As a cyclist, you probably care about your health and pay attention to what you eat. You may follow or be considering a vegan or vegetarian diet for moral, environmental, or health reasons. Luckily it’s very possible to perform at high levels as a plant-based athlete. But it’s important to be aware of a few key nutrients so you don’t become deficient.
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Athletes need more protein than sedentary people. Athletes and active people should consume between 1.2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (or 0.55 to 1.0 grams per pound of bodyweight). It may take diligence to get adequate protein especially if you’re vegan. If you’re mostly plant-based but willing to consume foods like eggs, dairy products, and/or fish then it’s easier to get adequate protein.
Animal protein contains more essential amino acids than plant protein. But you can still get what you need by ensuring you eat a variety of plant proteins. By mixing foods such as beans and rice or tofu and nuts, you can create a complete protein meal. Protein-rich plant foods include:
- edamame (soybeans)
- tofu, tempeh (made from soybeans)
- lentils (red, green, brown)
- beans: pintos, black, red, black eye peas, chickpeas
Protein powders can be a convenient way to meet your protein needs. Whey protein is a by-product of milk production. Whey is rich in amino acids and suitable for vegetarians. Vegans may want to consider soy, pea, hemp, or rice protein powders.
Vitamin B12 is essential for nerve function, blood vessel formation, red blood cell production, and DNA function. B12 is found in many animal foods. It’s not available from plant foods though, unless those foods are fortified with B12. Vegans/vegetarians who eat little or no meat are at risk of B12 deficiency. B12 fortified foods and a B12 supplement will substantially reduce the risk of B12 deficiency. A blood test will reveal whether or not you’re deficient. Symptoms include:
- strange sensations, numbness, or tingling in the hands, legs, or feet
- difficulty walking (staggering, balance problems)
- a swollen, inflamed tongue
- difficulty thinking and reasoning (cognitive difficulties), or memory loss
Calcium not only builds strong bones but it’s also critical for muscular contractions. Calcium is available in dairy foods but it’s also widely available from plant foods, such as:
- edamame and tofu
- turnip greens, kale, spinach
- various seeds and nuts
- chia seeds
Iron enables red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. Low iron can cause fatigue. Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme (from animal foods), and non-heme (from plants). Your body absorbs heme iron better than non-heme iron. Cooking with cast iron cookware can boost your dietary iron. Consuming vitamin C with iron can increase iron absorption. Salads and stir-frys afford opportunities for you to blend such foods. Here are some options:
Rich in Iron
- pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
- tofu, tempeh, edamame
- leafy greens
- amaranth, spelt, oats
- dark chocolate
Rich in Vitamin C
- citrus fruit
- cantaloupe, watermelon
- strawberries, kiwi
- broccoli, peppers, tomatoes
- winter squash
While vitamin C can boost iron absorption, calcium can block it, particularly high doses found in calcium supplements. So if you take a calcium supplement, don’t take it with an iron rich meal.
No matter your reason for going vegetarian, vegan, or just reducing meat and animal products, you can get all the nutrients you need as an athlete with a little planning and variety. Bon appetit!