Words by Michaela Mazure
“I’ve been vegan for almost three and a half years, and it’s never impacted my ability to compete in any sport,” comments freshman Megan Nicholson in a personal interview. Nicholson is a member of BU’s Running Club team, as well as a former high school field hockey, basketball, and softball player.
When people think of the diets of competitive athletes or weight lifters, they think of protein, usually in the form of red meat, grilled chicken, or whey protein shakes. However, protein comes in many more shapes and sizes than a piece of steak or a pork chop. In fact, many athletes choose not to eat animal products, and become vegetarians or vegans instead.
Protein plays a vital role in our bodies, and it is essential in every diet. It strengthens our hair and nails, repairs tissues, creates enzymes, and gives us energy. The more active a person is, the more protein he or she needs in order to repair the damage done to tissues during exercise.
How do you get your main sources of protein?
“I make sure to eat legumes and tofu, usually once or twice a day. I will occasionally count my macros [macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein], but not all the time. I’ve been doing it for so long that I have a strong sense of what I should be eating.”
People choose not to eat animals products for a variety of reasons; some do it for religious purposes, others for the environment or animal welfare. Regardless the reason, it is important to identify other ways protein can be prominent in a diet without coming from animal sources.
What made you want to become a vegan?
“I grew up with parents who are vegetarians. I went vegan for the ethical reasons. I saw this documentary Earthlings and it exposed the treatment of animals in the meat, dairy, and egg industry and it was really sad. And then of course the health benefits were an added bonus.”
First, it is important to outline the basics of a vegan diet. Vegans do not eat any animal-derived substances. This means no meat, eggs, dairy, or even honey. There are a number of variations to this diet that allows people to eat certain products, but this is the most restrictive version.
Animal products are looked at as great sources of protein because they are considered “complete proteins,” meaning they provide all nine essential amino acids. However, vegans can create complete proteins by combining nuts and whole grains, nuts and beans, or beans and whole grains. For example, oatmeal with peanut butter, chickpeas and walnuts, or whole wheat crackers with hummus all provide the nine essential amino acids. Additionally, many vegans can turn to soy based proteins such as tofu or seitan to hit the recommended daily protein intake mark. To maintain muscle mass, it should be 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, and to increase muscle mass it is 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram.
Whole grains are an essential part of any athlete’s diet, and many are naturally vegan. Oats, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta all can provide much needed energy to power through workouts. Adding healthy fats and protein such as tofu, beans, or peanut butter will create a balanced and fulfilling meal in no time.
What’s a typical day of eating look like for you?
“I start every day with oatmeal, and I usually add peanut butter and banana slices to it. I also like to drink hot water with lemon in the morning as a system detox, as well as black coffee. Lunch is usually a sandwich or wrap with hummus and veggies. A salad with beans too if I’m still hungry. And dinner is rice, vegetable, and tofu stir-fry. I usually just go with whatever the vegan station at the dining hall is serving. It helps because I have the unlimited meal plan, so I’m never desperate for food. I look forward to making my own meals in an apartment next year though; there are only so many options for vegans at the dining halls!”
“Vegan” and “Athlete” don’t have to be mutually exclusive terms. With proper nutrition and a little bit of meal prep, daily protein recommendations can easily be achieved. If you ever want to know more about vegan diets, protein intake, or athlete nutrition, here are some great sources to get you started: