Nutrition for vegan athletes: an interview with dietitian Susan Levin
I interviewed registered dietitian Susan Levin for insight into special considerations vegan athletes (or vegans who are very active) may need to make when it comes to nutrition. Ms. Levin has a specialty certification in sports dietetics. She is the director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting preventive medicine – especially better nutrition – and higher standards in research. She researches and writes about the connection between plant-based diets and a reduced risk of chronic diseases. She also assists in teaching nutrition and health classes to participants in clinical studies that explore the links between diet and various medical conditions. Ms. Levin is an avid runner and a VegRUN.org coach.
Other than an overall increase in calories, how should a vegan athlete's diet differ from someone who is less active? Are there any particular nutrients to take note of for endurance athletes versus strength athletes?
For starters, an athlete’s dietary needs may not change that much regardless of dietary preference, depending on the level of activity. So if you follow a vegan diet and start exercising the minimal recommended amount, your natural hunger cues tend to take care of your increased needs.
For athletes who train regularly, carbohydrates should always be the bulk of the diet. Endurance and strength training both call for increased protein, but only slightly for endurance training (from 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight to 1.3-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day). For strength training, those needs range from approximately 1.2 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Athletes should keep in mind that most of us consume about twice our needs in protein without even trying. Protein is not hard to get!
Because plant foods are nutrient-dense as opposed to calorie-dense, a vegan athlete who trains intensely and regularly may find that he or she needs to eat more often in order to maintain weight and to prevent weight loss. For these athletes, smoothies and shakes are good options to supplement the diet throughout training.
Any thoughts on how a vegan diet could potentially benefit the performance or recovery of athletes? Peer-reviewed research is sparse on this subject, but public interest seems to be growing.
I think a lot of athletes approach training as a time to teach the body how to get faster or stronger through repetition of a specific exercise. What training really is, is a time to figure out how the body excels at a particular event. That means, among other things, figuring out how to fuel for optimal performance. Many professional athletes have realized, through trial and error, that a vegan diet allows them to train more often because of the shorter recovery time needed.
There are several theories as to why a vegan diet would be better than other diets. Training is actually a stress on the body and its immune function. A vegan diet full of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes provides a clear immune boost with its high antioxidant content (and avoidance of pro-inflammatory products found in meat and dairy products). This immune boost could be what allows vegan athletes to train and recover in rapid succession.
Plant-based fitness is bourgeoning among professional and amateur athletes alike. Any thoughts on this trend overall?
I’m thrilled to see the trend, because adopting a nutrition or exercise plan should support all aspects of health, not just one like weight loss or strength. That’s what I love about the combination of a vegan diet and exercise – it supports heart health, cancer prevention, diabetes prevention, healthy body weight, less joint pain, improved mood, less risk of dementia, and the list goes on and on. I only see the trend continuing as more people experience the benefits first hand.
This interview is an excerpt from my book Vegan Vitality.
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