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Ruth James

Going Vegan: Will it boost your rowing performance?

by Ruth James
Can you really perform on a vegan plant diet?

Becoming vegan is gaining in popularity and is now one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements. It’s no longer considered to be a “whacky”, alternative or an extreme lifestyle.

The number of vegans in the UK has increased phenomenally over the past decade (360%) with now more than half a million vegans and in the USA, 6% of the entire population claims to be vegan.

Whilst nearly half of these are young people between the ages of 15-34 years older people are now opting to go vegan.

A vegan diet is entirely plant based, including vegetables, cereals, peas, beans, nuts, seeds and fruits. (Table 1)Any foods using animals e.g.  Honey is excluded together with ready-made products may also contain animal ingredients.  Labels of all manufactured products really need to be read carefully. It differs from vegetarianism by excluding dairy and eggs.

The trend has created a huge media hype including a proliferation of vegan recipes, recipe books, magazines, supermarkets stacked with new products from dairy free milks to alternative meat based protein products and a plethora of  fine dining restaurants offering vegan meals.

The popularity in veganism is fuelled for many different reasons e.g.: environmental, health, welfare and ethical issues or just taste and social pressure.

Meat and dairy are the leading contributor to greenhouse emissions and eating more plants is considered beneficial to the planet. Whilst it is suggested that a plant eating diet is associated with lower levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and a possible reduced risk of heart disease and cancer there has been very little research done in this area.

The British Dietetic Association confirms that a well-planned vegan diet can support healthy living in people of all ages. But what about in an endurance athlete/rower with increased nutritional requirements?

High profile athletes such as tennis players Novak Jokovic and Serena and Venus Williams, heavy weight boxers Mike Tyson, David Haye and several footballers and cricketers credit a vegan diet with improved performance. These offer very attractive role models for athletes to adopt.

But veganism creates dietary challenges even for the average person, so for a busy athlete with increased nutritional requirements, health and performance may suffer if the diet is not handled properly. There is no scientific evidence that going vegan will boost an athlete’s performance.


The very limited research done suggests that a vegan diet may be low in important macro and micro nutrients. This means Protein, Calories, Fat, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron and Zinc are at risk. This is because eating either an omnivorous (meat eating) or even a vegetarian diet with dairy includes many rich sources of these nutrients which vegans exclude.

1) Insufficient Calories: a vegan diet typically contains lots of fibre which gives an early feeling of satiety and feeling full up. It may cause bloating and abdominal pain and reduce appetite. As a result it may limit caloric intake and carbohydrate especially important in larger athletes with higher energy needs. Crucial as this means for the athlete carbohydrate and protein may be used as energy rather than for muscle building and repair. So consuming adequate food before training and for recovery may be compromised and food whilst travelling may be limited.

2) Protein Deficit

Rowers /endurance athletes typically require more protein (1.2-1.4g/kg/day) than the average person (0.8 g/kg/day) to meet training and performance needs.

Both quantity and quality of protein is very important for many body processes but especially in athletes for muscle recovery post exercise. The plant protein in vegan diets is of a poorer quality than that from meat or milk  sources and is deficient in some branched chain amino acids especially the important one for athletes …leucine .

The American College of Sport Science suggests vegans may need to increase their protein intake by 10% (1.0 gram/kg/day) to overcome incomplete protein digestion. Vegan athletes appear to consume less protein than meat eaters probably because the protein content of vegan foods is much lower and bulkier so you have to eat a lot. (Table 2)

3) Vegan Protein Supplements

There are lots on the market now and its expanding.  They may be useful for athletes wishing to increase their protein intake without bulk and to use after exercise (when the muscles are receptive to taking up protein) or at breakfast to ensure a good spread of protein through the day.

Protein powders are usually made from peas, rice, pumpkin, hemp or algae and a typical 1 scoop serving will give 20 grams of protein. But they are expensive. They can be sprinkled on cereal, made into a fruit smoothie or mixed with a milk substitute or water. It’s advisable to check that they are safe to take and comply with WADA.

Alternatively you can buy readymade products such as chia seed drinks, vegan protein soups, and high protein granola.

4) Shortfalls of Micronutrients/: Vitamin B12, Iron, Zinc, Calcium, Iodine Vitamin D, and Omega 3 fatty acids

  • Vitamin B12

This vitamin is synthesised from animal products and isn’t produced by plants so vegans are at risk of deficiency. Fortified foods and supplements are the only proven reliable sources for vegans. Sources are given in table 3 but monitoring B12 status may be necessary in some vegan athletes and a daily supplement is advisable. There are supplements containing different types of vitamin B12. Cyanocobalamin is recommended, mainly because it is the most stable type.

  • Iron

Whilst dietary intakes of iron may be comparable to meat eaters, its availability (non- haem iron) may be reduced. Vegan diets contain dietary inhibitors e.g. phytates (found in wholegrains and legumes) and tannin (found in tea, coffee, and cocoa), which reduce iron absorption from food. Despite possible adaption of the body to increase absorption, the Institute of Medicine USA, recommend 1.8x the recommended intake for vegans and the female vegan is particularly at risk.

Absorption of non-haem iron can be enhanced by Vitamin C, so it is sensible to ensure Vitamin C rich food is eaten with meals e.g. drinking fruit juice or eating citrus fruits with cereal or eating peppers and broccoli with lentils is helpful. It is also best to avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals as this decreases absorption.

  • Zinc

Whilst it is possible to get all the zinc you need from eating a varied and balanced vegan diet it is not readily absorbed…so see Table 3 for good sources

  • Calcium

This is important for all athletes especially rowers, as it is important for bone health. Again the body appears to regulate calcium status during low intakes but vegans are at higher risk of fracture. Some vegetables contain oxalate e.g. most leafy green vegetables such as spinach, and rocket which inhibits calcium absorption. There are a variety of calcium fortified foods e.g. nut milks and fruit juices available which can boost intake.

  • Iodine

Plant foods may contain a low amount of iodine and seaweed is not a good option as the iodine content is variable and it may be contaminated. A non-seaweed supplement is recommended.

  • Vitamin D

The UK recommends 400 IU per day for everyone except infants and dietary intakes in vegans may be low so a supplement is advisable.

When choosing a supplement, be aware that some types of vitamin D are not vegan-friendly. Vitamin D2 is always suitable for vegans, but vitamin D3 can be derived from an animal source (such as sheep’s wool) or lichen (a vegan-friendly source).

  • Omega 3 Fatty acids

Vegan diets tend to be lower in total and saturated fats, high in omega 6 but lower in omega 3 fatty acids. Good sources to include daily are chia seeds, ground flax (linseed) seed, hemp seeds and walnuts and consider using vegetable (rapeseed or olive) oil as your main cooking oil


Top tips for a Vegan Eating Athlete

  • Eat a variety of foods and different colours.
  • Plan ahead and get yourself organised, especially before and after exercise and when travelling.
  • Include good sources of protein in most meals,(such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, nuts and seeds, soya alternatives to milk and yoghurt, ) and carbohydrate such as oats, sweet potato, bread, pasta and  rice
  • Choose energy rich snacks e.g. nuts and dried fruits
  • Eat frequently to maintain calorie intake
  • Manipulate fibre intake to avoid tummy upset
  • Eat calcium-rich foods daily, such as calcium-fortified products and calcium-set tofu
  • A vegan protein supplement during recovery may be useful to add protein in a less bulky way.
  • A supplement of vitamin B12 and Vitamin D is advisable but check it complies on Global DRO



If you want to try a vegan diet, as a high performance athlete, don’t forget that the famous athletes who praise their vegan diet would have had the benefit of seeing a sport nutritionist to plan their diet and help them. In view of the difficulties of a vegan diet for athletes and the need for supplements, it would be wise to do the same and consult a sport nutritionist.


Food choices for vegans Table 1

  • All kinds of vegetables, cooked and raw
  • Vegetable sprouts
  • All kinds of fruits, usually raw
  • Beans and other legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans
  • Starchy vegetables e.g. potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Whole-wheat bread, pitas, and bagels
  • Other grains and seeds: bulgur wheat, buckwheat, farro, millet, quinoa, ground flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds
  • Hummus
  • Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts, almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter
  • Agave nectar (as workout fuel, not an all-purpose sweetener)
  • Protein powder (hemp, rice, pea, and chia blend)
  • Soy products : tofu, tempeh


Protein Content of Some Vegan Foods Table 2

Food Portion size Protein grams per


Chia seeds 2 tablespoons 4
Lentils cooked 2 tablespoons 7
Red kidney beans (cooked) 2 tablespoons 6
Hemp seed 2 tablespoons 10
Soy milk ½ pint/ 250 mls 9
Tofu 1 burger 5
Tofu 2 sausages 6
Quorn 1 burger


Quorn 1 sausage 5
Quorn 26 small chunks (100gms) 15
Quinoa (cooked) 1 mug 8


Sources of Nutrients Table 3

Nutrient Vegan-friendly sources
Protein Pulses, grains, legumes, tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds, vegetables, tempeh, soy protein products, plant based proteins-e.g. “beyond meats.”
Carbohydrate Lentils, quinoa, beans, lentils, rice pasta, noodles, buckwheat, potatoes, bread.
Omega 3 Ground flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, soya beans. Use vegetable oil especially rapeseed or olive as your main choice of oil.
Vitamin B12 Fortified foods e.g. some vegan spreads, yeast extracts and breakfast cereals, plant milks, fermented soy, mushrooms.
Iron Beans, lentils, chickpeas, grains, nuts, walnuts, cashews, pecans, almonds, seeds, fortified foods e.g. cereals, green vegetables, apricots, chia seeds, ground flax, hemp and pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, quinoa.
Zinc Beans, oats, wheat germ, nutritional yeast, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, nuts: walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground flax, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread and quinoa.
Calcium Tofu (calcium set), fortified plant milks and juice, kale, broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, bok choi, almonds, beans, seeds e.g. sesame, sunflower, tahini.
Iodine  Cranberries, potatoes, prunes.
Vitamin D Lichen-derived D3 supplements, Vitamin D2.


Visit www.vegansociety.com for more detailed general information



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