want to consider getting tested for iron status, but otherwise you’re probably okay, particularly if you eat plenty of beans and greens.

Many people will also suggest that vegans should be aware of their calcium intake since they do not consume dairy, but provided your diet includes a decent amount of leafy greens you’ll get plenty of calcium. Leafy greens may not be as high in total calcium as dairy is, but the calcium they contain tends to be better absorbed, making it easier to get adequate amounts.

4. Supplement with Vitamin B12

Despite the occasional tale of this or that vegetable (usually a seaweed or mushroom) being naturally high in vitamin B12, you should know there is no natural vegan source of the vitamin. In all cases, the vegetables mentioned only contain nutrients similar to vitamin B12, but which ultimately cannot be used by humans. This makes vitamin B12 an essential supplement for all vegans, though vegetarians will almost certainly get plenty from their diet.

Thankfully, in recent years, most alternative milk companies have begun adding B12 to their milks, so if you consume at least a couple cups of such milks each day you’ll be all set. If you don’t consume any alternative milk, though, then please go out and buy some vitamin B12 pills. You don’t need anything special—just a basic pill that contains 100% of the RDA (or 40% of the DV, a more commonly used measure in the US for some ridiculous reason). Any supplement that provides more won’t provide much more benefit since vitamin B12 absorption is physiologically capped at around 2.5 micrograms, and anything consumed above and beyond is limited to about 1% total absorption.

5. Consider Supplementing with Creatine, Beta-Alanine, and Taurine

Believe it or not, there are nutrients that can only be found in animal-based foods, sometimes referred to as “carninutrients” (although I don’t particularly care for the moniker). Vitamin B12 is the most critical of them (as just discussed), but there are other nutrients that vegans and vegetarians—especially vegan and vegetarian athletes—may want to consider supplementing with.

Creatine

The first is creatine. Creatine is a short peptide used by animals to help fuel short and explosive movements; plants don’t move, and so have no need for the nutrient. Creatine is also found in the brain, the most expensive organ to run energy-wise.

Humans do form creatine endogenously (on their own), but those who consume meat also typically get another 1-3 grams per day depending on which meats they eat and in what quantities—red meat and fish contain more creatine overall, poultry contains less, dairy contains very little, and eggs have none. As a result, those who do not consume meat typically have lower creatine levels than those who do.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it does have real-world consequences. Not only is creatine essential for anaerobic exercise (including most types of climbing—read this article!), it’s also important for brain function—a couple of studies have demonstrated that vegans and vegetarians (but not omnivores) improve in memory-related tasks when supplementing with creatine.

I would recommend all vegans and vegetarians supplement with creatine; while everyone can benefit from this nutrient, its benefits are directly correlated with physiological levels. Since vegans and vegetarians start with lower than average levels, they’ll get greater than average benefits. (You can read more about supplementation here.)

Beta-Alanine (Carnosine)

Like creatine, carnosine is a short peptide formed endogenously by humans and other animals but not by plants. Carnosine is formed of two amino acids: histidine, which is abundant in the diet and not a limiting factor; and beta-alanine, which is not abundant and does limit the overall formation of carnosine. Thus, instead of supplementing with carnosine (which is just broken down into its amino acid constituents), it’s better to simply supplement with beta-alanine.

Carnosine is important an important nutrient. It’s an intramuscular buffer, helping your muscles resist drops in pH and fatigue—you can read more about its benefits in the exercise department (especially as they pertain to climbers) here. It also plays a role in numerous other systems in the body, potentially indicating its importance for general health.

We shouldn’t go overboard with hype about its potential to be neuroprotective or anti-cancer because we simply don’t know how big of a role it actually plays (probably very small)—but the bottom-line is that it is important for more than just resisting the pump. And again, vegetarians and vegans typically have lower levels, and so have that much more to gain from supplementation.

Taurine

Taurine is another nutrient found only in animal-based foods linked to overall positive health that vegans and vegetarians once again have lower-than-average levels of. Since many of taurine’s benefits relate to cardiovascular health, an issue few vegans generally need to worry about, it’s probably the least important of the three nutrients mentioned in this section. Nonetheless, it’s a cheap and easy-to-take supplement, and there are no downsides to adding some to your daily diet.

For those who supplement with beta-alanine, you should be aware that taurine and beta-alanine compete with each other for transportation and should be taken at different times of the day. There isn’t any known risk for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone else with lower-than-average levels since beta-alanine doesn’t interfere with taurine production, only taurine transportation (you can read more about this interaction here).

Wrapping Up

Vegan and vegetarian diets aren’t necessarily healthier than otherwise healthy diets, but they also don’t need to be less healthy; a little education goes a long way towards making the diet easier to maintain and less likely to lead to fatigue and other sub-critical health issues. Since these diets remove foods that normally contain the necessary nutrients, however, supplementation will be necessary.

To recap, a successful, long-term-friendly vegan or vegetarian diet should:

  1. Contain Plenty of High-Quality Protein. There aren’t as many sources of high-quality plant-based proteins as there are animal-based ones, so you’ll need to take care to ensure you’re getting enough. This means upping the legumes in your diet (beans and lentils, in particular) and probably adding some soy, rice, or pea protein into your day.
  2. Include Sources of Omega-3 Fats. These fats could come from natural plant-based sources like chia and flax seeds, but since conversion is so low (less than 5%), it’s going to be hard to get optimal amounts. A better solution is to take an algae-based supplement that contains preformed EPA and DHA, the bioactive versions of these fats that we need.
  3. Be Aware of Iron and Zinc. Iron and zinc deficiencies aren’t typically found in vegan and vegetarian populations in greater amounts, but these are nutrients that are harder to obtain from a plant-based diet due to absorption and bioavailability issues. You should be okay, but being aware of your diet is a good idea, particularly if you’re in a group already prone to iron deficiency (such as females of childbearing age).
  4. Take a Vitamin B12 Supplement. There are no plant-based sources of vitamin B12, period. You need to take a supplement, or get vitamin B12 from your diet in some other way such as through the routine consumption of an alternative milk that is fortified with the nutrient.
  5. Consider Supplementing with “Carninutrients”. Some non-essential nutrients found only in meat are linked to human health; since vegans and vegetarians don’t consume these nutrients, they have more to gain from supplementation than most. The nutrients of concern in order of importance are creatine, beta-alanine (carnosine), and taurine.

That’s it—five relatively pain-free suggestions. Of course, following these suggestions doesn’t guarantee your success—the factors leading to failure mentioned at the start of the article are still important to have strategies for—but they will help ensure you don’t feel poorly on the diet and become suggestible to any reason to quit.

How about you? If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, or have eaten that way in the past, what have you found to be a good way to stick to the diet? Anything else you can add? Write a comment below!

8 comments

  1. mira

    Hi, im vegan for two years and I send my hardest ascent so far on vegan. I try to eat plenty of vegetables and ofcource for every meal have a lentils/chickpeas or beans. I think its important to think what are you going to eat in upcomming days amd have a plan… Also you could get iron and other minerals from treacle?

  2. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    You certainly could get some iron from treacle, but unless it’s already a food you eat regularly it’s probably not worth adding in just for the iron (not to mention that when we treat foods this way, it’s not much different than just supplementing!). Thanks for your input!

  3. Chris

    Really enjoying this blog. Thanks. I wonder could you say more about trying to get enough omega 3 from flax/chia?

  4. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    Due to the limited conversion rate, it’ll always be hard to get enough from flax or chia (or any other plant-based source); you would probably be better off trying to lower your intake of omega-6 fats, which work in a ratio with the omega-3s once in your cell membranes. This, too, may be challenging for a vegetarian or vegan however as most plant-based oils are rich in omega-6s (including most nuts and seeds). That being said, there are a lot more of these fats in processed and refined foods, so limiting your intake of added oils and foods high in added oils (like chips and other snack foods) will go a long way!

  5. Alexis

    I have eaten mostly vegetarian but with lots of eggs in the past few years, for many reasons. However, the reasons I do occasionally eat meat is because sometimes I crave beef and I figure there must be a reason so I just go for it, and secondly because vegetarian meals might fill me up but I rarely feel satisfied after. Often I will eat a meal and then overeat because I don’t feel satisfied. Any thoughts on why this happens? I do try to make sure there is fat and protein in every meal.

  6. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    The cravings are most likely psychological; some people have proposed a hypothesis that we crave foods that contain nutrients we need, but there’s no good scientific evidence to suggest this is true (and actually a considerable amount to suggest it’s not, notably in the form of women who suffer from pica). As far as why your meals fail to satisfy, the answer depends on the nature of those meals. Barring an absence of protein and fat (which you noted to get in each meal), it’s possible that those meals are simply not caloric enough—for example, if they’re very vegetable heavy (which is good!) but low in starchy carbs or other concentrated forms of calories. It also depends on what you consider to be “overeating”. If you are maintaining weight, then even if you feel like you’re eating too much food, your body would disagree! If you are gaining weight, however, then it might be time to start tracking meals to see exactly what they consist of, what leaves you wanting (and prone to overeating), and what is satisfying.

  7. Christopher

    In another article you say 20 grams of protein is enough per meal, and here you recommend 120g per day…
    I found your article really poor, I’m nearly shocked. And advising people to take such supplements (creatine, etc) is…well, no word for that.

  8. Brian Rigby, MS, CISSN Post author

    I’ve been consistent in my dietary protein recommendation, and this article is no different: 20 grams per meal, 5-6 meals per day, for a total of 100-120 grams of daily protein. Since vegans and vegetarians may struggle with dietary variety while maintaining this level of protein intake, I suggested that they can aim for 25-30 grams (in a given meal) of mixed high- and medium-quality proteins, which will ensure they still get the same benefit without requiring them to get 20 grams of high-quality protein alone. Of course, if you do get 20 grams from high-quality sources (such as legumes), there’s no need to go higher.

    As for supplements, yes, I suggest a few for vegans and vegetarians, and all my reasoning is laid out in the article. If you disagree with any of my suggestions, I would be happy to hear your reasons why—but all you have stated so far is your disagreement with no backing rationale.

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