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Media centre home > News > Ensuring a safe, vegan diet for athletes and gym-goers

Issued:04/10/17

Athletes who are choosing to follow a vegan diet could harm their long-term health and performance if they don't properly manage their consumption of key nutrients, according to research by Sheffield Hallam University.

David Rogerson, a lecturer in sport nutrition and strength and conditioning in Hallam's Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, analysed a large number of studies into the subject to provide recommendations for how to safely construct a vegan diet for athletes and exercisers.

The review, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition says the deficiencies of key nutrients in a vegan diet could cause issues such as; reduced muscle creatine (which helps to build lean body mass), low bone-mineral density and getting the right energy balance.

Vegan diets tend to be lower in calories and vital nutrients such as; protein, fat, vitamin B12, Omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and iodine whilst at the same time, are higher in carbohydrates, fibre, and other vitamins and minerals found in plant-based foods.

The consequences of insufficient energy are that immunity might become compromised, leading to illnesses and time off from training and competition and weight loss can occur, leading to the loss of muscle mass and reduced strength.

Plant-based foods tend to have low energy density and therefore promote the feeling of being full early into the meal, which is problematic for athletes and exercisers who need a high calorie diet.

To combat this, the study recommends that increasing meal frequency and increasing consumption of energy dense foods such as nuts, seeds and oils might be helpful to ensure that calorie goals are met. 

When it comes to protein consumption, the research highlights how vegans are known to consume less protein than non-vegetarians and vegetarians and therefore attention needs to be focused on the quantity and quality of protein consumed.

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Plant-based protein sources are often incomplete and without important essential amino acids but evidence suggests milk-based proteins might lead to better muscle growth when compared to soy protein equivalents. 

David said: "There is little information available that discusses or investigates veganism in sport, health and fitness-related contexts despite more and more athletes adopting a vegan diet.

"Achieving a high energy intake is difficult in some instances, owing to plant-based foods promoting satiety. Issues with the digestibility and absorption of nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron and zinc might be an issue too, meaning that athletes might need to consume higher amounts of these foods compared to omnivores and other vegetarians.

"However, through the strategic selection and management of food choices, and with special attention being paid to appropriate supplementation, a vegan diet can achieve the needs of most athletes satisfactorily."

For press information: ContactSarah Duce in the Sheffield Hallam University press office on 0114 225 4025 or email s.duce@shu.ac.uk