Times

Top Nutrition Tips for Vegan Swimmers

2/19/2013

Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD

A 14-year old swimmer asked me for tips on being a vegan. She decided to be a vegan over concerns for the environment, animals and health, but wanted to make sure she has the energy for swimming as well as getting all of the nutrients she needs. I applaud her interest in nutrition and doing all she can to make sure that she makes healthful food choices.

Vegans eat no animal foods, including dairy foods or eggs, and since entire food groups are eliminated, a careful meal planning approach is needed to ensure adequate nutrient intake.

Here are some tips for the vegan athlete:

1. Obtain science-based information from reliable sources. Good resources include the website from the Vegetarian Resource Group (http://www.vrg.org/) and information from the practice group Vegetarian Nutrition of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (http://vegetariannutrition.net/docs/Sports-Vegetarian-Nutrition.pdf)

2. Eat a variety of healthy plant foods to get all of the nutrients you need. Protein needs for vegans are slightly higher than for meat eaters or vegetarians who eat dairy foods because plant protein is less well-digested compared to the protein in animal foods. Good protein sources for vegan athletes include brown rice, protein-enriched pasta (like Barilla Plus protein and omega-3-enriched pasta), nuts, tofu, soy milk and soy cheese and soy yogurt, tempeh, peanut butter and beans and peas (black beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas and lentils).

3. Nutrients that could be in short supply for vegans include calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin B-12, and riboflavin. Here are some vegan foods to get these nutrients:

  • Calcium; calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, soy, rice and almond milk, broccoli, kale, greens (collards, turnips), almonds, tahini, blackstrap molasses
  • Iron: dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, etc.), whole grain breads and cereals, root vegetables and dried fruit (raisins, etc.)
  • Zinc: dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds, soy foods and soy "burgers"
  • Iodine: iodized salt and seaweed (kombu)
  • Magnesium: beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains, leafy green veggies
  • Vitamin D: fortified foods (check labels of soy products to see if vitamin D is added), sun-dried mushrooms
  • Vitamin B12: nutritional yeast; vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods so look for soy foods that have added vitamin B12
  • Riboflavin: whole grains, fortified breads and cereals, tofu, nuts, seeds, bananas, asparagus, figs, avocado 

4. While most athletes don't get enough fiber, vegans can get too much fiber, so be careful not to add fiber-rich energy bars to your naturally high fiber plant-based diet. Too much fiber can interfere with absorption of some minerals (calcium and iron) and can make you feel gassy and bloated.

Vegan diets can be very healthful, but require more planning than diets that contain meat or dairy foods. A sports dietitian can help you plan a diet that meets your needs.

Chris Rosenbloom is the sports dietitian for Georgia State University Athletics and is the editor of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition, 2012. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at chrisrosenbloom@gmail.com.