Best Vegan Supplements for Athletes
Maintaining a balanced diet can be difficult for vegan athletes. Where non-vegan athletes depend on animal products for an abundance of easily absorbed protein, vitamins and minerals, vegans need a more resourceful approach to amassing nutritional quotas for an active lifestyle. Experts agree – it’s possible for athletes to maintain proper nutrition without animal products. But is it realistic? And if yes, how ? The answer lies in the best vegan supplements for athletes.
“Anyone can be a healthy, high-performing athlete on a vegan diet,” says Shannon O’Grady, dietitian with a doctorate. in Nutritional Physiology and Chief Product Officer at Gnarly Nutrition, an all-natural supplement brand committed to full product transparency. “You just have to be a little more mindful of your intake,” she adds.
There are a few important factors vegan athletes should keep in mind when adopting a plant-based diet. And there are a few places where adding supplements can make a huge difference. Here, O’Grady outlines the fundamental challenges of a vegan diet for athletes, as well as some techniques, choices, and brands that help vegans overcome them. — as told to Michael Misselwitz
The Challenges of a Vegan Diet
Vegetable proteins: One of the toughest hurdles to a healthy vegan diet is getting enough protein. Plant matter generally offers less protein than animal matter. In addition, the human body does not assimilate the same amount of vegetable protein as animal protein. Although products containing soy and pea protein offer great nutritional value, our bodies do not absorb all the amino acids they contain.
Amino acids: Another difference between plant and animal protein is the total level of essential amino acids available, as well as leucine or branched chain amino acids. Ultimately, plant proteins generally have lower levels. Soy and pea protein come closest to having the same amount of amino acids as animal protein, but you definitely see lower levels of leucine.
The solution in both cases is to eat more plant-based protein, but since plants take up a lot of the bulk on our plate and have a higher fiber content, it can be difficult to eat everything we need in meals. For this reason, supplements can be very helpful, especially for athletes who need lots of protein in their diet.
Vitamin B12 and Iron: These two nutrients are also much less abundant in herbal products. There is also an absorption problem with plant-based sources of iron, so it can be very difficult to get the amount the body needs to function healthily.
Essential fatty acids: The human body needs omega-3s (i.e. essential fatty acids), most of which are found in foods of animal origin. You can get plenty of fatty acids, like linoleic acid, from flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, but the body’s ability to convert them from eating plants into usable omega-3s, like EPA and DHA, is quite low. You would have to consume a ridiculous amount of flax or chia seeds to get the equivalent amount of animal products recommended in our diet. Taking a plant-based DHA supplement, which usually comes from products containing seaweed, can be a great boost for vegans.
Creatine: Although not a necessary supplement for vegans, creatine can make a big difference. The human body generally relies on animal matter to obtain its creatine. We can synthesize creatine from other amino acids, so vegans can get some that way, but their natural stores of creatine are usually relatively low. Vegan supplements containing creatine can give a substantial boost to certain performance metrics, like one-repetition maximums or maximum lift in a given time frame. These jumps can be up to 20% and can sometimes even exceed what people get from consuming animal products.
Trustworthy supplements for vegans
Plant matter provides many nutrients, even more than animal matter in many cases. For areas where plants are lacking, there are supplements that can make up the difference. With the right supplements, you can even surpass a standard American diet in many aspects of nutrition. Of course, not all vegan supplements are created equal, so it’s a matter of researching, reading, and analyzing every label to make sure you’re getting what you need.
A great guarantee for finding a quality product is NSF certification – a third-party testing group with a toxicology team that reviews products for safety. The NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) tests products for individual ingredients to ensure that, per serving, you are actually getting the amount claimed on the label. They also test for micro heavy metals and perform full pesticide screening.
Here are the vegan supplements that O’Grady gives the green light.
With the exception of whey protein and collagen supplements, all Gnarly products are vegan. Our goal is to remove barriers to achieving healthy eating for as many people as possible. For this reason, we do not include gluten or soy, as soy is a major allergen and gluten causes many digestive issues.
Gnarly uses all-natural ingredients, and we list ingredients and amounts on every label, ensuring you know exactly what you’re getting. A selection of Gnarly products are NSF-certified, and one day all products will be NSF-certified for sport (meaning every product will be tested for all 300 ingredients on the World Health Agency’s Prohibited Substances List anti-doping). This is crucial for professional athletes, but also for consumers who do not want their product to be contaminated.
Gnarly has everything from protein (both vegan and non-vegan) to greens and pre-workout, plus a daily streak meant to help with basic health rather than heavy workouts. These are more subtle, but really affect your performance as an athlete and how you feel in general. Things like vitamin D, iron, B12 and folate mix, and magnesium glycinate are all important nutrients that help athletes stay healthy.
I’ve been a fan of Naked for a while. I like that they use minimal ingredients and only include what you need. They are open about what is in their products. For example, they list the amino acid content per serving on their protein powders.
Naked tries to create a wide range of products for everyone, offering vegan and non-vegan, sweet and unsweetened. These days you see a lot of companies standing on nutritional bandstands, and it’s good to see a company trying to make healthy products available to everyone.
Naked Shake is a great option for vegan protein powder. An athlete needs a dose of protein with at least 1.75 grams of leucine, although 2.5 grams is the amount your body needs to really kick-start muscle protein synthesis. Naked Shake is in this range, so it is an appropriate protein for athletes. It contains a little fat, which is good for recovery. It contains fewer carbohydrates, which is fine for most people. But if you’re an endurance athlete using it for recovery, you’ll want to supplement your carb intake. For more strength training, where carbohydrate usage may not be as high, Naked Shake is adequate. You want at least 20 grams of protein in a serving, and that’s exactly what you need.
The NutraChamps product line offers a wide range of supplements, both vegan and non-vegan, and seems to prioritize transparent labeling, minimal fillers, and clean formulas. Many of their products are organic and exclude common allergens like soy and gluten. I also really like that on their website they explain to the consumer the ingredient/supplement label, explaining the purpose of each nutrient and how/why it was included. They are also a good source of less available natural supplements like Rhodiola, Biotin, or Korean Panex Ginseng.
Something to note about “green” powders
Probably 95% of green powder supplements on the market are made with “mixtures,” such as “antioxidant blend” or “greens blend.” Yes, these include a long list of ingredients, but no indication of the actual amount of each one. If a company doesn’t list the activities in a “mixture,” they don’t have to test those activities, which is a way to circumvent FDA regulations for testing label claims. Products that use this technique on their label could have adequate amounts of these ingredients, but if so, wouldn’t they want to show it on the label? Without it, as a consumer, I have no idea how much of any of these given ingredients is actually in the product. This is something to be aware of with this product category. Look for companies that transparently include the amount of each ingredient in the product. One such company is Athletic Greens.
Athletic Greens AG1
One scoop of AG1 provides 75 vitamins, minerals and food-derived ingredients to aid digestion, gut health, nervous system support, immunity, energy production, healthy aging and support hormonal and neural. It’s vegan friendly and ensures you get the nutrition you need to feel and perform at your best.
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