Jan 29, 2015
Veggies Galore

What happens when you take meat, eggs, and dairy out of an athlete’s diet? Going vegan is possible for high performance, but only with a clear understanding of the hurdles.

By Susan Kundrat

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and the Nutritional Sciences Program Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also the co-founder of RK Team Nutrition and can be reached at: [email protected].

Arian Foster is a three-time Pro Bowl running back for the Houston Texans with over 5,000 career yards from scrimmage. Taj McWilliams-Franklin retired from the WNBA in 2012, capping off a 13-year professional career in which she was a six-time WNBA All-Star and won two WNBA championships. During his 2012 season with the Oakland Athletics, relief pitcher Pat Neshek had a 1.37 ERA and held opponents to a .147 batting average, both the lowest marks of his career. Three very different athletes with one thing in common: each follows a vegan diet. Foster began his plant-based meal plan in July of 2012, and it helped fuel a season in which he led the NFL in rushing attempts. McWilliams-Franklin transitioned to veganism five years ago to further extend her career. After reading about the correlation between an animal-based diet and health problems, Neshek made the change in 2007.

Vegan diets have become increasingly popular in recent years, including in the athletic community. As high school and collegiate athletes see more and more of their favorite players trading in meats and dairy for plants and grains, they may be inspired to make the transition themselves. However, doing so safely requires education, planning, and often, the input of a sports dietitian.


A traditional vegan diet is plant-based and excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Food items derived from animal sources are usually also removed, such as gelatin and honey. Most individuals adopt a vegan diet after they have lived as vegetarians for a length of time. In some cases, like Foster’s, athletes consider themselves primarily vegan but occasionally eat select animal products, a diet many call “flexitarian.” When planned and implemented appropriately, a vegan meal plan can support the nutritional needs of most athletes. Overall, well-balanced vegan diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, and a wide range of phytochemicals than diets that include animal products. However, vegans may have lower intakes of protein, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, vitamin D, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Here’s a closer look at some of these key nutrients that can be deficient in vegan athletes. Protein: Needed for maintaining and building muscle and other tissues, protein is critical for athletes. Daily needs typically range from 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight. But vegans should consume 10 percent more than the typical recommendations, because plant-based protein sources such as soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables, are more difficult to absorb than animal sources.

For example, a 140-pound runner requires 70 to 112 grams of protein per day. If the athlete is vegan, a more appropriate protein recommendation is 77 to 123 grams per day, or an extra 1 to 2 cups of soy milk daily. For a 220-pound football player, protein needs are 132 to 176 grams per day. If the player is vegan, the recommendation jumps to 145 to 193 grams of protein, or an additional 1/2 cup to 1 cup of peanuts daily. Vitamin B12: Vegan diets are often low in B12, a critical vitamin naturally found in animal products. It is essential for the maintenance of optimal nerve function and healthy cells and prevention of megaloblastic anemia, which results in tired and weak bodies. Adding a B12 multivitamin or consuming ample vitamin B12-fortified foods such as soy milk, meat analogs, or sports bars, is essential to getting the recommended 2.4 mcg a day. Calcium: Adequate calcium intake is critical because it plays a key role in optimizing bone strength and is essential for muscle contraction. Some studies have also noted an increased risk of developing stress fractures in vegans due to the lack of this nutrient. Because plant-based diets typically don’t include dairy products, a main calcium source, vegans tend to fall below the daily recommendations of 1,000 to 1,300 mg.

Structured vegan diets should contain ample sources of highly bioavailable calcium from items such as broccoli, collards, fortified fruit juices, and calcium-set tofu to boost stores. Still, a calcium supplement is often recommended to meet needs. Iron: An essential component of proteins and enzymes that maintain health, iron is also paramount in facilitating the delivery of oxygen to cells. When iron is low, fatigue, decreased performance, and lowered immunity can result. Because iron from plant-based foods is not absorbed as well as iron from animal sources, the recommended intake for vegans is 1.8 times greater. For example, an adult female vegan athlete should consume 32 mg of iron daily versus 18 mg for a non-vegetarian, and an adult male vegan athlete requires 14 mg per day rather than 8 mg.

Generally, a multivitamin containing iron is added to a vegan diet. Iron stores (specifically ferritin) should be monitored periodically in vegan athletes to ensure adequate levels for optimal training and performance. They can also add fermented food products–such as miso or tempeh–sprouted grains, and legumes to their diet, as the iron in these foods is absorbed more readily. Vitamin D: This micronutrient plays a key role in bone health and immune system function. Like iron, vitamin D levels are a common concern for athletes at many levels of competition, because low levels in the body may increase the risk of developing stress fractures and other bone-related problems. In addition, inadequate vitamin D consumption is associated with a weakened immune status, which could precipitate illness in athletes. Low vitamin D intakes, low serum vitamin D levels, and reduced bone mass have been reported in some vegan groups that were not using vitamin D supplementation. Therefore, vegan athletes should utilize a combination of periodic testing, supplementation, consuming vitamin D-fortified foods–such as fortified orange juice–and exposure to sunlight to meet their needs for this nutrient.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Vegan athletes may have a difficult time obtaining the recommended 1.1 to 1.6 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish and fish oils. Omega-3s are critical for overall cardiovascular health, brain health, and disease prevention, and they have the potential to decrease inflammation in athletes. However, by combining nuts, seeds (especially flax), vegetable oils, algae, and some leafy greens with fortified foods such as soy milk, rice milk, and vegan bars, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency may become less of a concern. Supplements are also commonly utilized. Besides having difficulty getting ample amounts of the necessary nutrients, vegan athletes often have to consume more food than non-vegans to meet caloric needs, maintain body weight, optimize training, and make gains in lean mass. “Since many vegan foods are nutrient-dense but may not be calorie-dense, athletes need to make sure they are meeting their calorie needs,” says Sports Dietitian Heather Fink, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Nutrition and Wellness Solutions, LLC in Indianapolis and an expert on vegan diets and boosting performance. “Vegan athletes should plan to have food with them as much as possible and snack on high-calorie options like nuts, nut butters, seeds, dried fruit, and 100-percent juices.”


When an athlete is considering going vegan, finding out why he or she wants to make the move should be priority number one. Athletes may have many reasons for going vegan, and knowing their motivations is essential in helping them navigate the course appropriately. For some individuals, a vegan diet is desired due to personal beliefs about animal welfare and/or environmental concerns. Many books and documentaries have focused on the inhumane treatment of animals in the food processing industry. Much research has also been done on the carbon footprint that results from raising, producing, and transporting animal products, contributing to climate change. Some studies have estimated that eating a vegan diet contributes less than half the carbon emissions of a meat eater’s diet. Other athletes may be more interested in the health benefits of a vegan meal plan, which has been associated with lower blood pressure, a decreased chance of developing heart disease, lower Body Mass Index, and declined overall cancer rates. A position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian and vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

There is sometimes one more reason an athlete wants to go vegan–to add more restrictions to their diet, thereby masking an eating disorder. Cutting out certain foods and slowly limiting what should and should not be eaten is a way for an individual to manage the disorder and feel “safe” with his or her diet. Recognizing this as a potential reason for a dietary change could help you notice a struggling athlete and refer him or her for proper treatment.

When athletes come to you to discuss a vegan diet, ask them about their motivations, and hear them out. While offering support, also challenge them to think through the dietary change. For example, if an athlete already has significant diet restrictions (e.g., severe food allergies or gluten intolerance), going vegan may be simply too difficult. If possible, a sports dietitian should assess the athlete’s individual needs, medical issues, and demands of their sport to help determine the appropriateness of going vegan.


Regardless of what’s behind their choice, the most important piece of advice I offer my athletes when they are moving to a vegan diet is to make “food switches” rather than simply removing foods from their diet. Athletes often know what to take out but don’t always substitute foods in to replace missing nutrients. For example, if an athlete wants to take out all meat products, he or she should find foods to swap that are nutritionally similar in terms of total calories and key nutrients provided. Sometimes a combination of foods can do the trick. Common switches include beans and brown rice for meat or poultry, nuts and seeds for fish, soy milk for cow’s milk, and “veggie” jerky for meat jerky. Nowadays, new products on the market make it much easier to be a vegan athlete. Vegan frozen meals, freeze-dried meals, high-protein bars, meat substitutes, and sports shakes and drinks are immensely beneficial to athletes following a plant-based diet. In addition, natural food stores provide more options, and some may offer advice or cooking classes. I often tell our vegan athletes to “think bulk” when they cook. Many vegan main dishes like rice and beans or tempeh and veggies can be made in large quantities and refrigerated or frozen for future meals. That way, when time is short, the meals can still be heated up quickly. Another area to help vegan athletes with is team travel. Finding vegan options on the road can be a challenge. Here are some tips:

– Pack some of your own foods, especially vegan protein sources. Fink, who has been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years and has followed a vegan diet for much of the past 10, often packs vegan protein bars, vegan protein powder, and nuts as her staples. Other great portable options include vegan jerky, single-serving microwaveable bean-based soups, dried soy nuts, single-serving nut butters, and portable single-serving soy milks. – Plan ahead by finding natural food markets that will be on your route. For 15 years, I served as the in-store registered dietitian at a natural food store, and we often had sports teams come in for specialized vegan meals and to pick up select food items when on the road. It’s becoming more and more common for stores to have on-site nutrition experts to help you find what you need for your trip.

– Search the Web ahead of time for vegan restaurants. Two helpful Web sites are the Vegetarian Resource Group (www.vrg.org) and Happy Cow (www.happycow.net). Also, consider ethnic dining options known for offering a wide range of vegan choices, such as Chinese, Thai, Indian, Korean, and Mexican fare.

Finally, make sure to check in with your vegan athletes to find out how their diet is working. If they are unable to maintain weight, have a difficult time getting through workouts, are exhibiting low energy, or their performance has dropped, it’s time to take a closer look at the diet or perhaps reconsider it altogether. A vegan meal plan can be more difficult to manage, but by paying attention to key nutrients, planning, and preparing high-quality vegan foods, athletes can find success. After all, that’s certainly been the case for world-class athletes like Foster, McWilliams-Franklin, Neshek, Fink, and many others.

SIDEBAR: Case Studies

The following is a vegan meal plan that could work for both a 150-pound female soccer player and a 220-pound male football player with just a few adjustments. Breakfast: 2 slices whole grain toast + 2 T cashew butter 1 cup soy yogurt 2 cups orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D Multivitamin with iron = 776 calories, 25 grams protein Football player: Add 2 cups orange juice and 2 more slices of toast with cashew butter to add 620 calories and 17 grams of protein

Snack: 1/3 cup raisins + 1/3 cup almonds = 425 calories, 10 grams protein

Football player: Add 2 cups of 100-percent grape juice to add 275 calories

Lunch: 1 cup black beans + 1 cup brown rice + 1/4 cup salsa 1 apple 2 vegan cookies + 1 cup soy milk = 871 calories, 30 grams protein

Pre-workout: 1 banana + 1 T peanut butter = 200 calories, 5 grams protein

Post-workout: 1 cup chocolate soy milk + 2 fig bars = 240 calories, 10 grams protein

Football player: Add 1 vegan sports bar to add 370 calories and 9 grams of protein

Dinner: 1 cup tempeh sautéed with 2 cups broccoli or carrots 1 cup quinoa 1 cup strawberries 2 cups orange juice fortified with calcium = 780 calories, 34 grams protein

Snack: 1 cup iron-fortified dry cereal = 150 calories, 4 grams protein Football player: Add 1 cup sunflower seed kernels to add 820 calories and 32 grams of protein


Female Soccer Player: Calories goal: 3,400 per day Calories actual: 3,442 per day Protein goal: 0.6 grams/pound = 90 grams + 10% = 99 grams per day Protein actual: 118 grams per day

Male Football Player: Calories goal: 5,500 per day Calories actual: 5,527 per day Protein goal: 0.7 grams/pound = 154 + 10% = 169 grams per day Protein actual: 176 grams per day


Heather Fink, MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Nutrition and Wellness Solutions, LLC in Indianapolis, is an athlete who has followed a vegan diet. A gold and silver medalist in the long and short course Duathlon World Championships and competitor in the Hawai’i Ironman, she aims to consume a protein source with every meal and snack. Here is a list of Fink’s Top 10 foods she relies on most:

1. Tofu 2. Soy or almond milk 3. Nuts, seeds, and nut butters 4. Beans–kidney, navy, pinto, etc. 5. Lentils and split peas 6. All fruits, fresh and dried 7. All vegetables 8. Whole grains such as oatmeal and quinoa 9. Vegan sports bars–Lara, Clif, and Kind bars 10. Dark chocolate

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