Vegan Sports Nutrition: Plants Work Hard for You!

So, you are an avid dancer, marathoner, weight lifter, or spinning enthusiast.  You’ve considered eating less meat and cutting back on dairy, but can’t figure how someone who consumes no animal products could be a successful athlete.  Good news: plant based eating can be synonymous with a perfect performance diet!

An area which seems to garner attention if you meet a vegan (or vegetarian) athlete is that of protein intake.  Protein is a key nutrient in repair of muscle as well as exercise preparation, maintenance, and recovery.  In order for our bodies to produce this nutrient, we must consume nine essential amino acids.  All animal proteins contain all essential amino acids, while plants (with the exception of the complete proteins from soy, quinoa, and spinach)1 tend to be limiting in one or two of these building blocks.

Yet, if we consume 0.9-1.7g protein per kilogram body weight daily1 (depending on your level of intensity/duration and length of time spent doing a given program), vary our plant sources, and eat enough calories to maintain weight, our bodies will use this protein form just the same as if it were from animal.  Additionally, in studies comparing whey (milk protein) to soy protein, there are little to no differences in muscle growth or strength in using animal proteins versus that from soy2.  (Refer to: “What’s Up with Tofu?” on the safety of soy).

How about other key nutrients in sports like carbohydrates, fat, iron, calcium, and B-vitamins?  Your best bet is making your calories 51-65% carbohydrates, 15-35% protein, and 20-35% fat.  Iron is necessary for oxygen-carrying proteins and in enzymes used for energy3, it has an RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) of 18mg daily, and should be consumed with a Vitamin C source for absorption.  Calcium assists with muscle contraction and bone health, with its RDA at 1,000mg coming to our plate in the form of kale, broccoli, fortified nondairy milks, and even dried figs.  B-vitamins help our bodies convert foods we eat into energy and they protect our nervous system.  All vegans must supplement with about 25 micrograms sublingual (dissolved under the tongue) Vitamin B-12 daily1

Here are some numbers.

  1. You should fuel (3-4 hours prior) and refuel (within 15-120 minutes after completing a workout) with a snack or meal containing about 20g protein4,5,6.  Great examples could be a peanut butter sandwich, soy-based nutrition bar, or trail mix.
  2. You should consider having a small, high carbohydrate (around 25g) with moderate protein snack (a piece of fresh fruit is perfect) 30-60 minutes pre-performance4 if it will be high intensity activity.
  3. Lastly, water is essential in any fitness regimen: rehydrate with about four cups of fluid (preferably water) for every hour of exercise (or for each pound bodyweight lost, fill the gap by drinking 16 fluid ounces of water).

What’s the final verdict?  If following a vegan diet or one that resembles such, it is important to meet the same healthy guidelines and RDAs as fellow meat-eaters in regards to vitamins and minerals. Keep in mind that overall conditioning and training is what really gets you the fitness and muscle definition results you desire, rather than re-hauling any diet regimen.  The national physical activity recommendation is a minimum150min/week of exercise and all the performance nourishment we need for these activities can come from plants!

By: Molly McBride, RD, LD 


  1. Norris, J., & Messina, V. (2011) Vegan for Life. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 195-204.
  2. DiSilvestro, R. “Studies Show Soy Protein – A Complement to Exercise”. Soy Connection newsletter. Retrieved 17 Apr 2013.
  3. Larson, E. (2013).  “RD Resources for Professionals: Sports Nutrition for Vegetarians” Vegetarian Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Retrieved from:
  4. SCAN Dietitians (May 2010). “Nutrition Fact Sheet: Eating Before Performing” Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association.  Issue 3.  Retrieved from:
  5. SCAN Dietitians (May 2010). “Nutrition Fact Sheet: Eating for Recovery” Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association.  Issue 1.  Retrieved from:
  6. SCAN Dietitians (January 2010). “Gaining weight – Building Muscle” Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association.  Issue 8.  Retrieved from:
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