The high-performance vegan athlete – new research shows it is possible
Veganism is a life choice that more people seem to be making. Still, despite its increase in popularity, when most think of a vegan, they tend to think of an animal rights activist, or someone who is a bit of a hippie at heart. And most likely, said vegan is slightly underfed owing to a strict diet of tofu, lentils and salad.
But despite the stereotype, over the last few years, more and more sports stars and well-known athletes have also made the decision to go green and follow a vegan diet. And with reports that two vegan seafaring brothers are preparing to cross the Atlantic, fuelled purely by a diet rich in lentils, soya beans and vegetables, it seems being vegan and wearing a woolly cardigan no longer go hand-in-hand.
If successful, the British brothers who plan to live off a diet of freeze-dried meals on their 3,000-mile vegan voyage will become the first to row the crossing on a plant-based diet. But while veganism is now somewhat in vogue, concerns have been raised that a diet which restricts meat, fish, and dairy can’t possibly be good for your health.
Vegan diets can make getting sufficient calories difficult – particularly if energy expenditure (the amount of calories we burn) is high. And for athletes who undertake lots of training this could be a problem. This is why in my latest paper, I set out to find out if a vegan diet really can provide an athlete with everything they need to perform at an optimum level. And my findings certainly provided food for thought.
Previous research shows that vegans may end up consuming less protein and fat than non-vegans, and may struggle to get enough vitamin B12 – which is found in meat, fish and dairy. B12 is an important vitamin, and a lack of it can lead to anaemia, weakness and mood changes.
Studies have also shown that a vegan diet can be low in Omega-3 fatty acids which come from nuts, seeds and fatty fish (like salmon), along with calcium (think milk, and cheese) and iodine, which is also found in dairy products. But plant-based diets also tend to be higher in carbohydrates, fibre and other important vitamins and minerals too.
For an extreme challenge such as crossing the Atlantic – which is going to result in a very high energy expenditure – obtaining sufficient calories is going to be a high priority. My research shows that vegan diets tend to be high in fibre which helps you to feel full, so finding ways of consuming enough calories without getting so full that you can’t eat enough is important. Eating energy-rich snacks like nuts and dried fruits is one way to do this, as is increasing feeding frequency.
The question of protein
Protein is necessary for healthy skin and muscles, and is important for athletes in terms of recovery from exercise. But getting enough protein on a vegan diet is less of a concern than you’d think, especially if enough calories are consumed. While it has been suggested that vegetarians and vegans might need slightly more protein than omnivores – due to plant-based sources being harder to digest – the main concern for the rowing brothers will be ensuring they eat a range of protein-rich foods daily.
Organic compounds called amino acids are the building blocks of protein – found in all protein foods like meat and pulses – though many plant-based protein sources tend not to contain all the essential amino acids. But a vegan diet can obtain all essential amino acids, in sufficient quantities, if the diet is varied and energy appropriate. Pulses – such as beans, lentils, peas – and grains – like rice, oats, wheat – are all protein rich, with complementary amino acid profiles. And eating a range of these foods throughout the day will ensure protein and amino acid needs are met comfortably.
With energy and protein covered, the next main concern of a vegan diet is getting enough micronutrients – so checking off the vitamins and minerals. While vitamin B12 can be supplemented with a daily tablet or injection, other nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc and iodine can be easily managed with careful meal planning. Foods like flax seeds and walnuts are also important essentials of a vegan diet as they are a good source of omega-3, along with algae supplements, which may help to control inflammation and improve recovery. Clearly then being vegan and an athlete can go hand in hand, but it does take careful planning.
So for the brothers crossing the Atlantic, who will have to put up with wild winds and stormy seas on a near daily basis, it seems getting enough plant power is going to be the least of their problems.