Could veganism give athletes a competitive edge?
Following a vegan diet in sport is becoming increasingly popular, partly due to the successes achieved by high profile vegan athletes, such as ultra-runner Scott Jurek, elite marathon runner Fiona Oakes, and triathlete Brendan Brazier. As with many controversies in sports nutrition, when it comes to athletic success on a vegan diet, the answers are not as obvious as you might think.
Vegan athletes exclude all foods derived from animals, namely meat, eggs, dairy products, or foods containing animal-derived ingredients. Instead, they consume vegetables, fruits, grains, pulses, beans, nuts, and seeds, giving them a diet rich in fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and plant-based nutrients. The diet is considered to have many benefits and is reported to reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease (1).
It also seems that vegans get sick less often; vegans are reported to have fewer colds and enjoy better immune health generally, possibly due to the types of fat consumed (seeds, nuts and their oils). These are beneficial sources of plant lignans, which are high in protective anti-oxidants and directly support immune cells (2). No athlete can train properly if they are ill, so a vegan athlete may be able to train more consistently than a non-vegan.
Conversely, following a vegan diet is not without nutritional challenges. In particular, there are concerns that relying on low energy-density plant foods does not provide enough fuel to support training and competition. However, the evidence demonstrates otherwise: a carefully-planned, plant-based diet is naturally rich in energy-giving carbohydrates (whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruits) and should provide adequate fuel to maintain training and competition (3).
Another concern is that vegan protein is of inferior quality compared to animal protein because it has an incomplete amino acid profile (4). The concern is legitimate but easily overcome by eating a wide variety of vegan protein sources every day to obtain the full range of amino acids (tofu, tempeh, lentils, seeds, beans).
An additional concern is that only 85% of plant protein is absorbable and is, therefore, less available for muscle repair (4). Whilst this is true, vegans can get around this by eating 10-20% more protein than the recommended daily allowance of 0.8g/kg body weight per day (5). For a 68kg athlete, this would equate to about 68g protein, for example, almond butter on toast (10g), tempeh ‘fillet’ with quinoa (28g), tofu burger and baked beans (15g), and a smoothie made with hemp protein powder (15g). Furthermore, vegans can increase the muscle-building benefit of protein by including rich sources of branched-chained amino acids such as sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds (4).
Function: Provides protective anti-oxidants; supports immunity
Vegan sources: Seeds, nuts and their oils
Function: Converted to energy to fuel exercise and training
Vegan sources: Whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes (lentils, chickpeas etc) and fruits
Function: Most cellular processes, structure, function, and regulation of body tissues
Vegan sources: Quinoa, soy, avocados, nuts, whole grains, legumes, beans, tofu, tempeh and seeds
The question as to whether there is a competitive advantage in a vegan diet is as yet unanswered by the sports nutrition literature. Nonetheless, despite the additional demands of sport, following a healthy vegan diet is possible if carefully planned. For those who are prepared to do so, there is no reason why this cannot lead to good health and athletic success.
1. Craig W (2009) Health effects of vegan diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(suppl):1627S-1633S.
2. Glick-Bauer M, Yeh MC (2014) The health advantage of a vegan diet: exploring the gut microbiota connection. Nutrients, 6(11):4822-4838.
3. Barr S, Rideout C (2004) Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarian Athletes. Nutrition, 20:696-703.
4. Young V, Pellett P (1994) Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 59(suppl):1203S-1212S.
5. American College of Sports Medicine position statement (2009) Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41:709-731.
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