Supplements for Vegans
By Dwayne N Jackson, PhD
Many people, including athletes, choose a lifestyle without meat or animal products. In the past, being a vegan or vegetarian strength athlete would have been a rare thing, but today it is commonplace, and the numbers are increasing. This has placed pressure on supplement formulators to produce vegan friendly supplements that are as effective as their “animal derived” predecessors.
For those who are already living the vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you likely already understand the importance of getting enough vitamins like vitamins B12 and D, along with adequate amounts of iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc. As well, you are likely getting enough protein, as vegan friendly protein food sources and supplements are abundant. What you may not know is that many of the science-backed animal derived supplements are now produced synthetically (with no animal-based starting products) or produced purely from vegetable matter. So, in an effort to help you with your fitness goals, we have highlighted 4 key research-supported supplements that, as a vegan (or vegetarian), you may not have considered before.
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids: DHA and EPA
What is DHA and EPA?
Docosapentaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosopentaenoic Acid (EPA), two essential fatty acids, which must be taken in the diet
Where are vegan sources of DHA and EPA derived from?
Although fish oil is the most common source of concentrated DHA and EPA, there are reasons why fish have so much of this stuff in them. One of those reasons is that fish survive on DHA and EPA rich algae! So, if you are a vegan, skip the middle man and go for the source. There are many vegan friendly omega-3 supplements, derived from algae (algal oil) that contain an abundance of EPA and DHA.
How can DHA and EPA boost performance?
There are many great benefits associated with DHA and EPA supplementation, which include decreased cardiovascular health risk, increased fat metabolism, and decreased symptoms from inflammatory conditions. In addition, they have been shown to incorporate themselves into heart and muscle cells. In the heart, studies illustrate that incorporation of omega-3 fatty acids results in lower oxygen consumption by this organ— essentially enabling the heart to get its work done with less effort. In a study published in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, Japanese researchers illustrated eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) serve as “blood thinners” (i.e., decrease blood viscosity), which improves blood flow and oxygen supply to tissues to increase exercise performance.
How to take your DHA and EPA: You should be aiming to get 1-4 grams of combined EPA and DHA in your diet each day. For best results take 1 gram of DHA and EPA postworkout with a protein shake, and 1 gram with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Kuda O, Rossmeisl M, Kopecky J. Omega-3 fatty acids and adipose tissue biology. Mol Aspects Med. 2018 Jan 15. pii: S0098-2997(17)30162-0.
- Kawabata F1, Neya M, Hamazaki K, Watanabe Y, Kobayashi S, Tsuji T. Supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid-rich fish oil improves exercise economy and reduces perceived exertion during submaximal steady-state exercise in normal healthy untrained men. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2014 Dec;78(12):2081-8.
What is beta-alanine?
In skeletal muscle, beta-alanine and histidine form the di-peptide carnosine—where the level of beta-alanine limits carnosine production. As such, when beta-alanine is available in excess (i.e., supplemented), it leads to elevated muscle carnosine levels .
What is “vegan friendly” beta-alanine derived from?
Although carnosine is concentrated in brain and muscle of animals, it is formed from the amino acids beta-alanine and histidine. While carnosine is only found in meat, both of these precursors, are abundant in vegetable and plant matter. In fact, the most studied and effective patented form of beta-alanine, Carnosyn, is “vegan friendly” since it’s derived entirely from plant material.
How can beta-alanine increase performance?
When you take beta-alanine consistently, the associated elevation in muscle carnosine levels boost muscle function and performance. One of the ways this occurs is through carnosine’s ability to decrease the accumulation acidic metabolic byproducts that can build up during prolonged high intensity exercise . By limiting the accumulation of acidic byproducts in muscle, you can push harder for longer during your workouts, resulting in increased training volume. Beyond its acid buffering effects, high muscle carnosine also acts as a potent antioxidant, which has been shown to delay neuromuscular fatigue in strength and power athletes, a performance benefit that is unique to beta-alanine supplementation . Since beta-alanine supplementation can delay workout fatigue and increase training volume, then it is not surprising that training with beta-alanine supplementation leads to improvements in body composition.
How to take your beta-alanine: There is a positive relationship between beta-alanine dose and muscle carnosine levels. The research suggests that you can reap the benefits of CarnoSyn beta-alanine with as little as 1.6 grams per day, however it will take some time for muscle carnosine levels to peak. The research shows that you get the greatest carnosine loading effect when you take 4-6 g of CarnoSyn beta-alanine per day. Split your daily dose into 3 servings and take pre-, intra-, and postworkout. Since beta-alanine supports the “build-up” of skeletal muscle carnosine over time, then take it throughout the day on rest days too.
- Harris RC, Tallon MJ, Dunnett M, Boobis L, Coakley J, Kim HJ, Fallowfield JL, Hill CA, Sale C, & Wise JA (2006). The absorption of orally supplied beta-alanine and its effect on muscle carnosine synthesis in human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids 30, 279-289.
- Artioli GG, Gualano B, Smith A, Stout J, Lancha AH Jr. Role of beta-alanine supplementation on muscle carnosine and exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jun;42(6):1162-73.
- Stout JR, Cramer JT, Zoeller RF, Torok D, Costa P, Hoffman JR, Harris RC, O’Kroy J. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and ventilatory threshold in women. Amino Acids. 2007;32(3):381-6.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
What are BCAAs?
The BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are 3 of 9 essential amino acids. Being essential, simply means the body cannot synthesize them, so we have to get them from food or supplements. BCAAs make up a great proportion of the total amino acid content in skeletal muscle and are readily broken down (catabolized) during exercise. During exercise, BCAAs are reduced to their basic components and are eventually used as fuel for energy. Based on this, it is obvious why BCAA supplementation benefits athletes undergoing strenuous training.
What are “vegan friendly” BCAAs derived from?
Vegan friendly BCAAs are becoming very popular, even among meat eating athletes. This is likely because it has become apparent that many non-vegan BCAA products are commonly formed from hair or duck feathers. Vegan BCAAs are produced via fermentation of plant sources in fermenters or bioreactors.
How can BCAAs increase performance?
Preworkout BCAAs prevents their breakdown during exercise, reduces muscle soreness and protects muscles from catabolism . BCAAs have also been shown to decrease perceived exertion  and fatigue during heavy training by balancing the brain’s tryptophan levels and providing substrates for energy production .
Postwortkout BCAAs protects the body from catabolism and decreases recovery time . The BCAA leucine also boosts the release of the anabolic hormone insulin. You want insulin levels to be rapidly elevated after your workouts because this hormone carries nutrients such as glucose and amino acids into muscle cells—this promotes greater protein synthesis and muscular gains during recovery .
How to take BCAAs: Research tells us that the best BCAA products contain leucine:isoleucine:valine in a 2:1:1 ratio. We recommend taking 5-10g of BCAAs 30-60 minutes preworkout and again immediately postworkout to get the best results. On non-training days, take 5-10g of BCAAs a few times between meals to increase energy, decrease hunger, and assure you have an abundance of these essential aminos on board.
- Shimomura Y, Yamamoto Y, Bajotto G, Sato J, Murakami T, Shimomura N, Kobayashi H, & Mawatari K (2006). Nutraceutical effects of branched-chain amino acids on skeletal muscle. J Nutr 136, 529S-532S.
- Blomstrand E (2006). A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. J Nutr 136, 544S-547S.
- Blomstrand E, Hassmen P, Ek S, Ekblom B, & Newsholme EA (1997). Influence of ingesting a solution of branched-chain amino acids on perceived exertion during exercise. Acta Physiol Scand 159, 41-49.
- Norton LE & Layman DK (2006). Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. J Nutr 136, 533S-537S.
What is Creatine?
Creatine or methyl guanidine-acetic acid is a non-essential compound that is produced by the body and is taken in through meat sources in the diet. Creatine is synthesized by the body from arginine, methionine, and glycine and is stored in skeletal muscle.
What is “vegan friendly” creatine derived from?
Creatine is not found in plants, but most creatine supplements are synthetically produced from “vegan friendly” starting products in laboratories.
How can creatine increase performance?
Creatine is taken up and stored in skeletal muscle where it provides high energy creatine phosphate to muscles, which serves to help produce adenosine triphosphate or ATP (energy for contraction). In the end, having elevated creatine stores in muscle promotes dramatic increases in strength and power during explosive and extended performances with less time needed for rest . Increased creatine phosphate levels also buffer (reduce) muscle acidity that occurs when you perform high repetition exercises or sports where you go all out for extended periods. Under these conditions your body gets its ATP from anaerobic glycolysis and most of us know that going all out for this long leads to lactic acid build up and a loss of muscle power . The muscle acidity lowering effect of creatine supplementation will allow ATP production to go at top speed and enable you to perform longer at max.
How to take creatine: We suggest sourcing a vegan friendly source of creatine monohydrate, since the abundance of research supports this form . On training days take 3-5 g of creatine monohydrate preworkout and, on rest days, take 3-5g around the same time as you do on training days.
- Kreider RB, Kalman DS, Antonio J, Ziegenfuss TN, Wildman R, Collins R, Candow DG, Kleiner SM, Almada AL, Lopez HL. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 13;14:18.
- Naderi A, de Oliveira EP, Ziegenfuss TN, Willems MT. Timing, Optimal Dose and Intake Duration of Dietary Supplements with Evidence-Based Use in Sports Nutrition. J Exerc Nutrition Biochem. 2016 Dec 31;20(4):1-12.