Let's start by saying that most Australians are not eating the recommended 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables per day, regardless of what diet they're following. In fact, 92% of Australian adults do not meet the recommended servings of veggies per day (1). ANY increase in intake is a plus, regardless of whether or not you eat meat.
Current research shows no significant advantages or disadvantages in terms of performance or exercise capacity for vegan over vegetarian or omnivorous athletes, as long as their food choices are balanced - that means, including nutrient rich vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and lean meat, fish, chicken and dairy products if the individual chooses them (2,3).
Although there is evidence for the health benefits of plant-based diets for everybody (athletes and non-athletes alike) (3,4), it isn't yet known whether long-term consumption of a veg*n (vegetarian OR vegan) diet enhances recovery, prevents overuse injury, or attenuates the oxidative damage that occurs with heavy training.
Poorly thought out vegan diets can predispose you to protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium and iodine deficiencies (5). I highly recommend consulting with a sports dietitian to make sure your veg*n diet is well-balanced and optimised for your needs.
There's also a greater risk of relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) among vegetarian athletes. However, this may be because vegetarianism is often used as a socially acceptable way to restrict food intake and disguise an eating disorder (6) (putting my hand up here - I've been there!)
If you're a veg*n athlete wanting to ensure your diet is balanced and supporting your goals, or you're having trouble separating the science from the pseudoscience, speak to a sports dietitian.
I'm a provisional SD and love supporting people to optimise their sports nutrition in alignment with their values - veg*n or otherwise! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like a session to make sure you're ticking all the boxes.
To balanced, enjoyable eating (vegan or not),
- Australian Institute of health & Welfare. (2019). https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/food-nutrition/poor-diet/contents/poor-diet-in-adults
- Trapp, D., Knez, W., & Sinclair, W. (2010). Could a vegetarian diet reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress? A review of the literature. Journal of sports sciences, 28(12), 1261–1268. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.507676
- Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 48(3), 543–568. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852
- Melina, V., Craig, W., & Levin, S. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12), 1970–1980. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
- Rogerson D. (2017). Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 36. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9
- Barnard, N. D., & Levin, S. (2009). Vegetarian diets and disordered eating. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(9), 1523–1524. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2009.07.036