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vegan diet salad

Can being vegan help or hurt your performance? What does science say about a vegan diet?

Listen to Dr. Neal narrate this post on Episode 010 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

Vegan Vs. Vegetarian

I’ll start by talking about the differences between a vegan and vegetarian because in my experience, many are confused by this concept.

Following a vegan diet means you don’t eat any foods that came from an animal. This means that across the board, vegans will avoid meat, poultry (chicken and turkey), eggs, fish, cheese, yogurt, and milk. Why? All of these came from an animal. But, there are different degrees of veganism – for example, some will avoid eating honey because that comes from bees, which are part of the animal kingdom. Others may avoid refined sugar. You’re probably thinking… wait, what? Why sugar? Sugar does come from a plant – sugar cane. But the way it is processed, to give it that white color and perfect texture, is by using animal bones. Surprising, I know!

Other folks won’t purchase any products that contain animal products or have been tested on animals. So, it’s common for a vegan to avoid buying jackets, purses, and shoes made of leather or fur since these are made from animal hides.

Vegetarians, on the other hand, don’t eat any animal flesh. Usually, vegetarians won’t eat meat, chicken, turkey, and fish because these are all forms of animal flesh. But some may still eat eggs. Others may avoid eggs, but still eat yogurt or drink milk; so there are different types of vegetarians.

Research on Plant-Based Diets

As for research and science, we’re finding that those that follow a well-planned vegan diet tend to be quite healthy and have a high quality of life. There are 2 important points that I need to make here, though. The first is that while those that follow a vegan diet tend to be in good health, we don’t know if that’s because of their diet or because vegans also tend to follow healthy lifestyles in general. For example, in general, vegans are usually pretty active. You also don’t see a lot of overweight or obese vegans. We know that obesity (or being overweight) often leads to other more serious problems like heart disease, some forms of cancer, arthritis, and so on.

But, we also know from lots and lots of studies that following a plant-based diet can prevent a number of diseases. The catch here is that if you were to follow a vegan diet, it must be well-planned.

You can eat all plant-based foods but still have a poor diet. You could have vegan pasta for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it doesn’t mean you’re consuming a balanced diet. You can still be missing important vitamins, minerals, protein, and essential fats. I would want to be sure your diet is well balanced with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and if you're very active, protein.

Common Deficiencies with a Vegan Diet

The most common deficiencies we see in those following a vegan diet are vitamins B12, D, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium. Why? Because for many of us, we get these nutrients from animal products.

What I would recommend:

  1.  Consider taking a multivitamin every day. This will likely cover your iron, vitamin D, and calcium needs.
  2. Find a quality vitamin B-12 supplement.
    The most active form of B12 comes from animal products. You may have heard that some sea vegetables like algae contains B12. This is true, but it’s not a form that the body can use so you need to supplement this. A sublingual form of vitamin B12 is fine. For those that don’t know, this form of B-12 is one you can buy over the counter—they’re just small tablets you place under your tongue. The other way to be sure you’re getting enough B12 is to receive injections from your healthcare provider every so often.
  3. Find a quality omega-3 fatty acids supplement.

Finding a quality supplement is important here. There’s no need to buy a mega-dose version but try and find one that says it’s “enteric coated” and contains both EPA and DHA–these are types of omega-3 fatty acids. You can also find omega-3 fats in sea vegetables so if you consume seaweed or algae on a regular basis, you may not need this supplement.

I keep mentioning finding a “quality” supplement. This could be a whole other post, but for now, a really easy trick is to look for one or both of these symbols on the outside of the supplement bottles: USP or NSF. These symbols means the product has been tested for quality – that way you can feel confident that you are taking something that is relatively free of impurities.

usp-logo nsf-logo

Now, can you follow a vegan diet and still be able to achieve gains in athletic performance? There haven’t been many studies on this topic but it appears that following a vegan diet will not hurt your performance. One study even found a vegan athlete outperformed others during Triple IronMan competition!

But, remember, a well-planned balanced diet with supplementation is best!

Check out my other blog post, What Should My Macronutrient Goals be on a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet? which follows up on this topic.

Listen to Dr. Neal's thoughts on macros on a vegan or vegetarian diet on Episode 900 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") has a Doctorate in Public Health with emphases in disease prevention and nutrition. He is also a Registered Dietitian and Certified Health Education Specialist. He is currently an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Dr. Neal has published peer-reviewed scientific research and been featured as a nutrition and wellness expert in over 70 media outlets including Parade and The L.A. Times. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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