Life as a Professional Athlete on a Vegan Diet
Why be a vegan athlete?
Actually before I get to that, let me just say, I am not a nutritionist. So I can only tell you about myself and what works for me!
I first became vegan when I was a sophomore in high school—because of land use and water use in the western United States. It is way way more sustainable for us to eat plants directly than it is for us to eat animals that ate plants. (Two especially eye-opening books on this are Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner and The Food Revolution by John Robbins.)
So the first answer as to why be a vegan athlete is: because being vegan aligns with my values around sustainability for our planet. I start with this because making choices about food is not like making choices about buying a bike. Our food reflects our history, our culture, and our economy. When I told my parents I was going to be vegan, they were initially pretty upset. In retrospect, they must have felt like my rejection of their cooking was a rejection of them.
If I were to do it all over again, I would engage my family and those who share my table in a more ongoing gentle and respectful conversation. Setting down the bounds of where our personal values and ethics lie is deeply important for ourselves—but it’s also something we want to be able to comfortably talk about as we break bread together. And isn’t it the diversity of our families and communities, after all, that make them so interesting and rich?
My husband, for example, is not vegan—but, if he cooks meat, he grills it outside and he’s always super complimentary of the vegan meals I cook for our family. Sometimes love is about sharing and sameness—but sometimes it’s about respecting each other’s space, too.
Ok, onto some specifics as a vegan triathlete…
Let’s get the biggest question out of the way now: protein! You can calculate your daily protein requirement here. I find the research suggesting endurance athletes benefit from more than that very compelling, so for me personally I try to be in the 80-100 g per day range as a 140-lb person. That is a lot, vegan or not, so in the last two years I’ve made protein a big focus: I eat a lot more tofu and tempeh (which are much more protein-dense than beans) and I have daily protein shakes as well.
Sample diet for 90 g vegan protein
Breakfast: Oatmeal, almond yogurt, Ripple milk, and nuts and berries (~20 g)
11-sies: Almond butter and banana toast (~10 g)
Lunch: Rice or sweet potato, tofu or tempeh, and salad (~20 g)
Afternoon: Berry smoothie with F2C Vegan-Pure protein powder (~20 g)
Dinner: (Similar to lunch) (~20 g)
Where vegans may struggle with protein, we more than make it up with our tendency to eat a wide variety of fresh foods that give us essential antioxidant vitamins. I eat a big salad every day and include fresh fruit or vegetables with every single meal or snack. I find that, when we think about produce as the center of our plate rather than as a lackluster side, we tend to eat a wider variety of cuisines and to favor what’s fresh and in-season.
For the few nutrients that tend to be low in a vegan diet, namely B-12 and iron, I do take a multi-vitamin. I also add nutritional yeast to salads and in some of my cooking; and use black molasses, which is a great source of iron, in post-workout shakes. Calcium isn’t a worry: it’s already in many vegetables and legumes!
So the second answer to the why be a vegan athlete is: because I feel amazing! As a vegan who also eats a varied and whole food diet, I find that I never feel heavy or bloated going into workouts (even after a big meal), I have consistent energy throughout the day, I recover quickly from training and racing, and my digestion and internal pH never give me trouble. While I did start out by saying I’m not a nutritionist, I do recommend that we all seek to eliminate processed foods (unless you’re bonking on a long ride and can stop at a convenience store: then, anything goes!).
Getting used to digesting vegan, whole foods may take your body some time. It definitely takes time to learn new go-to recipes and rethink your pantry. Cravings and taste preferences may take even longer to change; for me, it was about five years before I stopped wanting cheese!
But it’s a lot easier to be vegan now than it was 15 years ago. There is an inspiring wealth of vegan cookbooks and blogs, a lot more research on being a vegan athlete, and way more vegan products at the grocery store. I also find that most nice-ish restaurants can accommodate—especially if I call ahead.
A few cookbooks I use almost every week include Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, and The Vegan Table by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. I also subscribe to a CSA (from Helsing Farm): getting a box of fresh produce every week gets me to try new recipes and to eat what’s local and in season. Additionally, Scott Jurek and Rich Roll both have great books about being plant-powered athletes.
Well, that’s what works for me. What works for you? Do you have questions about being a vegan triathlete, or tips to share? I hope you’ll comment below!
Written by Kyra Wiens
Follow Kyra on Instagram! @kyrawiens