Complete Vegan Fitness Diet Guide [For Health & Performance]
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We’ve already briefly discussed veganism, with our most recent piece discussing the biggest challenges to the health and fitness of vegans.
This piece only scratched the surface, so we’ve put this complete vegan fitness diet guide together. It will provide you with all the expertise and guidance you need to make the most of a plant-based diet.
Strap yourselves in, this is long but well worth your time…
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Veganism and plant-based diets are becoming more and more popular by the day. They’re gaining serious traction with the new generation of sustainable-living, pro-health, environmentally conscious people.
Veganism in particular has never been so popular because this social media generation are more aware of what they’re putting into their bodies. They want to make the most of their diet, health and wellbeing.
It’s not just about being trendy: it’s a matter of putting the health of your body and the planet first. With this kind of social trend, we’re here to provide guidance on how to do a vegan diet better to improve your health and longevity, but also teaching you how to eat for your goals.
While switching to a vegan diet is a step in the right direction, you can still be unhealthy if you do it wrong. We see so many well-meaning vegans that need to tweak their diet to gain the maximum benefits of healthy, plant-based living.
Who’s This Complete Vegan Fitness Diet Guide For?
We put this Vegan Fitness Diet Guide together to help anyone that wants to improve their health, physique, fitness and performance. But also to boost their productivity and brain power.
Everyone has their own goals, but there are benefits to a plant-based diet for anyone – and we’re going to take you through the key ones!
If you’re looking to make the change to a plant-based diet, or you’re already on an unhealthy vegan diet (yes – it’s possible!) then this guide is for you.
We’re only aiming to improve lives, shred down, get stronger, lift more, move better and stay healthier and happier for longer. The rest is up to you!
What’s This Vegan Fitness Diet Guide For?
We’ve seen a whole load of discussion on veganism and swearing off animal products, but we like to look at it a bit differently at CleanLeanMachine.com.
A vegan or plant-based diet is all about celebrating the amazing benefits of plant foods, not just demonizing meat-eaters or a scientific diet.
This guide, then, is a celebration of plant foods. Including what they can do for you, and how to live the best vegan diet possible, especially if your goals are for maximum fitness performance.
We’re going to discuss everything from combating deficiency to maximizing your abilities in sports, fitness and performance (both mental and physical)!
The best thing you can do for your diet is empower yourself through education. If you know how nutrition works, you’re in control of your body and performance. This is an amazing way to take control of your life, boost your brain power and achieve the best shape of your life!
The education system sucks at teaching you how to eat and control your body. That’s why we’re stepping in to be your nutrition-superhero in this vegan fitness diet guide. We will provide you with all the tools you need to cut through the diet-industry BS and succeed with the basics!
Benefits of a Vegan Diet
This is the big question: why should you switch anyway?
What benefits can you experience from a plant-based diet? There’s no point switching to a diet unless its going to improve your life in some way. We’re going to run you through the key differences and how you can capitalize on a vegan diet.
1. Reduced Allergens
If you experience severe allergies to certain animal products, we’re guessing you already avoid them for your health.
However, it’s worth noting that half of the most common allergies and intolerances are animal products – seafood and shellfish lead the way. Milk and eggs are also common digestive-system culprits.
While these aren’t bad for you, they’re common allergies and many people experience improved immune system responses and digestive health when they’re removed from the diet.
Food intolerances often go undiscovered while causing havoc. Removing them from your diet can cause positive health benefits totally by surprise!
If you suspect that you have any food allergies or intolerances, we strongly recommend a consultation with a registered dietitian. Many people experience greater perceptions of health and wellbeing, as well as digestive health and energy, after making the switch to a plant-based diet.
2. Is Reduced Meat Intake a Benefit?
There’s been a lot of discussion on the relation of animal products to a number of health problems. The headlines have been exaggerated to gain attention, but there are some real scientific benefits to reducing your meat intake.
We Eat Too Much Meat
To start with, its important to note that most people eat too much meat. The average diet provides too much protein and saturated fat for the average lifestyle!
If you’re eating meat with most meals but you’re not exercising intensely, for prolonged periods of time, you’re probably over-doing the animal products.
The high quantities of protein in animal products is one of the main reasons that they’re a key part of many diets. This is especially among bodybuilders and other physique enthusiasts. But for the average person, this much animal protein is unnecessary.
Your food has to match your activity levels and the current trend of eating meat 2-3 times a day has been linked to negative health consequences in the whole population.
Dairy is Hit and Miss
Dairy products – both milk and eggs – can be a real problem for many people. Lactose intolerance is one of the most common problems and many cultures are entirely intolerant due to the lack of dairy in their diet.
Lactose intolerance is relatively normal – humans can consume dairy healthily if they’re able to handle the digestive effects. This is something that depends heavily on exposure during pregnancy and during early childhood.
Dairy is a common food group on the European content and North America, but has a much smaller role in the diet of different cultures.
Eastern Asian diets, for example, tend to be lower in animal milks, resulting in a much greater rate of lactose intolerance. A vegan diet doesn’t have any problem with this and removes/replaces dairy entirely.
For many, dairy products are only going to be a source of pain, bloating and awkward toilet trips!
Reducing Saturated Fats
We discussed this briefly above, but it’s worth talking about at length.
Saturated fats are the kind found in most animal products and they’re the kind that you need to watch out for.
Saturated fats have gained a lot of negative press over the past few decades. They have been blamed for everything from obesity to heart disease.
Despite this, they’re not that bad for you if they’re consumed in the right quantities. The problem with the average omnivore’s diet, however, is that saturated fats are way too abundant.
Excessive saturated fat consumption does have negative effects on the heart, if not the waistline. This over-eating of saturated fats contributes to a poor cholesterol profile, while more unsaturated fats can solve this problem and improve heart health.
A plant based diet has a greater balance of these two factors, making it a much better choice for most people.
Less Processed Food
If you’re switching from an ‘average’ diet to a vegan diet, the first thing you’re going to need to do is stock up on foods that fit your new diet.
The first thing you’re going to notice is that a vegan diet relies (or should rely) more heavily on healthy produce – less processed foods and more plants!
As you may have expected from our vegan fitness diet guide, eliminating processed meats are the best part of this change. While rumors about meat causing cancer have been popular, the processed meats like hot dogs are the real carcinogenic culprits.
These junk meats contribute to colo-rectal cancer risk – whereas plant foods have been shown to reduce this risk and improve your overall cancer risk profile!
Processed foods are generally worth avoiding where possible too. They tend to provide less nutrients and have more calories.
There are obviously some great processed foods and the context of the whole diet comes first. However, dietary quality refers to the nutrient-density of foods and less-processed usually means better quality.
You should be utilizing foods that fit your goals. We’re not here to criticize all processed foods in all contexts.
However, the less junk processed foods you’re consuming and the more fresh produce in your diet, the better your health and wellbeing are likely to be.
The science on the issue has been clear. Optimum health comes from a mixture of balanced calories/macronutrients and high-quality, low-processed foods.
A vegan diet is a great choice.
Unless you’re living on sugar and sorbet, you’re going to have a much better dietary quality than the average diet!
More Plant Foods
This is similar to the previous point, but it’s the main benefit to any vegan diet.
You don’t suddenly become healthier by not eating animal products. It’s all about what you replace them with and how that makes positive impact. The best way to fix your diet and improve your health is to replace something unhealthy with something healthy.
You’re not just putting down your cheeseburger, but you’re replacing it with nutrient-dense, calorie-sparse food.
Plant foods should be the cornerstone of any diet. They provide huge amounts of key nutrients with fewer calories than their animal counterparts in most cases. There are plenty of reasons that plant foods are going to improve your diet:
- Fewer calories than animal products
- High fiber content
- Outstanding carbohydrate quality
- Wide variety of nutrients
- Great fat profiles
- Phytonutrient content
- Antioxidant profile
We’re going to discuss each of these individually. For now its just enough to note that there are fantastic benefits to plant-foods in the first place and that everyone should focus on adding more to their diet.
Plant food benefits:
Plants are the best foods for your overall wellbeing. A vegan diet is all about harnessing the power of these foods to improve your life and diet, by:
- helping the digestive system
- regulating metabolism
- combating cancer risk
- reducing aging
- improving mental power
- reducing hunger
- combating obesity
We’re not going to discuss the ethical or environmental implications of veganism in this vegan fitness diet guide.
It’s a huge subject and this isn’t the place to discuss it! However, for many vegans there are important moral reasons for eating a plant-based diet:
- Reduced animal suffering
- Less land-usage
- Lower pollution
- Demands less water
These are up to you to consider but a vegan diet can seriously benefit you and the planet. Everyone has their own reasons to make the switch and health is the one we’re going to focus on in this guide. Still, the politics and morality of a vegan diet have their own great benefits.
Basics of Nutrition for a Vegan Diet
This section is all about providing you with the information you need to make sure that your diet is up to scratch.
It’s basic information but, over the next chapter we’re going to cover absolutely everything you need to know to put together a diet for any purpose. Whether you’re looking to gain muscle, burn fat or simply improve your health on a vegan diet, we have it covered.
This nutritional knowledge can serve you a whole lifetime – it’s all about educating and empowering yourself. Many people don’t know the very basics of nutrition. Therefore, you’re going to be at a distinct advantage in your own goals by arming yourself with these facts and strategies.
We’re going to kick things off with a discussion of macronutrients – the 3 big nutrients that make up most of your foods. Micronutrients will follow, including a discussion of nutrient deficiency and how you can bust them before they affect you!
The star of nutrition, everyone has heard of protein.
Strangely enough, it’s more than just a powder in your local bodybuilder’s shake. It’s a key nutrient in your diet that does everything from building muscle to fixing your bust joints!
Protein is the name for a wide variety of different compounds made up of amino acids. Proteins are the main component of many tissues in your body from muscle to tendon and even skin.
They’re essential for your body to function properly. It’s no wonder that they’re so popular in nutrition science and physique training!
Proteins are key to recovering after a tough workout as they’re involved in repairing the muscles and tendons. These take a real beating if you’re performing any resistance training, gymnastics or even endurance work like running. Repairing these tissues is crucial to your long-term health and making progress.
Alongside these benefits, protein is a great macronutrient for dieting in general. While you don’t need as much as you probably thought, there are some huge benefits to a protein-rich diet.
It has the highest satiety of any of the macronutrients This means you’re going to experience less hunger, and it has a huge thermic effect.
The thermic effect of food (TEF) is simply how much energy it takes to digest and use nutrients.
Each gram of protein provides 4 calories of energy, but it takes around 0.8 calories to digest and use this protein. This makes protein a great choice for dieting as it improves your calorie balance and keeps calories low, while keeping you full!
“Where do you get your Protein from?”
Despite common misconceptions, vegans don’t struggle to get enough protein.
In fact, protein is one of the easiest nutrients to get enough of. Many plant foods contain high quantities of protein and the amount of protein you need has been largely exaggerated.
Unless you’re an elite athlete or you’re busting your ass in the gym 7 days a week, you’re not going to need to pay too much attention to your protein intake!
We discussed protein-completeness in our original article. It is basically the idea that vegans aren’t going to have all the necessary amino acids. This ‘problem’ is also easily fixed by eating a variety of plant foods.
By increasing the variety of protein sources in your diet, you ensure that you’re consuming the correct range of amino acids.
You don’t have to get them all at the same time since your body stores amino acids, not just proteins. Also, you can re-constitute them from other foods you’ve eaten! There are also many complete plant protein sources and supplements available.
You should aim to get around 35% of your calories from protein in a given day, with as many different sources as possible.
This provides plenty of raw materials for building muscle and repairing joints. As well as the hundreds of other roles proteins play in your body.
Protein timing is pretty important. You need to ensure that you’re getting protein with every meal and replenishing within a few hours after a tough workout. Focus on high-protein beans and pulses for the best results.
Carbs are where plant-based diets really shine.
For most of the population, the quality and quantity of carbohydrates in the diet is the big stumbling block. Carb quality is usually awful – most people eat far too much sugar, far too little fiber and the worst types of starch.
These are the 3 key types of carbohydrates that are found in the diet: sugar, starch and fiber.
These are in order of their absorption speed, with sugar being the fastest, starches being slower, and fiber being non-digestible. They are all important for your diet, but most people are totally out-of-whack with their carb consumption.
Sugars are necessary as fuel for exercise and should be consumed primarily before/during/straight after a workout.They absorb quickly and can be used to provide the muscles with fuel – quickly!
Starches are much slower digesting, with everything from potatoes to oats being under this group. They should make up the majority of your carb intake.
Fiber doesn’t digest, but it has a key role in regulating your digestive and metabolic health.
Diets with more fiber are better for your health as well as your waistline. Fiber is a key player in reducing the risk of diabetes and other common diseases. Plant foods are the only real source of dietary fiber.
Plant Carbs are the Best Carbs
These are great carbohydrates because they contain the best balances of carbohydrate sources.
When you look at any vegetable or other starchy plant-food you’re going to see an unparalleled balance of starches and fiber. All the best carb sources are plant-based:
- Beans, lentils, legumes and other pulses
- Oats and other wholegrains
- Potatoes, sweet potatoes and other tubers
- Blueberries and other fibrous fruits
These are so prized as carb sources because they contain plenty of slow-digesting starches and fiber, while many also provide diverse nutrient profiles. Beans aren’t just great for digestive health and “regularity” – they’re packed with B vitamins.
This is one of our favourite things about plant foods, and carbs in particular: they play more than one role in your diet/health. Beans are full of protein, starches, fiber and micronutrients – plant-foods rarely just do one thing! They have amazing overlapping benefits in different areas of diet, performance and wellbeing.
There are many myths surrounding carbs. They’ve been demonized in the past for being linked to insulin, diabetes and insulin problems.
We’re going to bust some myths:
- Carbs make you fat
Eating too many calories makes you fat. Refined carbs are just a really easy way to eat too much. Sugary foods are calorie-dense and easy to eat loads of. People who eat loads of carbs tend to be fat. But that’s because they’re eating loads of food in general – it’s not the carbs’ fault they’re eating like a hippo!
- Carbs give you diabetes
Diabetes is insulin resistance and carbs can play a role in developing diabetes.
However, diabetes is usually the result of over-eating in general and over-eating carbs in particular. If you’re eating in a calorie surplus, consuming way too much sugar, and not exercising you’re going to put yourself at risk of diabetes.
However, if you do exercise and eat in moderation, you’re not going to develop diabetes just because you had a sugary snack during your workout or after a meal. Moderation is fine and coconut sugar is delicious – just don’t be excessive.
- Carbs cause dementia
This one is really dumb. The literature suggests that a diet rich in healthy fats can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other, similar degenerative brain diseases. However, that doesn’t mean that carbs cause dementia or any other disease!
One of the causes speculated for Alzheimer’s disease is the loss of glucose-metabolism in your brain as you age.
Basically, your brain runs on carbs and as you get older it gets worse at using them but your fat use stays consistent. So, you’re going to do better if you eat healthy fats.
Carbohydrates are going to be around 45% of your diet and fresh, plant-based carbs are the best choice.
They’re going to be packed with more protein and nutrients than the regular, heavily-processed junk that fills the average diet.
Stick to complex carbs where possible – the ones that have been unrefined and contain more fiber/nutrients. Still, don’t be afraid to play with sugars.
They’re a key part of your diet and can be used to your advantage with a little bit of forward-planning. Eat sugars before/during/after a workout but keep the rest of your carbs starchy, fibrous and full of vitamins and minerals!
Dietary fats aren’t the same as bodyfat.
They’re the fatty compounds that are present in everything from coconut and avocado to butter and salmon.
Their name has been associated with bad outcomes for decades, but there are many extremely healthy dietary fats that can improve your diet drastically.
You do have to be careful when consuming fats. However: your body has a limit on how much it can absorb at once and they’re the most calorie-dense of any nutrient at a whopping 9 calories per gram consumed.
This is because fats are designed to store energy and it means that your overall intake needs to be a little lower to reduce the risk of over-eating and obesity.
There are two main types of fats in the diet that you need to pay attention to: saturated and unsaturated.
There are sub-groups, but these two are the main players. Saturated fats need to be limited in the diet as excess can cause health problems. Unsaturated fats are better for your heart health and are the best to include.
Fats’ main role in your diet is to promote hormonal and heart health. As well as improving vitamin absorption. Individual fatty acids also have their own specialized benefits – MCTs (the fats found in coconut oil) have a small positive effect on weight loss, for example.
The best, and most popular, form of fat that you’re going to need to focus on is the Omega-3 fatty acid group.
This group has benefits from joint health to preventing Alzheimer’s but your body can’t make it by itself so it needs to be in the diet. We’re going to discuss these at length, but they’re a great example of the benefits fats can have.
In a plant-based diet, you’re going to have a great balance of saturated to unsaturated fats. Getting some saturated fats will be key. There are great sources such as coconut oil, which has great MCT content and is the healthiest type of unrefined saturated fat.
However, most plant-based fats have great quantities of unsaturated fat – such as olive oil and avocado. These fats are going to reduce your risk of heart disease, improve cholesterol, improve metabolism and boost your absorption of key vitamins!
They come with their own set of dietary myths for the busting, and we’re on-hand to do exactly that.
Let’s bust some more myths:
- Fats Clog Your Arteries
Fats do not clog your arteries or end up in your heart. They’re broken down when you eat them and then they’re used for different purposes in the body.
You’re going to cause your blood cholesterol problems if you’re eating too much (especially saturated) fat. But it’s a combination of over-eating and excess: fats don’t cause your health problems by themselves.
- Cholesterols are Bad for You
As mentioned above, dietary fats aren’t the same as the fats in your body. They’re digested and re-purposed. The cholesterol in your diet has very little to do with the cholesterols in your bloodstream.
Research actually shows that eating healthy fats helps to reduce blood cholesterol. This means that you’re actually going to have healthier blood and heart profiles if you focus on getting high-quality, unsaturated fats into your diet.
Fats are calorie-dense so you need to pay a little attention to how much you’re consuming. They can easily drive over-eating and caloric excess, which will mean weight gained (though they’re great for muscle mass, if you’re looking to build a caloric surplus!).
Fats should make up approximately 20-25% of your diet by calories. These should come from healthy, primarily-unsaturated sources. Saturated fats are important for hormonal health, too.
They’re found in most fat sources and should be kept slightly lower as they’re not as healthy as their unsaturated cousins.
There are many fantastic plant sources for these health fats, but some of our favourites include:
- Coconut oil
- Olives and olive oil
- Walnuts and other nuts
- Sunflower seeds and other seeds
As we mentioned in the carb sections, plant foods rarely just do one thing and all of these foods are rich in other key nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Micronutrients: Vitamins and Minerals for Diet Quality
A good vegan diet isn’t just a vegan diet: it’s a plant-based diet. As mentioned above, it’s totally possible to be a vegan and still have awful health!
Remember: oreos and coconut milk are both vegan in certain places. But they’re also a great way to get fat, diabetic and sedentary if you eat too much.
The approach to a good vegan diet isn’t cutting out or replacing animal products – it’s about making the best of the amazing plant ingredients available to you.
This means hitting your local produce section hard: a healthy vegan diet is 90% plants – legumes, wholegrains, fruit and veggies.
These are the cornerstones of a healthy diet because they’re so high in vitamins and minerals. These are called micronutrients and they’re the components of healthy food that make them so healthy.
They do everything from supporting organ health to battling cancer and aging. On the other hand, deficiency in any of these compounds is a really bad idea – it leads to serious health problems.
This is a term we’ve used a few times in this vegan fitness diet guide and we should probably explain it!
Nutrient-density is a general factor of how many nutrients a given calorie-amount of food has relative to other foods.
For example, kale is extremely nutrient-dense because it contains almost no calories but tons (not literal tons) of vitamins and minerals, while ice cream is the exact opposite.
Nutrient density is an important benefit to eating more plant foods.
They tend to be packed with high-quality nutrients that are essential for satiety, health and effective performance. This is key when you’re dieting down, especially, as you’re going to have fewer calories every day but the same nutrient needs.
This is why we recommend wholefoods. They’re denser than their processed counterparts. Also, they provide a wide variety of nutritional benefits and all within the original nutritional framework.
This one isn’t discussed much, but the nutritional matrix (or simply the combination and organisation of nutrients) in wholefoods is better for absorption than ‘food products’ that have been reconstituted and plugged with synthetic chemicals.
There’s nothing wrong with most processed foods, they’re just simply going to be higher-calorie and lower-nutrition than their wholefood counterparts.
Nutrient variety is crucial to your overall diet. No matter how nutrient-dense your foods are, you still require a sufficient amount of variety to ensure that you’re keeping all of your organs and functions healthy.
Kale is great for you, but even if you eat a kilogram of the stuff, you’re going to be missing key nutrients because they’re simply not in that particular food.
You need to have variety in your diet, even if you’re focusing on whole plant-foods, or you’re going to find yourself deficient in key chemicals.
Practical Advice: A Simple Approach to Micronutrients
There are a wide variety of different micronutrients and you’re going to need a quick way to approach them so that you can live your life without doing microgram-math!
The best approach to vitamins and minerals is to stock your diet with a wide variety of whole plant-foods. Preferably that have different food groups, colors and textures.
This sounds simplistic, but it’s an amazing way to make sure that you’re covering the main pigment-vitamins like vitamin A (found in red and orange foods).
The rainbow diet was based on this and, while it isn’t a complete diet, it is a good way of approaching your nutrition.
Additionally, if you’re aiming to lose weight, you’re going to need to prioritize your fibrous, nutrient-dense vegetables when designing your meals. Scrap 5-a-day and make sure that each meal contains at least 2 nutrient-dense plant foods.
However, you’re going to run into the problem of deficiencies no matter what you do. Vegan diets are subject to a few common deficiencies.
These deficiencies are no different from those found in an average omnivore’s diet. However, they do require a little more attention as there are many food groups that are excluded from the diet because, obviously, they’re animal products!
Deficiency is the first place to start with micronutrients. It’s what happens when you’re already missing the bare minimum of a nutrient.
This is what deficiency is: being below the minimum healthy level.
However, being non-deficient isn’t the same as having OPTIMAL levels of a nutrient so its important to remember that they’re just a starting point.
Being deficient in anything is a sign that your diet isn’t working. In the next section of our Vegan fitness diet guide we are going to take you through the most difficult, challenging deficiencies that vegans are at-risk of and how you can combat them.
This is going to mean you’re getting the most out of your diet, embracing the awesome power of plant foods and maximizing your health/fitness.
We’ve covered vitamin D a whole bunch, but that’s because you’re probably already deficient in this key vitamin.
It’s going to mean reduced testosterone levels, increased risk of degenerative brain disease and an overall reduction in strength, recovery and fitness.
You can get some vitamin D from the sun, and there is some in plant milks, but they’re not going to give you the 2-4,000 iu you need.
There are no real dietary sources of vitamin D for vegans (most of them are seafood or dairy-based) so you’re going to need to supplement to reach optimum levels.
Deficiency is anything below 20 ng/ml, which can occur anywhere below 1000 iu/day depending on your bodyweight and composition.
You can reach this relatively easy, but you should be aiming at the range of 2000-4000 iu for achieving maximal results. You’re going to be totally healthy up to around 10,000 iu a day, but you’re not going to see any more benefits from this huge amount!
Vitamin D toxicity does exist. But, its not an easy one to cause and you would have to consume huge amounts to see any problems.
We recommend going with a high-density D2 or D3 supplement if you don’t want to suffer from soft bones, long-term osteoporosis or general musculo-skeletal weakness. It’s exactly as serious and unpleasant as it sounds!
You can boost the uptake and effectiveness of vitamin D with a whole bunch of different compounds.
If you’re supplementing this, you should aim to get plenty of potassium and calcium too. They increase the effectiveness of Vit D on bone health, keeping you healthier and stronger where it matters!
Magnesium is one of the most important compounds in the body because it simply does so much.
With over 300 reactions that play into energy metabolism, health and long-term wellbeing, it’s a key part of your diet. Sadly, magnesium deficiency is a big problem in the population – whether you are vegan or not.
Lucky for you, plant foods are a great source of magnesium and, with a little planning and effort, can provide you with all your magnesium needs.
Without enough magnesium, you’re going to struggle to efficiently extract energy from your food. Also, it is difficult to use it properly once its in your body.
This is going to be essential as you lose weight and begin to lean on mitochondrial efficiency.
Basically, you need magnesium to diet effectively, as well as making sure that you’re healthy when your diet starts working well!
The most important foods for magnesium content are:
- dark leafy greens
These should make up the basis for any vegan diet to begin with (because they’re nutrient-dense, versatile and taste awesome), but you can add to your diet to make sure that you’re getting enough.
Magnesium is also available in some amazing supplements – ZMA is the place to start. We love ZMA because it contains some of the most important nutrients in combination, as you’ll see when we discuss some of the other key compounds.
The M in ZMA stands for magnesium, which is why it’s got your attention now.
This is a problem because it’s mostly found in the meat of animals and a plant-based diet is pretty big on not eating that.
Iron is key for everything from blood health to the effective production of ATP – the fuel for muscles and organs to do stuff. If you’re not getting enough iron, you’re at long-term risk of problems such as anaemia, which genuinely kills people.
Eating enough iron as a vegan is about selectively choosing the right foods and making sure you’re getting enough of the compounds that increase iron uptake, absorption and effectiveness.
Fortunately, there are plenty of iron-rich plant foods if you know where to look and how to cook!
Some of our favorite iron-dense foods include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Turmeric (eat it whole – we dare you!)
- Cocoa beans and powder
- Cashews and other nuts
- Mung beans (huge protein source, too!)
You can also find many different types of iron supplements based on plant sources. These are good if you can find heme iron. This is the type of iron that many vegans are missing out on, which turmeric happens to be dense in.
You’ll find many vitamin and mineral supplements contain some of this. Still, higher-quality or vegan-specific multivitamins provide a complete supplement.
But as we mentioned in the 5 Challenges You Need to Overcome for Vegan Fitness article: if you’re not deficient in iron then you should be very careful – you can easily supplement too much iron – so you should consult a health professional first.
Iron is absorbed better when you have copper and manganese in your diet – these synergize with the best effects of iron and play a large role in blood health.
This means you’re going to experience much better effects, reduce deficiency without increasing iron intake, and bulletproof your blood.
You should also make sure to cook your wholegrains and pulses well, if you’re looking to improve your iron uptake.
Raw beans and wholegrains often contain phytates – anti-nutrients that block iron absorption. Luckily, these are destroyed when cooking so you’re not going to need to avoid these amazing food groups.
Zinc is the Z in ZMA and its one of the most important compounds for hormonal health – especially in men. It plays a key role in the regulation of testosterone and has over 100 active roles in the metabolism.
Missing out on zinc, as many plant-based diets do, is an easy way to cut your own progress short and damage your health.
Zinc, like iron, is found primarily in meat and seafood, so you’re going to need to put some effort into your zinc intake if you want the best results. A plant-based diet can easily meet optimal zinc levels with plenty of the following foods:
- Wholegrains (particularly wheat, spelt and oats)
- Cashew and other nuts
- Sunflower and pumpkin seeds
- Chickpeas and other pulses
- Shiitake mushrooms
These are common ingredients in some of the healthiest, tastiest plant-based meals and they play a key role in the way that your body functions. The benefits of plant foods extend into many different roles. Plant foods don’t just do one thing – they’re versatile.
Clearly, legumes, wholegrains, seeds and nuts are going to be key to many of the important vitamins and minerals that you need in your diet.
Consuming a wide variety of these basic foods is going to ensure you get plenty of protein, complex carbs and all the zinc and magnesium you need.
Folate, also known as folic acid, isn’t just for pregnant women.
It might have a wide host of benefits for building a child in your body, but it also helps with building your own body for maximal health and performance.
Also known as B9, folate is a key part of the B vitamin complex – it is key for energy metabolism, keeps your muscles healthy and can be used to combat anaemia and other blood conditions.
We’ve already mentioned the increased risk of anaemia in vegans. This means that it’s going to be a great accompaniment to iron and zinc.
Folate should never be deficient in vegans – its primarily found in dark green veg like broccoli, spinach and asparagus.
You can also find it in avocado, which has become pretty popular lately (in case you hadn’t noticed!). These foods should make up a key part of any plant-based diet. Being deficient in Folic acid is just embarrassing for a vegan!
You can find folic acid in many plant-based, multivitamin type supplements.
It’s a common compound for pregnant women, as mentioned above, so there is a large market for this compound. Many top-quality supplements for health and fitness also contain plenty of folate, so they make a great choice.
B12 is a real pain in the glutes to get into your diet.
It’s primarily derived from animal products (which themselves generally have to be injected with B12 by the farmers as neither plants nor animals produce B12 – it is made by bacteria and microbes which animals eat) and many common sources of B12 in plants are either impossibly low-volume or totally impossible to absorb!
B12 is a key player in the way that your metabolism works and you can’t avoid it. Many people, and many vegans in particular, are deficient in this compound.
Because of this, it’s going to give you a serious advantage to take it seriously and ensure that your diet isn’t missing anything!
One way of getting B12 into your body is as a shot. But, if you’d prefer something a little gentler, there are a few foods that provide B12 in a form your body can use – primarily fortified cereals and plant foods.
There are almost no wholefood sources of plant-based B12.
As this is an essential vitamin, you’re going to need to find it somewhere unless you enjoy a crap metabolism and awful health!
Vitamin B12 supplementation is the way to go for many vegans, but you’re going to have to be careful with supplements – anything derived from spirulina or similar algae-based compounds needs to satisfy two conditions:
- They have to be low in iodine (because this is an easy compound to accidentally poison yourself with), and…
- Your body needs to absorb them
These are hit and miss: many seaweed, algae or spirulina supplements can’t be absorbed. Others are so high in iodine that you’re going to cause problems by using the necessary amounts for B12.
It’s a catch-22 with low-quality supplements so you need to be discerning!
The cheapest and most researched is 2500 micrograms of cyanocobalamin B12 once per week, which you can get in liquid, sublingual or chewable form.
Okay, so Omega-3 fatty acids are neither a vitamin or mineral, but they do need to be supplemented into your diet.
There are 3 types of fish oil and, typically, the most important 2 aren’t found in any plant foods. This is because Omega-3 fats are how fish store their bodyfat and plants tend to store theirs as carbs.
Omega-3 fats are essential and they play many important roles in the body. These include the reduction of excessive inflammation, less chance of degenerative brain disease, improved hormonal health and even reduction in resting body fat levels!
The problem with plant sources is that they only contain the least-effective form of Omega-3 fats: ALA. This is one of the biggest problems vegan diets face. ALA doesn’t have any of the higher-level benefits seen in the long-chain Omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA).
Also, ALA doesn’t convert very well to these long-form fats. At the very most, studies suggest 5-15% conversion rates, which is nowhere near enough to provide your recommended daily intake of Omega-3 fats.
You need these fats for the best health, but you’re not able to get them from regular plant sources. What you need to do is acquire a top-quality vegan supplement for these compounds. They’re rare, but they play an essential role that simply isn’t possible with regular foods.
While algae supplements don’t work for B12 supplementation (as discussed above) algae supplements do provide an amazing route for effective Omega-3 fats.
These aren’t just the ALA fats found in walnuts and other plant foods. However – they’re the ones that actually do stuff in the body: EPA and DHA.
Maximum Vegan Health and Performance
We’ve covered all of the major health demands for vegans and how you can deal with them.
However, there’s a big difference between healthy and optimum performance. This section of our Vegan fitness diet guide is going to briefly outline the tactics for best performance – whether it’s for sport, fitness or just to look and feel better.
Eating for Vegan Performance
Eating for performance starts with defining how you want to perform. We’re going to cover 3 main goals because, between them, they cover almost everything in training for performance:
Vegan Strength and Power
Eating for strength and power means improving the quality of the carbs and fats in your diet, but no major changes to the macro balance.
You’re going to see great results using a simple 35% protein/45% carbs/20% fats balance. After all, you only need to make sure that you’re recovering between sessions and have enough carbohydrates in your diet to fuel ATP synthesis, and recovery between training sessions.
One thing you do need to work on is the consumption of carnitine and creatine for strength-endurance. These compounds are primarily found in animal products so, if you’re looking for performance on a vegan diet, they’re going to need supplementing.
Fortunately, both creatine and carnitine are cheap, easily-found and widely available in a very bioavailable format. It won’t cost you much money, time or brain-power to get these supplements into your body and improve your capacity for maximum force output!
Vegan Muscular Size and Quality
Muscle size and quality is a common goal for everyone from the elite athlete to the average Joe looking to feel better and improve the way they look.
Muscle size sits somewhere between strength training and endurance. It fits in the middle and overlaps significantly with both.
In this region you’re going to want to improve your intake of carbs and proteins.
The two major problems you’re going to meet are muscle degradation (step one in building more muscle mass, requiring dietary protein) and the need to refill your glycogen.
This is a carb-based compound found in your muscles that fuels high-rep hypertrophy training.
You’re going to want to aim for around 40% protein/40% carbs/20% fats to ensure that you’re getting enough proteins to repair your muscles and joints, as well as enough carbs to fuel your workouts and replace muscle-glycogen.
This is also going to benefit from creatine. It is a key nutrient for making sure that you’re able to induce the maximum amount of muscle protein degradation by pushing out those tough reps.
Muscle growth is a difficult balance between heavy weights and high reps, and creatine is going to make a difference to both!
You can also combine L-Citrulline, a powerful nitrogen booster, with glutathione to push your pump to the next level.
Many muscle-building supplements contain arginine. This is a low-quality compound for improving muscle nitrogen and growth.
Citrulline does this far more effectively (because it isn’t broken down during digestion in the same way). Also, glutathione ensures that the nitrogen levels are stable and going to the right place for muscle growth.
Performance Lab’s Sport Pre Workout and Post Workout are our top recommended vegan supplements to deliver excellent performance and achieve rapid recovery and muscle growth after your workouts through their high quality creatine Creapure® pH10, L-Citrulline and other BioGenesis™ ingredients.
Check out www.performancelab.com for their complete vegan range of supplements.
Vegan Mental Performance
This isn’t the normal approach to supplementation and diet, but vegan diets can also be optimized for mental performance and focus.
These are some of the most important benefits for your whole life and will affect everything from training to academic and professional success.
You can change your entire life by improving your diet for mental performance!
Your first stop should be caffeine. It might not be the most advanced or novel approach, but its 100% plant-based and it can make a great difference to your physique, focus and training. It’ll boost wakefulness, improve productivity and studies even suggest it can boost power output!
You should also focus on getting plenty of poly-unsaturated fats into your diet, such as olive oil.
You’re going to need effective PUFAs to keep your brain healthy, improve your hormones and ensure that you’re nourishing your brain. This should be paired with Omega-3s, as mentioned above, and vitamin D.
These 3 compounds will make the majority of the difference in your long-term mental health, power and wellbeing.
Our recommended supplement that’s going to contribute to your long-term cognitive power and life success is Mind Lab Pro.
This is an all-vegan natural nootropic supplement that focuses on boosting cognitive performance using natural ingredients such as choline-boosting citocoline, L-theanine (a caffeine alternative), Tyrosine (which boosts mood and brain health), various antioxidant extracts and key B-vitamins (as discussed above).
We love this supplement because it provides a comprehensive approach to brain health and energy metabolism. It also combats the oxidative stress that causes aging, degenerative brain disease and long-term nervous system health problems.
Vegan Fitness Diet Guide: Closing Remarks
A vegan diet is one of the best things that you can do for your body.
You’re going to experience a huge amount of benefits from anti-aging to better brain performance, but they all depend on how well you manage your diet.
One of the most important messages of this guide has been simple: a vegan or plant-based diet is going to be better for your health but it’s not as simple as just dropping animal foods.
There are common problems for vegans and omnivores while, additionally, there are some problems that are caused by avoiding animal products.
The best plant-based diet is one that acknowledges these problems and includes food and supplements that are going to offset them. Also while providing a variety of other health benefits.
That is precisely the type of diet we’ve attempted to describe in this guide and it should be your goal as a plant-based human.
Whether you’re here for maximum performance or just chasing the best shape of your life, you’re going to benefit by putting a little bit of time. Not forgetting the effort and attention into how your diet is structured. Also consider what takes priority and the foods you use to build your diet.
If you follow the advice and principles we’ve laid out today, you’re going to improve every area of your life. You could not do that, of course, if you’d like to suffer from deficiency and sub-optimal performance and body composition.
However, if you want to look and perform to your maximum potential, this scientific approach to dieting only takes time and persistence to deliver amazing results.
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Commander-in-chief at Apex Sport and Fitness Content and a real Clean Lean Machine. Liam has 5 years experience in coaching positions, learning under the best mentors and sport coaches in Britain. At the same time developed a love for relentlessly researching and writing scientifically backed content in health, fitness and sport performance.