The Vegan Teen Athlete

Vegan teen athletes are no different from any other athletes. “I don’t have to do anything special,” remarks Jacob, a 14-year-old baseball and basketball player, who has been vegan since birth. Some people think that having strict dietary principles can put an athlete at a disadvantage and inhibit their performance. However, this is not true. One famous athlete, Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis, won nine gold medals after making the switch to a vegan diet. Vegan athletes who eat a variety of food and receive enough calories are able to perform at every level, from recreational to elite. The same holds true for vegan teen athletes. “I have never had any nutritional issues being a vegan teen athlete,” Jacob states.

Suggestions for Vegan Teen Athlete

  • Vegan athletes should eat a balanced diet, but they should not worry about food too much. As long as they are eating enough and eating different types of food, they will be healthy.
  • Getting enough protein from different sources, like nuts, beans, soy products, and whole grains, helps keep athletes strong.
  • Eat foods high in vitamin B12 and vitamin D, such as fortified soymilk, cereals, and nutritional yeast, and spend 15 minutes in the sun each day. These nutrients will help give you energy
  • Female vegan athletes should be especially careful about getting enough iron.
  • Baking vegan cupcakes and dishes to share with the teammates is fun! It is a great way to introduce new foods to others and to enjoy time with your friends.

Basic Nutrition

Nutrition for a vegan teen athlete is not complicated. Vegan teen athletes should receive a majority of their calories from complex carbohydrates, a moderate amount from protein, and a low-to-moderate amount from fat. In general, vegetarian athletes should receive 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight and 2.7 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. For the vegan teen, all these requirements can be met by eating a variety of foods and getting enough calories. Typical foods that vegan teens eat include whole grain bagels, English muffins, pasta, veggie burgers, green vegetables, hummus, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Clarissa, a 17-year-old soccer player and vegan since age 11, feels that eating vegan and staying fit is easy. "I eat oatmeal made with soymilk and usually topped with raisins, bananas, cinnamon, and vegan butter for breakfast. For lunch, I may have a mixed vegetable-tofu stir-fry with rice, and for dinner I may have lentil soup, a baked potato, and vegetables like broccoli or peas."

With a varied diet, vegan athletes can easily meet nutrient requirements; however, it is also important for teens to pay attention to specific nutrients, like vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Vitamin B12 can be found in fortified foods, including soymilk, cereals, and nutritional yeast. Vitamin D can be found in fortified foods, such as soymilk and ready-to eat cereals, and can be received from 15 minutes of sunlight on the face and hands each day during the summer months. Eating these types of fortified foods every day and being outside in the sun will help teens receive the proper amount of these nutrients.

Female athletes should also consider monitoring their iron intake. Foods high in iron include dark green leafy vegetables, soybeans, tofu, lentils, quinoa, fortified cereal, and raisins. To help maximize absorption, have an item high in vitamin C—such as orange juice, tomato sauce, or broccoli—along with foods high in iron. A female athlete can also take an iron supplement to increase iron stores.

Fueling Up

For any athlete, nutrition before, during, and after an event is important to replenish lost energy stores and build muscle mass. For the teen athlete, this can be tough because of strict school schedules. Ideally, an athlete should eat either a 200-calorie snack one hour before a sports event or a 400-calorie snack two hours before a sports event.

The teen athlete, who can't eat during classes, should eat a larger meal at lunch or bring a 200-calorie snack to eat right after school. In general, for every 200 calories consumed, an athlete should wait one hour before exercising. For example, if a 600-calorie meal is eaten at lunchtime, an athlete should wait three hours before exercising. To increase the calories at lunchtime, try adding the snack ideas in the sidebar below to meals.

200-Calorie Snacks 400-Caloria Snacks
1 crunchy granola bar ½ cup guacamole dip with 1 cup corn chips
1 banana with 1 TB peanut butter 8 whole wheat crackers with ¼ cup hummus
6 ounces soy yogurt with fruit 1 bagel and 2 TB peanut butter
¼ cup mixed nuts ½ cup trail mix
1 ounce hard pretzels with ½ cup fruit juice 2 cups calcium-fortified orange juice and a granola bar

Fueling with food and a sports drink during an event is required when an athlete has been exercising for 90 minutes or longer. After 90 minutes, an athlete should consume either 16 ounces of water and a snack high in carbohydrates, such as a banana, or 16 ounces of a sports drink or diluted fruit juice (8 ounces of juice mixed with 8 ounces of water) or low-sodium vegetable juice. For shorter bouts of exercise, water is the best liquid to drink during an event. In addition, water should be drunk liberally throughout the day.

Eating a snack high in carbohydrates and moderate in protein 15-30 minutes after an event can replenish energy stores. Teens who are traveling to games or don’t have time to eat a meal right after events should pack snacks: an apple with peanut butter, a nut butter and jelly sandwich, a hummus and vegetable pita, a vegan muffin with almond butter, a Clif or Odwalla Bar, or orange juice with a handful of mixed nuts. Eating shortly after activity is important and helps athletes to replenish energy and build muscle mass.

With any athlete who is training at intense levels, weight loss can be a concern. To prevent weight loss during intense training periods, athletes should consume more calories to maintain body weight. "During cross country season, I always have to consciously eat more than usual to maintain my body weight," explains Sarah, a vegan high school athlete. "I do this by eating more snacks throughout the day and having an after-dinner snack." Adding more snacks throughout the day or adding extra calories to foods, such as oils on vegetables, vegan cheeses on potatoes and casseroles, and margarine on pasta and on rice, can help to maintain an athlete's weight. If problems with weight loss do become an issue, consider speaking with a registered dietitian.

Dealing with Coaches and Teammates

Being a vegan teen and being on a sports team can hold some challenges, especially during group snacks and team get-togethers. Sarah, the cross country runner, feels that these problems can be overcome: "Since I’ve been vegan my whole life, I’m used to preparing for and dealing with any issues, but I’ve never had a huge problem. I bring snacks if I think I’ll need them."

In addition to bringing snacks, other vegan teen athletes make it a point to tell their coaches at the beginning of the season about their dietary preferences and request that, when snacks are brought, some are vegan. It is also a good idea for teens to let their teammates know they are vegan, especially when teams hold get-togethers and parties. “For pasta dinners, the host usually makes vegan pasta and cheese-less garlic bread because we have four vegan girls and other girls with various food allergies on the team,” Sarah explains. "I sometimes bring a snack or baked good to share with my teammates." Bringing vegan dishes to a party or snacks to share is a great way to enjoy food and time with teammates. Plus, it is a wonderful opportunity to introduce others to different types of cuisines.

Conclusion

Being a vegan teen athlete is easy. By eating a variety of foods and getting enough calories, vegan teens can perform just as well as their teammates, if not better.