Last updated: 23-Aug-18
By Diana Green
The Rise of Veganism
For decades veganism was portrayed negatively, its effects on health and evolutionary legitimacy questioned. It wasn’t until the 2010’s that veganism became not only glamorous as celebrities, politicians and athletes adopted the diet, but also something to be taken seriously.
The Vegan Runner
There is a growing number of high performance runners including Helen Fines (fell runner) and ultra runners Catra Corbett, Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier who are following a vegan diet and attributing their success to veganism.
What is Veganism?
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
The Birth of Veganism
The word vegan was born in 1944 when Donald Watson with several other members of the Vegetarian Society were looking for a word to describe ‘non-dairy vegetarians’
‘Vegan’ contains the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’
WHY CHOSE VEGANISM?
Plant-based diets use less resources. The crops and water needed for the production of meat and other animal products places a heavy burden on the environment.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds have all been shown to help protect against major chronic disease. Those who consume high levels of these plant foods show lower levels of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers.
Choosing vegan foods helps protect animals against cruelty and exploitation.
CAN YOU REALISE YOUR FULL RUNNING POTENTIAL WITHOUT MEAT & ANIMAL PRODUCTS?
Can a vegan diet contain sufficient macro and micro nutrients not only to fuel and support your running but also to give you an advantage?
The main dietary concerns for vegan runners are getting enough protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron and calcium.
WHAT ABOUT PROTEIN?
Protein is an essential nutrient which has a very important role to play supporting general health and training. Protein is needed for growth and repair of tissue, regulating metabolism, manufacturing enzymes and hormones, transporting nutrients in and out of cells and proper immune response.
It is often assumed that it is difficult to get enough protein from a vegan diet. However nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds contain some protein, with smaller amounts found in fruits. So, as long as the vegan diet is varied and calorie intake is sufficient, it is easy to reach protein targets.
ARE ALL PROTEINS EQUAL?
Protein is made up of 20 different building blocks called amino acids. Different amino acids are needed in different quantities by the body. The body can break down and reassemble amino acids, however there are 8 amino acids that cannot be produced in this way and must be obtained from the diet. These are known as the 8 essential amino acids: Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine; Methionine; Phenylalanine; Threonine; Tryptophan; Valine.
Complete High Quality Proteins
The quality of a protein depends on the number and amount of amino acids it contains and how easily it is digested and absorbed by the body. Protein foods containing all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities are known as high quality proteins or complete proteins. The proteins in meat, eggs, fish and dairy produce are considered to be high quality proteins.
Incomplete Lower Quality Proteins
Although most plant-based foods contain all the essential amino acids they are considered incomplete because one or more amino acids may be present in amounts that are below human requirements. The amino acid which is furthest below human requirements is known as the limiting amino acid. The exceptions are quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and soy which are complete proteins. Quinoa, amaranth and soy (tofu) are well digested however buckwheat has a lower digestibility.
The Vegan Protein Solution
Eating a combination of proteins lacking different essential amino acids will provide a biologically complete protein intake. The complementary proteins do not have to be eaten as part of the same meal as the body will store and combine the amino acids as needed.
When relying on lower quality incomplete proteins a larger quantity needs to be consumed to allow for differences in digestibility between plant and animal protein. It is recommended that vegans consume an additional 10% of protein.
How Much Protein Does The Vegan Runner Need?
The British Reference Nutrient Intake for protein is .75 g per kg (American RDA 0.8 g per kg) of body weight per day. For the runner additional protein is needed for repair and recovery of muscle tissue and fuel when carbohydrate is in short supply. Running levels of 20 to 40 miles per week requires up to 1.5 g protein per kg of body weight. This would increase to 1.65 g protein per kg of body weight allowing for an additional 10% to take into account poorer digestibility of plant-based protein.
Click the table to download the full protein plan.
WHAT ABOUT CALORIES?
Many vegan plant-based protein sources are also high in carbohydrate or fat and a concern is the number of calories that need to be consumed to reach a protein target.
WHAT ABOUT AMINO ACIDS?
The quantity of each amino acid in the diet is as important as or if not more important than the total intake of protein. The limiting amino acids in the vegan diet are principally lysine and to a lesser extent methionine. Pulses and nuts are deficient in methionine and grains are deficient in lysine. Lysine together with methionine is needed to synthesise carnitine, a vitamin like compound which transports fatty acids into the energy producing mitochondria.
SAMPLE VEGAN MENU
The sample menu below shows that with a varied vegan diet both protein and amino acid targets can easily be met within a 2500 daily calorie intake.
Target Protein & Amino Acids
Based on 1.65 g protein per kg of body weight, the average protein requirement for running levels of 20 to 40 miles per week for a runner weighing 70 kg (11 stone) would be 115.5 g.
The optimal amount of lysine per g of protein is 51 mg, which for protein target of 115.5 g would be 5890 mg.
Click the table to download the full sample menu.
Include complete proteins in your diet
A few plant-based foods, such as soya, buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth, are complete proteins.
Include nuts and pulses in every meal
Nuts and seeds and pulses (especially soya products) are one of the major sources of protein. Multiple servings a day of these foods are needed to achieve protein targets.
Chose foods high in lysine
Beans, peas and lentils are the foods with the highest levels of lysine. Quinoa, amaranth, pistachios and pumpkins seeds are also good sources.
Chose protein partners
Although it is not necessary to eat complementary proteins within the same meal, beans (limiting amino acid lysine) and rice (limiting amino acid methione), also hummus (limited amino acid lysine) and pitta bread (limiting amino acid methione) make for natural partners.
Consider protein powders
Making use of plant protein powders such as pea, hemp or rice can be another convenient way to boost your protein intake. These can be easily added to smoothies as well as used in many recipes.
More protein is not better
Although protein is an essential and important nutrient for runners there are not any health advantages to consuming more protein than the body requires.
WHAT ABOUT VITAMIN B12?
B12 is the only vitamin that cannot be reliably supplied from a varied plant based diet, or exposure to sun. Vegans need to obtain B12 from fortified foods or supplements.
B12 deficiency can cause anaemia and nervous system damage. Typical deficiency symptoms include loss of energy, tingling, numbness, reduced sensitivity to pain or pressure, blurred vision, abnormal gait, sore tongue, poor memory, confusion, hallucinations and personality changes. Deficiency symptoms usually take five years or more to develop in adults, though some people experience problems within a year.
When The Vegan Society was founded, vitamin B12 had not been discovered. By the 1950s, some vegans were becoming ill. In 1952 Dr C V Pink recorded in the Vegetarian News “I have seen patients whose health has broken down after following the vegan diet for a period of five to fifteen years.” He describes symptoms to include depression, muscular weakness, fatigue, backache and numbness or tingling of hands and feet.
How Much B12?
Recommendations for B12 intakes vary from country to country. The USA Recommended Dietary Allowance is 2.4 mcg where as the UK Reference Nutrient Intake is 1.5 mcg.
Absorption of B12 varies from about 50% for lower doses of about 1 mcg or less to about 0.5% for doses of 1000 mcgs (1 mg) or above. To ensure adequate absorption the less often you consume B12, the higher the total amount you need.
B12 Recommendation For Vegans
As part of a vegan diet you should do one of the following:
- Eat fortified foods containing about 1 mcg of B12 three times a day
- Take a daily supplement containing 10 mcg or more
- Take a weekly supplement of 2000 mcg
Read the labels
The amount of B12 in fortified foods such as breakfast cereal, yeast extract and non-dairy milks varies, so read the labels.
Don’t wait for symptoms
B12 is stored in the liver, kidney and other body tissues. Because of this, symptoms of B12 deficiency might not show until after 5 or 6 years of poor dietary intake.
WHAT ABOUT VITAMIN D?
The body can produce vitamin D by the action of direct sunlight (ultraviolet B irradiation) on the skin. However, in much of the northern hemisphere sunlight is not strong enough to trigger synthesis of vitamin D in the skin from October to March, during these months dietary vitamin D and body stores are needed to maintain a healthy vitamin D status.
The vegan diet contains very little vitamin D, other than fortified foods. The main food sources are oily fish, red meat, liver, butter and egg yolks. Vegetables are low in vitamin D the best sources being green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is best known for its ability to stimulate the absorption of calcium, rickets and osteomalacia being the major diseases of vitamin D deficiency. In recent years however there has been growing evidence linking vitamin D to a number of non-skeletal disorders including cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, age-related cognitive decline.
How Much Vitamin D?
The UK Reference Nutrient Intake for vitamin D is 400 IU and the USA Recommended Dietary Allowance is 600 IU.
Vitamin D Recommendations for the Vegan Runner
The amount of sun exposure needed to make enough vitamin D to meet the body’s requirements varies hugely depending on location, skin colour, time of year, time of day and atmospheric conditions.
The vegan runner training outdoors should be exposed to adequate sunlight in the Northern hemisphere during the summer months and in the Southern hemisphere throughout the year to meet requirements.
For those in the northern hemisphere consuming fortified foods or dietary supplements during the winter is recommended.
VITAMIN D TIPS
Limit unprotected sun exposure
If you are fair skinned, unprotected exposure of legs and arms to sunlight at midday for approx. 15 minutes can produce up to 10,000 IU of vitamin D. Exposure 2 or 3 times a week is sufficient to build and maintain vitamin D stores. There is no danger of too much vitamin D from sun exposure, as levels are regulated by the body but it is wise to protect your skin if you’re out in the sun for long periods to reduce the risk of skin damage and skin cancer. For different skin types it is difficult to quantify how much sun exposure is needed to make the same levels of vitamin D as a very fair-skinned person. The darker the skin the more it is protected against skin cancer but the less able it is to absorb the UV-B rays.
Chose fortified foods & supplements carefully
There are two food sources of vitamin D, D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol). Both D3 and D2 are used in fortified foods and dietary supplements. Vitamin D2 is obtained from plant sources (fungi and yeast) whereas vitamin D3 is traditionally obtained from animal sources, typically lanolin (sheep’s wool) but can now also be extracted from lichens making it suitable for vegans. D3 might be better than D2 at maintaining vitamin D levels.
WHAT ABOUT IRON?
In meat, 40% of iron is bound to the heme molecule (from hemoglobin and myoglobin), and is relatively easily absorbed. The rest of the iron in meat and all iron in plants is non-heme iron which is dependent on the digestive actions of hydrochloric acid and pepsin for absorption. Although non-heme iron from plant food is less well absorbed than heme iron from meat, iron deficiency is no more common in vegans than the general population.
The majority of iron in the body is involved in energy production. As part of the haemoglobin molecule in red blood cells and myoglobin found in muscle tissue, iron is essential for oxygen transportation throughout the body. The body stores iron in the form of ferritin until needed for making haemoglobin and other proteins. It is possible to have low ferritin levels but normal haemoglobin levels. This is known as ‘Iron Deficiency’. Iron deficiency may be caused by increased iron requirement, decreased dietary intake, diminished absorption or utilisation, blood loss or a combination of factors.
When levels of haemoglobin are low as well as iron levels the diagnosis is ‘Iron Deficiency Anaemia’. There is disagreement in the world of sports medicine as to whether low ferritin levels with normal levels of haemogloin can affect performance. However some research has shown that having low ferritin stores can result in fatigue and reduced endurance. Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anaemia caused by oxygen deprivation are fatigue, rapid heart rate, palpitations, rapid breathing on exertion and increased lactic acid production resulting in marked decline in performance.
How Much Iron?
The UK Reference Nutrient Intake for iron for non-menstruating adults is 8.7 mg /day (US RDA 10mg/day) and for menstruating adults 14.8 mg/day (US RDA 15 mg/day).
Iron Recommendations for the Vegan Runner
Endurance exercise such as running can result in red blood cell destruction from striking the foot on the ground, this together with iron loss through sweat and sometimes gastro-intestinal bleeding increases the body’s iron requirement. It would be rise for runners (both vegan and non-vegan) to aim for an iron intake greater than the RNI and RDA, particularly female runners who are at increased risk of compromised iron status due to heightened iron losses through menstruation. The iron requirements for endurance runners might be 30 – 70 % higher than for non-athletes.
The body is able to regulate iron absorption in response to iron stores and the concentration of haemoglobin in the blood, there is therefore no danger of iron toxicity from over consumption of food sources of iron.
Click the table to download the iron plan.
Avoid drinks containing tannic acid at meal times
Polyphenols, which include tannic acid, found in coffee, cocoa, and black, green and many herbal teas can inhibit iron absorption. Avoid these foods at meals if you are trying to increase iron absorption.
Combine iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods
Iron-rich foods should be consumed with fruit and vegetables, enhancing iron absorption due to the presence of higher levels of vitamin C.
Combine foods high in Phytates with vitamin C rich foods
Phytates found in legumes and grains can inhibit the absorption of iron however this can be overcome by a higher consumption of vitamin C which is a strong enhancer of iron absorption.
Have ferritin & haemoglobin stores checked
If you have concerns about fatigue, poor recovery and an unexplained drop in performance, you should ask your doctor to run a blood test for ferritin and haemoglobin.
Check your dietary intake of iron
Focus on increasing total dietary intake of iron and improving bioavailability by changing food combinations.
Don’t take iron supplements unnecessarily
Although the body can regulate iron levels by controlling absorption there is always the danger that over consumption of large amounts of iron supplements could result in iron overload and toxicity destroying cells and tissues.
WHAT ABOUT CALCIUM?
Although dairy is considered to be the main source of calcium numerous plant foods are also rich in calcium. However, the bioavailability of calcium in plant foods varies, so to meet recommendations attention has to be paid to not only the amount of calcium in the diet but also foods high in absorbable calcium.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body amounting to up to 2% of body weight. In addition to its important role in maintaining bone health and strength it is involved in the activity of many enzymes. The contraction of muscles, release of neurotransmitters, regulation of heart beat and blood clotting all depend on calcium. It is also needed to activate the enzyme lipase which breaks down fat stores to produce energy. The body keeps calcium levels balanced by taking the mineral from the bones and teeth. It is therefore difficult to know when calcium levels are being depleted. Symptoms of long term calcium deficiency can include muscle aches, brittle nails, memory loss, dry skin, fatigue and easy fracturing of bones.
How Much Calcium?
The USA RDA for calcium is 1,000 mg for adults up to 50 years old, and 1,200 for adults over 51 and older. The UK’s Reference Nutrient Intake is 700 mg.
Calcium Recommendations For The Vegan Runner
All the roles that calcium plays to maintain bone, heart and muscle health, are important for endurance runners and ensuring an adequate supply of calcium plays an important part in maximising performance.
Click the table to download the calcium plan.
Don’t forget vitamin D
Vitamin D assists with calcium absorption, ensure you meet the recommend intake through exposure to sunlight, supplements or fortified foods.
Consider including calcium fortified non-dairy milks in your diet
Average amount of calcium in non-dairy milks is 120 mg per 100 ml.
Be aware of foods high in oxalate
Oxalates are found in most plant foods, with spinach, rhubarb, chocolate and almonds among some of the foods containing concentrated amounts. Oxalates can interfere with calcium absorption.
Be aware of phytates
Phytates found in nuts, seeds, grains and pules bind minerals in the digestive tract reducing the bio-availability of calcium in those foods. Sprouting pluses and grains reduces the phytates as enzymes break them down to provide energy for the seeds.
THE VEGAN DIET CAN PROVIDE ALL THE NUTRIENTS NEEDED TO ACHIEVE YOUR RUNNING POTENTIAL
The achievements of professional ultra runners and others athletes are proving that a plant-based diet can deliver all the micro and macro nutrients needed not just to attain good health but also to excel in sport. Giving more thought to what we eat and being aware of its impact on our health and performance will help us attain our running goals.