It can be challenging to be a competitive athlete as a vegan. For starters, all athletes have higher-than-average protein and caloric needs. To make matters worse, it can be challenging for vegans to get enough protein in their diet, since abstaining from meat and dairy is essential. A vegan athlete’s diet needs to include a variety of vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds to maintain sufficient protein levels.
One essential nutrient that’s missing from the vegan diet is Vitamin B-12, or cobalamin. Since this vitamin is exclusively found in animal foods, supplementing is the only solution for vegans. Read on to learn why vegan athletes—and vegans in general—need to keep vitamin intake in mind to support overall health and wellness.
What does B-12 do?
Vitamin B-12 is a critical vitamin that your body needs but can’t produce. It plays many roles in your key physiological processes, supporting nerve cell function, promoting red blood cell formation and contributing to DNA synthesis. Athletes in particular turn to B-12 to boost energy and support healthy bones. It also aids in metabolism of carbohydrates and protein, helping you build muscle and use carbs as the energy source they’re intended to be.
The average adult needs 2.4mcg of VitaminB-12 each day. If you’re B-12 deficient, you’ll likely feel weak and tired on a regular basis. Even worse, long-term B-12 deficiency can lead to irreversible neurological damage and increased risk of heart disease. For vegans who can’t get any of this important nutrient through natural food sources alone, supplementing is essential.
How can vegans get enough VitaminB-12?
Since a vegan athlete’s diet contains no sources of B-12 by default, consuming fortified foods, supplementing and taking injections are the only answers. There are many B-12 fortified foods that conform to a vegan diet, including meat substitutes, fortified non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast.
Most vegans find it’s more convenient and more effective to take a dietary supplement, particularly a B-complex vitamin that’s formulated with activated forms of folate to improve absorption and bioavailability. While B-12 injections are an additional option, they’re often not the most convenient or the most cost-effective—it’s simply easier and more affordable to supplement.
What other essential nutrients do vegans need to be aware of?
Vitamin B-12 isn’t the only nutrient that you may need to supplement with while following a vegan diet. A whole-food, plant-based diet simply doesn’t provide your body with the adequate number of vitamins and minerals it needs to support critical processes. A few of the other nutrients vegans need to be aware of include:
- Vitamin D: While the most significant source of Vitamin D is sunshine, it can be difficult for anyone, vegan or not, to maintain healthy Vitamin D levels, especially if you work indoors. Unfortunately, there are very few foods that contain Vitamin D, and nearly all of them are animal products. Vegans should consider supplementing or eating more Vitamin D-fortified foods to meet daily requirements.
- Omega-3s: If you’re actively looking to boost your performance as a vegan athlete, make sure you’re getting a healthy dose of Omega-3s. They fight inflammation, helping your body recover after even the most grueling workouts. Vegans should supplement long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids, which include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Since these nutrients come from animal products like fatty fish and fish oil, supplementing is essential when you’re following an animal-free diet.
- Iron: Iron is essential for energy metabolism, carrying oxygen to every cell in the body and helping you feel energized and alert. Iron is particularly important for athletes, providing muscles with the oxygen they need to work efficiently and burn off excess fat. Since the richest sources of iron are from lean meats, it can be a challenge for vegans to maintain adequate levels of the nutrient. Beans, cruciferous vegetables, nuts and iron-fortified foods can boost your iron intake, but supplementing is also an option.
From B-12 to iron, vegans need to supplement
Following a vegan diet can be a challenge in and of itself, but even more so if you’re an athlete looking to push your performance while enjoying optimum health. A vegan athlete’s diet needs to account for the nutrients that are only readily available in animal products. While eating fortified foods can account for specific deficiencies, it’s usually easier and more convenient to supplement. Talk to your doctor to determine whether supplementing is right for you and discuss your options before beginning a new supplement program.