Again, with all due respect to the long term vegans out there, I would like to explain to the readers of my blog some of the benefits of a vegan diet for athletes. I appreciate many of the core vegans will know much, if not all of this. However, as we have people looking at vegan diets for beginners (as in my previous blog) I intend here to explore the benefits of a vegan diet for athletes at a fairly basic level and also to a lesser extent, endurance athletes. This latter category I will cover in more detail in a later blog
The first benefit of a vegan diet for athletes is in enhanced performance, a great place to start!
Any athlete will know that a healthy diet is essential to their performance. The same is true of a vegan diet. However, a vegan diet has a big “head start” over most other diets in respect of performance and wellbeing. A vegan diet is high in complex carbohydrates, which serves as the primary source of energy for athletes, particularly endurance athletes. Whole grains, legumes and fruits provided energy for longer and help regulate optimal glycogen stores allowing athletes to preform their best at both their training and at competition time. In addition these complex carbohydrates are frequently accompanied by dietary fibre. This aids in digestion, promotes satiety and helps maintain a healthy weight, all crucial factors in competition or quality training to aid in achieving that goal in competition.
Indeed for many years marathon runners (even going back to when I was doing them!) cut out many food groups in the last few days prior to competition to “carbo-load.” If we have been doing it for competition, why not in training to get our performance up? As long as, that is, we get the necessary vitamins and nutrients including a B12 supplement as mentioned elsewhere on this website.
What we are seeing more and more now is that ultra-runners, (these are the people who run back to back marathons in the same day, or a 100 mile run instead of the 26 and a bit race!) Is that more and more of them are now becoming vegan. Put simply they have an advantage over meat-eaters. They can store energy in the form of complex carbohydrates, which converts in the body to energy, but at a slow rate to keep them going for longer!
I would also like to introduce here the issue of protein supplements. Many people on vegan diets can be very healthy without such things. However, with performance athletes and particularly those who are looking to increase or maintain body mass in the form of muscle. There are now available a multitude of gels, shakes and cereal bars available to them. Some very expensive and some not so. They do, however, all seem to be different and no two really taste the same. I would urge you to try a few different ones and choose those that suit you, if indeed you go for any.
However, a quick word of warning here. Many protein shakes are made with Whey which is produced from cows milk, so as a vegan, we want to avoid that. There are other plant based alternatives out there many made with pea protein and soya and added flavour. To use them then you just mix the powder up with water or plant based milk, adding vegan produce like fresh fruit, if you wish.
Or another idea, which I personally love is to make overnight oats with plant based milk and a protein shake. Make the shake up as normal. You can add other flavours and sweeteners but that depends on the flavour of your protein shake! Then pour it over your oats. Give it a good stir and leave it covered in the fridge overnight. Next morning it will be ready to heat and eat. A power packed breakfast with no hanging about. Of course if you like a bit more to it, as I do, you can add mixed seeds, extra nuts fresh fruit or whatever. Putting it in the fridge overnight just takes all of the stress and rushing about in the morning out of the equation. Personally, one of the vegan diet recipes I love is to put a banana and peanut butter in before blitzing and putting on the oats and leaving them covered. I add the nuts and seeds next morning to keep the crunchy texture and often extra milk as needed for the consistency. There are literally hundreds of vegan diet oat recipes out there but you could just add what vegan foods you like. They are excellent anytime of day, not just breakfast.
The second significant advantage of a vegan diet for athletes lies within the amount of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds found in the vegan diet.
The rigorous training and physical exertion takes it toll on the human body, resulting in muscle damage and oxidative stress. a vegan diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains produce essential nutrients and phytonutrients that aid recovery, reducing muscle soreness and enhancing the speed and quality of overall repair. It is certainly best here to eat fruits and vegetables of different colours in order to get the maximum number and quality of nutrients and micro-nutrients.
Thirdly the vegan diet gives athletes increased Nutrient density.
A well planned vegan diet can be nutritionally dense, giving the body a store of these essential vitamins, minerals and fibre. Indeed plant based foods are often abundant in nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and vitamin c and folate which are crucial for muscle function, oxygen delivery, and immune support. Additionally, plant proteins such as beans, lentils, and Tofu provide essential amino acids necessary for muscle repair and growth.
Fourthly, the vegan diet for athletes tends to make weight management much easier.
Many athletes strive to attain the correct bodyweight and shape needed for their relative competitions. Of course this will vary from sport to sport. A vegan diet, as we have seen from another blog on here, especially when centred around whole grains, is the ideal tool to help achieve and then maintain your ideal weight. Plant based diets tend to be lower in calorie density and higher in fibre which keeps us satiated for longer. Plant based foods are also lower in saturated fat, the higher level of which is often associated with weight gain and impaired metabolic function. Contrary to popular belief, vegans do not have to be slim, though it is easier on this diet to do that than most. However, there are weight lifters, boxers, MMA fighters and many more, who maintain a muscular figure on a vegan diet, and have the increased, lasting energy that goes with it.
Fifth and finally, a Vegan Diet has been shown to have Long-Term health benefits, whether you are an athlete or not.
A vegan diet has been linked to an enormous range of medical benefits. People on a this diet tend to have a reduced risk of chronic heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer. By focusing on unrefined foods as opposed to refined and highly processed foods, athletes can support their long-term health and wellbeing. A vegan diet also has the potential to improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and overall cardiovascular health which are vital for athletes aiming for peak performances.
These health benefits also mean that vegan athletes have a tendency to pick up fewer infections and gastro-intestinal problems that would mean their competitors missing more training, even if not, perish the thought, the targeted competition!
So I hope I have explained that a vegan diet can have a really positive impact on the performance of an athlete. Though with specialisation an athlete on a vegan diet would benefit from careful planning and consultation with a sport’s dietician to plan the vegan diet not only to the sportsperson, but the event, they are competing in too. Clearly a gymnast would require a different diet to an ultra-runner, a difference in content and vitamins, but still vegan, without the guilt of the death and suffering of farmed animals but with all the health benefits of a vegan diet.
Just a final thought, there are several current and retired weight lifters who are vegan. That alone would blow away many of people’s preconceptions of vegans.
In particular I would like to point out Patrik Baboumian. Though recently retired he became vegan in 2011. That was two years before breaking a world record for a yoke walk!
If you have any questions about a vegan diet in general, or one for athletes in particular, please feel free to drop me a message below and I will be most happy to help out.