Strong, Healthy, and Vegan? (Yes, It Can Be Done)
I’ve been vegan for fourteen years. Not “I’m vegan except for milk.” Not “I’m vegan except sometimes I eat fish.” Not “I’m vegan except when it’s not convenient.” I’m a hardcore, strict, and no eggs, milk, meat, fish, whey, casein, wool, silk, or leather vegan. I always seemed to be headed down that path, ever since I found out at age of five that the lobsters in the tank were the same as the ones on people’s plates. I’m empathetic to a fault, and I just can’t stand the idea of harming another living creature. So, for me, veganism was a moral imperative.
I am also a competitive powerlifter. At around 102lbs bodyweight, I’ve deadlifted 255lbs, benched 115lbs, and squatted 190lbs. I’ve done weighted pull ups with over 20kg loaded on me, bent steel rods and horseshoes by hand, overhead pressed a 24kg kettlebell, and more. Not only has my strength not suffered from my veganism, but my skin is better, my energy is better, my blood work is the best it’s ever been, and I just feel good in general.
I’m very live-and-let-live. I don’t believe in trying to push my morals on anyone else, and I certainly don’t believe veganism is the right lifestyle for everyone. But if the only thing standing between you and going vegan is the fear that your health or strength will suffer, then allow me to allay your fears. (And if I can’t allay your fears, turn to Ken Blackburn, Mike Mahler, Frank Medrano, Patrik Baboumian, and many other phenomenally strong and healthy vegans for more assurance.)
How to Eat Like a Vegan Strength Athlete
Although there is currently little well-designed research published on the subject, one of the few studies existing conceded that, “Well-planned vegetarian diets, particularly those including milk and/or eggs, can provide all essential nutrients for good health and for a high level of sports performance.”1 So let’s get down to brass tacks. What should a vegan strength athlete eat? Here are my rules to lift by:
1. Get Enough Protein
Although getting enough protein for good health is easy on most diets (pretty much everything has protein in it, to some degree), I do believe that strength athletes need more. In addition to a diet rich in beans, sprouted grains, seitan, nuts, and seeds, I also take a protein powder every day mixed with unsweetened almond or flax milk. Some good brands are Spirutein Gold, Vega, Sunwarrior, Paradise Herbs Maca Pro.
2. Take Creatine
I really recommend this for everyone, but in particular for vegans as the main sources of dietary creatine are meat and fish. Creatine has been proven to improve muscle mass and strength levels, as well as having significant cognitive benefits.2-5 Several companies make vegan creatine monohydrate, including Jarrow and Now Foods.
3. Get Your Minerals
Here’s a rundown on important vitamins and minerals for vegans and how to make sure you’re getting enough of them:
- Zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, and calcium tend to be low in vegans, and therefore must be ensured in a vegan diet. Wheat germ (4.7g/31% DV zinc in one ounce), spinach (.5mg/4% DV zinc in one cup of raw spinach), pumpkin/squash seeds (2.9%/19% DV zinc in one ounce), dark baking chocolate (19% DV zinc per 29g square), other nuts, seeds, and greens, and fortified foods are very good sources of zinc.
- Vegan B12 is found in fortified foods and nutritional yeast, as well as through supplementation.
- Vitamin D requires some time in the sun without sunscreen (fifteen minutes should do it), and is also available in fortified foods and by supplementation.
- Some great sources of vegan calcium include blackstrap molasses, collard greens, tofu, soybeans, turnip greens, kale, sesame seeds or tahini, chia seeds, navy beans, almonds/almond butter, bok choy, broccoli, and fortified foods.
- Iron is a bit difficult to absorb. Heme iron, from animal sources, is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, from vegetarian sources. For this reason, there are many little diet hacks you can utilize to make sure you get all the iron you need:
- Make sure you include vitamin C-rich foods with your iron to help absorption, and avoid calcium-rich foods, which bind iron, for at least a half hour before eating an iron-rich meal.
- Tea and coffee can also interfere with iron absorption, so try to keep those beverages separate from your high-iron meals.
- Cooking with iron pots increases iron concentration significantly, particularly for acidic foods such as tomatoes, wine, vinegar, and citrus.
- Eating small amounts of iron throughout the day will increase absorption more than consuming a lot of iron all at once. So try to spread it out.
- Spinach, although high in iron, is also high in oxalates, which impair the absorption of non-heme iron. Spirulina, soybeans, cream of wheat, quinoa, prune juice, dried apricots and figs, beans (kidney, lima, and pinto in particular), cashews, sunflower seeds, broccoli, potatoes, blackstrap molasses, and Swiss chard are all good choices for upping your iron.
3. Eat Healthy Fats
And plenty of them. A lot of vegans end up on extremely low-fat diets that can impair absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and can actually result in poor blood lipid balance. Nuts, seeds, extra-virgin olive and coconut oils, and avocadoes provide plenty of healthy fats. It’s important to strive for higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation in the body, and therefore risk of disease. I recommend vegans take a vegan DHA/EPA supplement. Ovega-3, Deva, and Source Naturals all make a version of this. Flaxseeds, algae, and chia seeds are also all good sources of omega-3s.
4. Don’t Fill Your Diet With Carbs
The biggest mistake I see vegans make is that they overdose on breads, crackers, cakes, cookies, and other carbohydrates in replacement of what they’ve cut out. These foods tend to be nutrient poor and unsatisfying. This habit is one of the main reasons a lot of vegans end up sick. I highly recommend making the majority of your diet rich in brightly colored vegetables (especially greens, reds, and oranges), with good helpings of beans, fruits, and nuts. Sprouted, whole, and sourdough grains should be included (if you want them there), but should not make up the bulk of what you consume.
This is a pretty good basic, but by no means comprehensive, guideline for vegan athletes (or wannabes). I welcome questions, though, should you have them. In the meantime, enjoy your food and lift heavy, my friends.
1. Sportscience. "Effect of Vegetarian Diets on Performance in Strength Sports," Sportscience 6. Accessed 10/12/2013
2. Volek JS, Ratamess NA, Rubin MR, Gómez AL, French DN, McGuigan MM, Scheett TP, Sharman MJ, Häkkinen K, Kraemer WJ., "The effects of creatine supplementation on muscular performance and body composition responses to short-term resistance training overreaching," Eur J Appl Physiol. 2004 May;91(5-6):628-37
3. Rawson ES, Volek JS., "Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance," J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Nov;17(4):822-31
4. McMorris T, Mielcarz G, Harris RC, Swain JP, Howard A., "Creatine supplementation and cognitive performance in elderly individuals," Neuropsychol Dev Cogn B Aging Neuropsychol Cogn. 2007 Sep;14(5):517-28.
5. Benton D, Donohoe R., "The influence of creatine supplementation on the cognitive functioning of vegetarians and omnivores, " Br J Nutr. 2011 Apr;105(7):1100-5. doi: 10.1017/S0007114510004733.
Photo 1 courtesy of Melody Schoenfeld.
Photos 2 & 3 courtesy of Shutterstock.
Topic: Healthy Eating