Veganuary is an ever-growing phenomenon, with people around the world partaking in the month-long dietary change. Whether it’s climate crisis fears, concerns for animal rights or interest in the health benefits, more and more people are committing to a fully vegan diet. Vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2016 and 2019, with an estimated 600,000 following the diet.
January is also the time thousands of people dedicate themselves to health-focused New Year’s resolutions, with around 50% of people who make resolutions opting for fitness-themed targets.
If you’re a vegan who’s choosing January to start focusing on your physical health or a seasoned gym-goer whose thinking of going vegan, we’ve put together a quick guide on vegan fitness for beginners. This guide aims to make sure you know the best ways to stay healthy and properly nourished so you can meet your goals and start off 2021 right.
- Getting enough protein
- Watching your vitamins and minerals
- The importance of structure
- How to build muscle & lose weight
- Vegan celebrities/athletes
Getting enough protein
One of the biggest concerns people have with switching to a fully plant-based diet is how to get enough protein. Meat is an easy source of protein and, since protein is so vital in fitness whatever your goals, it’s traditionally been believed that only meat eaters can get all the nutrients they need while weight training, bodybuilding or training as athletes.
However, a huge number of big names in the world of fitness have been debunking this theory, reaching the peak of their performance on a fully plant-based diet.
It is true, though, that getting enough protein on a vegan diet can be difficult and, when you’re working hard on your physical performance, can take some careful planning. It's also true that it'll take more than supplementing with vegan protein powder to ensure your protein intake is robust enough to build muscle and stay fit.
To know how to get your full daily amount of protein, it’s important to know more about proteins, how they work and why they’re so important.
Proteins are made up of amino acids and are used in functions throughout the human body. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential, meaning the body doesn’t make them. These are the most important amino acids to include in any diet as a complete amino acid profile is vital to ensuring your body has everything it needs when you’re working out.
What proteins do in the body
In addition to tissue building and muscle recovery, proteins are essential in the process of carrying oxygen around your body, making antibodies and cell generation.
Whether you’re planning strength training, toning your body or reaching your personal best in any sport, you need every part of your body to be working at its best.
Complete protein sources
Meat is a complete protein source, which is why it’s so much easier to reach your daily protein target by eating meat. There are countless plant foods that contain protein, the difference is that some plant proteins don’t contain a complete amino acid profile.
Vegans usually get around this by combining protein sources to get the full 20 amino acids you need.
Mycoprotein, which is the stuff Quorn meat replacement is made of, is itself a complete protein. Studies have also found that mycoprotein provides the same level of protein synthesis as regular meat, so Quorn products are a good way of switching out meat when exercising.
Incomplete protein sources and how to combine them properly
- Plant protein isolate (vegan protein powders isolate the protein so you don’t have to worry as much about the level of carbs and fat)
- Rice and peas
- Grains and legumes (e.g. beans)
- Grains and vegetables
- Grains, nuts and seeds (seeds and nuts are great sources of protein but contain high percentages of fat, so take care what you combine them with)
- Legumes, nuts and seeds (combining these can make great, healthful snacks rather than trying to make a full meal)
These are just some examples of the way you can combine plant protein sources to form complete proteins. Doing careful research around what different food products contain will help you plan meals and find foods you enjoy as well as foods that nurture you.
Watching your vitamins and minerals
Protein isn’t the only thing that people on a vegan diet need to consider when planning nutrition that supports their health and fitness. Below are some of the most common vitamins and minerals vegans need to focus on in their diet.
Those on an omnivorous diet often get calcium from dairy products like milk and cheese so vegans can struggle to get enough calcium in their diets, leading to poor bone health. There are a range of fruits, vegetables and nuts that also contain calcium that you should consider including in your diet.
Some examples include leafy greens like kale, as well as nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. These often make up a significant part of a healthy vegan diet, so as long as you’re eating a variety of whole, unprocessed foods, your calcium intake should be sufficient.
Some vegan diets can be deficient in B12 as this is most often obtained from animals whose diet contains vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is essential for blood and nerve cell production, as well as the production of DNA and a deficiency can result in tiredness, muscle weakness and shortness of breath.
Many animals farmed for meat are supplemented B12 as their diet also isn’t sufficient, so taking vitamin supplements like B12 as a vegan should provide just as much of the nutrition a meat-based diet would.
Vitamin D is actually an issue in the diets of vegans and meat eaters alike. Vitamin D is most typically derived from exposure to the sun and isn’t found in many foods naturally. Deficiency can lead to lower absorption of calcium and affect muscle recovery and immune function.
For omnivores and vegans alike, it’s useful to supplement vitamin D to avoid these pitfalls of deficiency and reduce reliance on regular sunlight, especially through winter and with most of us having spent much longer inside over the past year.
The importance of structure
As with any new year’s resolution, staying on track can be difficult, especially with so much else going on in the world right now. An American study found that less than 8% of people actually stick to their resolutions so for anybody taking part in a lifestyle change this year, you’ll need to make sure your willpower is up for it.
Some important tips for planning a successful Veganuary:
- Use apps to track nutrition - Apps like MyFitnessPal can help you track how you’re eating to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need, as well as sticking to a plan that helps you reach your fitness goals. Using an app also provides structure as you incorporate it into your daily routine.
- Write down goals - Having a top-level goal is a quick and easy way of sticking to your resolutions. Make sure to not shoot too high as unachievable goals are much more difficult to stick to.
- Plan/share meals - Plan a week’s meals at a time or find a community to share recipes with who are also trying out the same things. Sharing in your goals can make them feel more of a part of your life.
- Set intermediate goals - Daily/weekly goals also make the top-level goal more digestible. This also helps keep you on track as maintaining something for a month is more challenging than maintaining it for a day at a time.
How to build muscle & lose weight as a vegan
A vegan diet can provide everything you need to lose weight and build muscle, you just have to pay special attention to keep your body healthy and enriched.
If you’re already fitness-minded, you’ll probably have been keeping an eye on your diet already and if you’re already a vegan, you’ll know some of the challenges of diversifying your foods.
To build muscle, it’s generally advised that you get around 1.6-2g of protein per kilo of bodyweight. This means that getting enough protein will differ slightly for everyone.
Figuring out this calculation will help you plan out meals that ensure you get all the protein you need in a day while you’re working towards your goals throughout the month.
Macros and micros
Macros are nutrients your body needs in large amounts and micros are those you need in smaller amounts.
- Macros - carbs, protein and fats
- Micros - vitamins, minerals and water
Because plant-based foods are often higher in carbs and fats and lower in protein, you’ll need to be sure you’re balancing these macros to keep improving your body physically and reducing your body fat.
A general guideline would be:
- 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates
- 20-35% from fat
- 10-35% from protein
Working out how many calories you need to consume a day will help you understand how this breakdown fits into your diet. Your calorie requirements will vary with the kind of exercise you do and what your targets are. Those looking to reduce body fat will need a much lower calorie count than bodybuilders, who need higher calories to power their workouts.
As already mentioned, needing to eat more plants to get the same amount of protein could drive up calories. This is because carbohydrates come from anything that grows and, while carbs and meat protein both provide 4 calories per gram, you’ll need to eat much more of the carbs than if you were just eating meat.
While important for anybody with specific fitness goals, monitoring calories is mostly important for those looking to lose body fat as well as build muscle, if this isn’t something you’re so concerned with, increasing calories won’t necessarily affect your ability to build muscle.
Carbs and calories aren’t evil but switching to a plant-based diet will require closer monitoring to achieve weight & body fat goals in a shorter amount of time.
Creatine is one of the most common fitness supplements, attributed to boosting energy, improving muscle recovery and increasing lean muscle mass. For those who do high-intensity workouts like bodybuilding, creatine is a highly recommended nutritional addition.
Creatine can only be found naturally in animal tissue, meaning people on plant-based diets often have lower levels of it in the body.
For this reason, supplementing vegan-friendly creatine can be a great way to boost creatine levels which can help push you to your personal best, as well as improving brain function.
If you're a bodybuilder looking to switch to a vegan diet, it's also a good idea to research what other bodybuilding supplements can help you reach your goals while also keeping in line with your vegan diet.
Advice from the professionals
Nutritionist Jo Gray from Feelnoo has given us her excellent advice on foods to look out for when starting your vegan fitness regime:
“To achieve good results from your workouts it's a good idea to take on a suitable amount of protein generally. It is a myth that you can only achieve lovely toned muscles by eating huge amounts of animal protein! So if you’re vegan/plant based (I'm vegetarian), it's important to include some of the following things in your daily meals…”
These are some protein choices to include:
- Hemp Seeds are amazing! Totally full of plant protein. A Versatile seed that can be used in the same way as rice or quinoa.
- Quinoa contains protein plus carbohydrate which will be good for energy.
- Tempeh, pulses such as chick peas, kidney beans, pinto beans, lentils, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds.
- A good vegan protein shake. Pea protein is just an amazing way to take on protein either as a shake or used in some yummy recipes!
- A well-balanced diet is always the way forwards when working out. Make sure that good carbohydrates, such as all the colourful vegetables, are included too.
- Good fats are a must in any diet - things like avocado, oils, like olive oil, hemp oil and sesame oil.
- Having a banana or some medjool dates before your workout is a great way to get a burst of energy pre workout.
- A post workout meal is also advised to make full use of feeding those muscles that you’ve just worked - so taking on protein from the list above is perfect. I always like to add in good fats too, my perfect post workout snack is a simple combo of pulses, avocado and hemp seed. All topped with a pimped up seed mix and nut mix that I always have hanging around ready for exactly these ’no time to prepare’ moments.
- Having a good quality (high potency) multi vitamin will also enhance your nutrition and performance when exercising.
- Water is essential to hydrate your body, flush out toxins and transport nutrients around the body.
Nutritionist David Wiener from Sankofa Snacks also has some key tips to staying healthy and nourished as a vegan:
Without consuming protein-rich food such as meat and dairy, it can be difficult for vegans to obtain the nutrients needed to function optimally, although it absolutely can be done. Here’s are some tips on how to maintain a healthy and nutrient rich diet:
1. Pack in the Protein
Protein is incredibly important, especially if you exercise regularly, but being a vegan won't impede any workout, as long as protein is supplemented. If the body does not receive enough protein, starvation mode kicks in, in which the body breaks down muscle tissue and loses muscle mass.
2. Don’t Forgo Fats
Fats are an important source of energy used to fuel longer exercise and endurance activities, like hiking and cycling. Essential fatty acids are especially fundamental for fast recovery from training as they lower inflammation levels in the body. If inflammation remains elevated after exercise, it can negatively impact muscle soreness and tissue repair. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to increase blood flow to muscles during exercise, decreasing muscle soreness and reducing swelling. They also tend to improve insulin sensitivity, which enhance fat burning in muscles and inhibits fat storage. Some of the best vegan options for Omega 3 include vegan friendly supplements, flax seeds, seaweed, algae, berries and cauliflower.
3. Be Wise when it comes to Vitamin B
In addition to B12, this group of vitamins is essential to convert food into energy, help reduce blood sugar and help to make and break down fatty acids and maintain healthy skin, hair and nails. They also support red blood cell production, immune function and contribute to the production of serotonin that ensures a healthy sleep cycle, appetite and mood. To ensure your plant-based diet is packed full of B Vitamins, ensure you’re eating brown rice, quinoa, almonds, sesame seeds, walnuts, and kale on a regular basis.
4. Fight Fatigue with Zinc
Zinc is essential if you’re into your fitness and following a plant-based diet as a deficiency in this mineral can alter your energy and endurance. Limiting zinc intake can lessen oxygen uptake, leading to fatigue more quickly and slower recovery. Keep your zinc levels topped up by munching on sunflower and pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts and pecans.
5. Adventurous Snacking
Vegan diets can often be restrictive and for that reason could become monotonous. To avoid this, keep snacking adventurous and be on the lookout for newly launched vegan snacks.
Veganuary’s official ambassadors include TV and film stars, professional athletes and politicians, such as Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix and TV presenter Chris Packham.
Countless celebrity athletes have shared being vegan with the world, with the likes of Mike Tyson, Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams supporting the lifestyle for its ethical and health benefits.
If you’re going vegan for the first time this January or wondering how fitness can work into your already vegan lifestyle, structure and research will be essential in succeeding but your success will no doubt be a hugely rewarding start to the year.