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Athletes Can Meet Their Nutrient Needs on Plant-Based Diet

Sharon Palmer

More and more athletes are turning to plant-based diets to fuel their sports performance, and now new research shows that they can indeed meet their nutritional needs on a plant-based diet (vegetarian and vegan diets) with targeted supplements.

Findings from a recent sports nutrition study suggest that vegetarian and vegan diets that include supplements can meet an athlete’s daily nutritional requirements. Writing in the journal Nutrients, German scientists suggested a supplement regimen of vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron as adequate for runners who follow a vegetarian and vegan diet.

“In our study, all vitamin B12 biomarkers showed an adequate to optimal supply when compared to reference values. The findings were independent of the respective dietary group but dependent on supplementation. Therefore, recreational athletes adopting a vegan diet should be encouraged to take dietary vitamin B12 supplements,” reported the study authors.

In the study, researchers compared the micronutrient status of 81 omnivorous, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and vegan recreational runners, and took note of biomarker levels of vitamin B12, folate, vitamin D, and iron. When the results were calculated, researchers found that: 80% of each group had vitamin B12 adequacy (with higher levels found in supplement users); folate levels exceeded the normal range in all groups; vitamin D levels also exceeded normal ranges; and less than 30% of each group had depleted iron stores (but iron deficiency anemia wasn’t found in any subject). Overall, these findings suggest that a well-planned, health-conscious lacto-ovo-vegetarian and vegan diet, including supplements, can meet the athlete’s requirements of vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron.

The benefits of a plant-based nutritional approach for athletes is a hot topic in sports medicine, with debate about whether this diet can provide all the required nutrients in adequate amounts. Several nutrition societies in the past have said a well-planned vegetarian dietary pattern, including a wide range of plant foods, can be adequate for athletes. A number of professional athletes from various disciplines are on record describing the shift to a plant-based diet to improving sports performance or prolonging careers. There has been concern in the past that limiting animal products in the diet increases the risk of certain micronutrient deficiencies, such as B12, zinc, iron, vitamin D, and calcium. But it has become more evident that a well-planned plant-based diet with supplementation of B12, vitamin D, and iron can meet these needs for athletes.

Based on a research review originally appearing at Food Navigator. Learn more about the study here. Micronutrient Status of Recreational Runners with Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian Dietary Patterns. Nutrients. 2019:11(5);1146.

Read more research about healthy plant-based diets here:

Climate Friendly Diets are Healthier
The Vegetarian Diet and Mediterranean Diet are Both Hearth Healthy
Fight Hypertension with Plant-Based Lifestyle

Image: Zucchini Oat Veggie Patties, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

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