I finally decided to go to the gym. After years of boredom and procrastination, I decided to build the muscular body that I feel I deserve.
I know how important nutrition is to accomplish that. On the other hand, I participate in the vegan way of life, which supports a different ethic and vision towards animals, with beneficial effects on ourselves and the environment. Can I combine those two? A vegan diet high in essential proteins, amino acids, and energy while also following an intense workout program?
Many studies, many conclusions lead to the answer that yes, a vegan diet and training or racing are easily combined. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise can be fully supported by a purely vegan diet. As long as the athlete is fully informed about veganism and follows a specific scientific nutrition program.
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Energy requirements for vegan athletes
The human body needs great amounts of energy to be able to perform the functions required to survive. This energy is obtained exclusively from food (chemical energy captured organic matter). It's energy coming from the sun, through the miraculous process of photosynthesis, during which solar energy is converted to chemical energy and captured in the organic molecules, which are transferred through the food chain to the organisms It's impressive to know that the energy we have and use is ultimately derived from the sun.
An athlete has increased energy needs, due to the intense muscular activity, which consumes a lot of energy. Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are used in order to cover those needs.
It's preferable to consume carbohydrates, which is the main source of energy. It is well known that consuming carbohydrates creates glycogen storage that improves endurance and increases athletic performance, especially in long-distance athletes or swimmers (prolonged aerobic exercise). The daily carbohydrates intake required is at least 8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.
Carbohydrates can be found in very large quantities in:
- Tubers (e.g. carrots, beets, beetroots)
- Roots (e.g. turnips, turmeric, fennel, celery root)
Prior to intense training or racing, a high carbohydrate diet is required for a few days.
Iron intake for vegan athletes
Iron is a component of hemoglobin, a pigment contained in our red blood cells that is involved in the transport of oxygen.
Regarding our nutrition, iron is found as heme in animal-derived foods (liver, red meat, eggs, chicken) and as non-heme in organisms without a developed circulatory system, that have no blood. That is, plant-based foods (cereals, green vegetables, nuts, etc.)
One of the arguments against a vegan diet that's emphasized and is true is that heme iron is better absorbed by our body. Absorption rates of non-heme iron are four times lower. However, what's not emphasized is that absorption also depends on other factors, such as vitamin C, tea or coffee. While Vitamin C increases the body's absorption of iron, tea and coffee reduce it. Thus, a non-heme iron diet from plants combined with orange juice (Vitamin C) has the same or better absorption than taking heme iron from animal foods, combined with tea or coffee.
Athletes, who have an increased need for iron (even long-distance runners), can get iron very effectively from the vegan diet. This is achieved by increasing their consumption of iron-rich plant foods, such as green vegetables, nuts, fortified cereals, whole grain bread, legumes, beans, soy mince. All of the above combined with foods high in vitamin C, such as broccoli, lemon juice or orange, contribute to its improved absorption.
Protein intake for vegan athletes
I know what's been said: through our diet, animal protein turns into muscle protein and energy in our bodies. But is this the only way? Is this the best way?
The number of vegan athletes and champions is constantly on the rise, breaking down taboos that consider the lack of animal protein from their diet as an inhibitor of their athletic performance. The stories of high-performance athletes, who are vegan, speak for themselves. All it takes is a simple Google search to find numerous examples.
The amount of protein required daily for endurance athletes is 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, while strength athletes need 1.6-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily.
Plant-based protein is of lower biological value compared to animal-derived protein. This means that, generally, a quantity of meat has more essential amino acids than the same quantity of plant food.
However, vegan athletes can easily obtain adequate amounts of protein and all the essential amino acids. They do that with the proper combination of plant-based foods, high in protein, always depending on their body type and intensity of training.
Here we propose foods such as:
- Soy milk
- Legumes combined with carbohydrates (e.g. lentils with pasta or rice, beans with salad)
When the training is not particularly demanding, meeting your protein needs is so easy that you don't even need to plan your diet. Very intense and demanding training (e.g. long-distance runners) might require nutritional supplements.
CAUTION: Consuming more than the required amount of protein does not lead to greater muscle growth, but to fat storage in the body.
Detoxification with a vegan diet
The athlete's diet should contain as few toxins as possible so that the body can meet the high demands of training or racing.
The magic word here is isoflavones. Isoflavones are phytochemical substances that have strong antioxidant activity, as not only do they strengthen our immune system, but they also act as anti-cancer agents. Their very important effect on prostate cancer has already been studied.
They are found in plant foods and mostly in soy products. Another important effect of isoflavones is on the improvement of the cardiovascular and the skeletal system health.
Does fiber cause problems to athletes?
A small amount of fiber can help maintain blood sugar concentration during exercise, which is very important. Often, in large quantities and depending on the body, it can cause heartburn, indigestion or discomfort.
Taking into account psychological factors such as stress, fiber can adversely affect the athlete's digestive system. Therefore, it's best to reduce their intake for 24 hours before the race.
So, carbohydrate-rich foods are recommended:
Hydration of athletes with a vegan diet
Vegan athletes are certainly better hydrated than others, since the foods they eat contain large amounts of water (fruits, vegetables, juices, etc.). Of course, you should be careful and not ease off, as intense sweating creates needs for replenishment, that needs to occur during the race or training, as well as afterward.
Athletic vegan diet for people with limited time available
Meal preparation time is one of the most common obstacles we think about, assuming that quality meals usually take longer to prepare or cook, while junk food needs almost none. That's not true. There are many convenient solutions for quick snacks or meals that can be prepared in as little as 5 minutes:
1. Ready for consumption, as in no cooking time required:
- Dried fruit
- Cereal bars
- Fresh seasonal fruits
- Seeds (pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, etc.)
- Whole-grain crackers
- Vegan yogurt
- Soy cream
2. With minimal preparation or cooking:
- Arabic wraps with tahini sauce and vegetables, ready in 5 minutes, tops
- Whole grain bread with tahini or peanut butter
- Freshly squeezed juices
- Green vegetables with cashew sauce
- Vegetable salad with nutritional yeast
- Smoothies with fruits, vegetables, vegetable milk, seeds and herbs
- Fruits combined with unsalted nuts (for energy) and a little cinnamon (antioxidant)
- Cereals with almond milk (or other plant-based milk)
- Oats with almond milk (or other plant-based milk)
- Vegan omelet
- Scrambled tofu
Athletic Tip: Raw salad contains fiber that slows down the rise in blood sugar, and thus the accumulation of fat and fatigue.
Pre-workout vegan meal
The purpose of a pre-workout meal is to boost the body's energy, hydrate it, prevent bloating and bowel complications. The time in between the meal and the workout should be sufficient so that absorption of the valuable nutrients and stomach emptying take place in time. A general rule is having a meal 60 minutes before a workout, for every 250 calories you eat.
Of course, every athlete has different strengths and tolerances. The best nutritional routine for each athlete may follow the general rules, but it should be adapted for each body.
Pre-workout vegan foods can be:
- Pureed fruits
- Soy yogurt
Remember: before our workout we need less fat, less fiber, and more carbs. It's not right to start training without having a light meal.
After workout vegan meal - restoration
We need protein and carbohydrates, as well as water-rich foods and electrolytes if we haven't restored them with liquids.
- Soy (milk, yogurt, sausages)
- Vegetables with olive oil
How many times have you gone to the gym with an empty stomach and not being able to complete the workout? Many! And here comes the expression "How wrong is that?"
First, if you don't eat before the gym it doesn't mean you'll lose weight faster. Second, your efforts won't lead to results, because your muscles won't have the proper food needed to stimulate them. Third, the longer you stay with no food, the lower your performance will be and you won't be able to do the exercises correctly or do them at all.
Important prestigious associations, such as the American Dietetic Association, point out that a vegan diet is appropriate for any period of humans' life, even during pregnancy, championship training, and infancy.
Also, it is worth mentioning the subversive documentary of 2018 & #8220; The Game Changers & #8221;, which deals with the stories of athletes following a vegetarian diet and overturns the myth of protein. Among others, executive producers of this documentary are James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan!
No reasonable person says that a simple vegan diet, like any diet, without a plan and study, can be a complete and suitable diet for all people by itself. It takes time to understand the requirements of our body, as well as research so that a nutrition program can be developed to meet our specific needs, as well as our personal taste preferences.
The person, in whom the vegan seed blooms, is willing to spend time learning about something that concerns his own existence. The reward, as he will find out later, will be great for himself and the environment, but especially for the defenseless creatures that are tormented away from the sight of humans.