As if there weren’t enough complications to our diets already, the problem of “to supplement, or not to supplement” is a nagging issue for many vegan, vegetarian and plant-based athletes today. Plant-based nutrition is not a new fad anymore, but it nevertheless remains a popular topic amongst professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts. We know a lot more about these ways of life and what kinds of risks/rewards there are to be had when you ditch conventional diets and go plant-based. One of the major downsides to vegetarian or vegan diets seems to be an over-reliance on supplements. Whether this is merely a myth or has any real grounds for being a popular belief, plant-based diets can certainly lead a person to rely on “food alternatives” like protein powders, vitamins and other supplement products.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all – in fact, many athletes and fitness professionals are achieving greater levels of success in their pursuit of excellence, so perhaps relying on supplements isn’t so bad after all? Just like with any diet or nutritional program, moderation and balancing your food budgets will lead to success, whereas a lack of planning will likely result in failure.
So what’s a healthy balance of vegan athlete supplements look like? What is the best protein for vegetarian athletes? Are there vegetarian creatine sources? Let’s explore the pros and cons of supplements for vegetarian athletes and try to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about relying on food alternatives for your nutrition.
TO SUPPLEMENT, OR NOT TO SUPPLEMENT?
That is the question. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or dabble in plant-based diets periodically you will certainly run into this common situation: you need more of a certain nutrient, and getting it from available food sources is proving difficult or costly. This isn’t a problem unique to plant-based diets – conventional diets that include meats, dairy and fruit/vegetables/healthy grains can also be full of nutritional holes if you don’t focus on eating a balanced diet.
Many people fall into this trope of believing that vegetarians and vegans are always deficient in something essential to their health. Whether it’s iron, protein, B vitamins or essential fatty acids, these kinds of important nutrients can appear to be scarce when considering a plant-based diet.
Here is where we find the root of the matter with supplementing your diet with food alternative products. Fitness and nutrition supplements are not meant to replace nutrition through healthy foods, quite the contrary; these kinds of products are intended to support healthy intake of a balanced profile of essential nutrients. So, if you already eat a fair amount of proteins and good fats maybe you don’t need to include a protein shake in your daily routine. However, let’s say you’re incredibly busy and all of the sudden you have less time to shop/cook/prepare healthy meals, you might want to consider the convenience of a protein shake before/after your next workout.
In most cases, supplements can bridge the gaps in your diet quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively. That is not to say that the health & fitness supplements industries have not seen prices increase dramatically in recent years, but when you consider that food costs have also risen significantly then the disparity between the two seems a lot less important. Supplements for vegetarian athletes, vegan creatine sources, and the various proteins for vegetarians are meant to be useful tools for helping you to optimize your diet & nutrition. Too much of any one thing is never a good thing, so moderation is key to achieving the ideal balance of food borne nutrition alongside supplementing your diet with natural, healthy products.
What are some of these ideal supplements for vegetarian athletes? There is no end to the brands, unique formulas and varying price points found in today’s supplements aisles, but we’d like to suggest a few staples that you should consider including in your day-to-day regimen.
THE BEST KINDS OF SUPPLEMENTS FOR VEGETARIAN ATHLETES
While all animals get their B12 vitamins from ingesting plants, it is very difficult to get anything more than trace amounts from most fruits and vegetables. In a conventional sense, vitamin B12 used to be abundant in soils but is now only sourced significantly from many red meats, nutritional yeast or other fortified foods like breads or cereals. This is why a variety of vegan athlete supplements are necessary to increase your uptake in B12 as a vegetarian or vegan athlete.
Fortunately, you don’t need to take too much vitamin B12 in order to optimize your daily intake; our bodies constantly produce B12, albeit in small amounts over long periods of time. For many people, the best proteins for vegetarian athletes contain 1000 – 2000 mcg of B12 so it’s a “one and done” kind of formula. Similarly, vegetarian creatine sources, BCAA’s or multivitamin products also contain this 1000+ mcg as an easy daily-dose.
Just make sure you’re taking 1000 mcg per day as a minimum and you’ll likely avoid any depletion issues. You can’t take too much vitamin B12 – your body will use as much of it as it can – but try to avoid taking more than 2500 mcg unless otherwise advised by your health practitioner.
The “sunshine vitamin” is very cheap – free in fact! – to obtain on most days. However, if you live in regions with dark, dreary winters or frequent, inclement weather then soaking up some healthy sun rays can prove difficult, if not inconsistent. For these reasons, many vegan athlete supplements also contain vitamin D. Vitamin D has a major impact on immunity, bone strength, heart health and even neurological performance. Vitamin D is often taken on the side as its own supplement for vegetarian athletes, specifically to ward off sickness or injury.
There are a lot more plant-based sources of vitamin D, such as algae, mushrooms and the like. Therefore, it is not difficult to derive vitamin D in a dietary sense. Nevertheless, many vegetarian athletes continue to supplement with high doses of vitamin D to support osteo & cardiovascular health.
As for dosing, there are multiple schools of thought. The simplest daily dosage rule for vitamin D is get as much sunlight, fresh air exposure as you can – then, supplement with 1000-2000 IU of vitamin D every day just to be sure. Vegan and vegetarian athletes should also be aware that D3 (cholecalciferol) is the type they should be after as it is the most efficiently absorbed into the human system. Plant-based sources like mushrooms or marine plants like kelp or algae are also ideal for vegan/vegetarian diets.
DHA + EPA
ALA, DHA and EPA are all components associated with your Omegas 3-6-9 that many of us are familiar with, especially if you’re an athlete. These fatty acids are essential for brain health, but they’re also a lot more difficult to get in stable amounts in many plant-based diets because of the removal of most of the potent sources like fish or eggs. However, similar to red meats containing high levels of B12, the fish eat algae or marine plants and this is where they get their DHA/EPA from. So, by skipping fish on the menu, vegan and vegetarian athletes can go straight to the source by getting their Omegas from plants.
ALA is commonly found in larger amounts in chia seeds, flax or other nuts & seeds, so ALA is already ingested by most plant-based people. DHA and EPA however are tougher to consume in your average diet, so supplements for vegetarian athletes are fond of including a rich profile of fatty acids to assist in brain development, cholesterol management and anti-inflammation.
The average person requires 300 – 1000 mg of DHA/EPA per day. So, a safe range is from 300-600 mg of DHA and EPA each in order to ensure you’re supporting good health. Whether as a not-so-tasty algae oil or in capsulated form, there are a lot of cheap and easy vegan athlete supplements that provide your daily requirements for DHA + EPA.
Potassium, otherwise known as the elusive vitamin K, can be difficult to find in regular foods & beverages. Why is vitamin K important? Well it helps your body to absorb and make use of calcium – an essential nutrient for your bones, heart and brain. K2 is the preferred formulation as it has been shown to be proficient for keeping arteries clear and strengthening bone structures.
K2 is found in numerous foods, but the problem is the amounts at which you can expect to derive from a healthy diet. Soybeans and some leafy vegetables are known to contain vitamin K, but you’d have to eat a LOT of these in order to get enough from your diet. So, supplementing with 50 – 150 mcg of K2 each day will protect your cardiovascular system and work to prevent osteoporosis or other bone-related diseases.
Zinc suffers from starting with the last letter in the alphabet, because it is often one of those nutrients we think about last when pursuing stable health & wellness. Zinc is excellent for immune function, and it has been shown to regulate inflammation throughout the body. Zinc might be common in many plants or plant-based foods, but it’s a question of how your body is able to absorb it that really matters.
Legumes, soybeans, nuts, seeds and many grains can be good sources of this particular mineral, but just because you’re eating lots of these foods doesn’t mean your body is able to process Zinc sufficiently. Phytates are the major reason why plant-based Zinc can be difficult to absorb into the body – these compounds found in many plants or nuts/seeds hinder your body’s ability to absorb Zinc and other nutrients.
So, simply by cooking/roasting your plant-based sources for Zinc, or by buying fortified foods/beverages that have further broken down these phytates you’ll get more out of your diet. On the other hand, you can find Zinc in a variety of vegan creatine sources or again in the best protein powders for vegetarian athletes.
ADDITIONAL VEGAN ATHLETE SUPPLEMENTS
Other nutrients are worth supplementing like iodine, selenium and magnesium. We didn’t want to ignore these essentials, but we’ll just cover them quickly to cap things off:
This is an easy one to get on a plant-based diet because kelp or marine plants are one of the best sources for this important mineral. Iodine helps to regulate your metabolism and a variety of other health benefits, but too much of it can unnecessarily increase your sodium intakes to dangerous levels if you include too much of it. Small amounts like 100-150 mcg in capsule form are popular among iodine-enthusiasts.
Selenium doesn’t get enough love – it helps to prevent neurodegenerative disorders, can modulate your moods and even support healthy reproductive systems. Just like most deficiencies in our diets, selenium used to be quite common but soil depletion has led to a stark drop in availability. Brazil nuts are one of the highest-known sources of selenium, but most vegan or vegetarian athletes take selenium as part of a micronutrients supplement to cover all their bases. How much you need will greatly depend on your diet and genetics, so discuss with your healthcare provider.
Magnesium should have a blog all unto itself! We don’t have time to do it justice in this small blurb – don’t worry, we’ll be covering it in greater detail soon! – but you need to take magnesium if you’re a vegan or vegetarian athlete. Magnesium is so effective at fighting inflammation, promoting healing in torn or cramping muscles, can assist in sleep/rest/recovery and happens to be quite effective as a calm-inducing agent. Keep in mind that just like Zinc or Selenium, it can be tough for your body to make efficient use of Magnesium unless it’s in its “elemental” form. Look for “elemental Magnesium” on capsule bottles, and about 200-250 mg as a baseline can do you wonders. Just be careful with Magnesium though, because too much of it can irritate your bowels and cause some unexpectedly “fluid” trips to the bathroom.