Animal-derived foods aren’t necessary to live a long and healthy life; in fact, quite the contrary. People who are physically active should take special care to get enough protein into their diet without the use of animal proteins. After all, muscle tissue is breaking down when exercising (you know this is happening when you feel the “burn” which is caused by the buildup of lactic acid causing muscles to break down) and protein is necessary for the recovery and rebuilding process. Vegan athletes have to pay more attention to dietary choices and food combinations in order ensure the absorption of enough high-quality protein. .
What May Be Missing
In addition to protein, vegans may be missing the following nutrients in their diet:
vitamins B-12 and D
Iron is quite important for building muscle and endurance. If you aren’t going to get this from beef, you’re going to have to make sure you’re eating the following on a regular basis:
whole grain cereals fortified with iron
legumes (beans, peas and peanuts)
dried fruit (especially raisins)
cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage)
In addition, you will want to combine these with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and berries; this will aid your body in absorbing and utilizing iron.
In lieu of dairy products, instead load up on fortified soy products as well as leafy greens to keep bones strong with sufficient calcium: mustard, kale and chard are powerhouse foods in this regard, as well as dried figs. Sesame seeds are also a decent source of calcium; a unique form of nut butter made from sesame, called tahini, is available in many Middle Eastern specialty stores and combines well with sweet as well as savory foods.
Rice and beans together make a complete protein – or almost any combination of grain and legumes. However, peanuts (which are actually legumes, not nuts) and soybeans provide complete proteins that are of the same quality as that derived from fish, poultry, dairy or eggs. Most tree nuts are also good sources of protein, and provide the additional benefit of healthy oils, such as omega-3 (also found in olive oil).
The Tough Ones
Vitamin B-12 is essential for metabolism and making use of the energy stored in food. Unfortunately, the only reliable source of this nutrient is in animal-based foods. Whole grains cereals and soy milk are often vitamin B-12 fortified, but one would have to consume a great deal in order to get this nutrient in sufficient amounts from these vegetable-based sources alone. Therefore, vegan athletes may need to take B-12 supplements.
The same is true of zinc, which is vital for healthy respiratory and digestive functions. Fortunately, these supplements are not expensive – so make certain you have these on hand, especially when in training.