Vegan Diet? Is It Effective for Athletic Performance?

Audrey Rose Price
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Vegans. Everyone seems to know one now-a-days right? With the rise of the plant based movement, the term "vegan" has begun to be more popular than ever. Even with more information out there, many people and athletes have questions whether or not a vegan diet will help or hinder their athletic performance. In the more recent years, big time athletes like Rich Roll, Serena & Venus Williams, Prince Fielder, and many more have become public with their vegan diet. This begs the question, if the pros are following this diet, it must be working, right? With this new movement, much research still needs to be assessed, but the short answer to a vegan diet effecting athletic performance positively is yes. 

Many people who strength train regularly think a vegan diet might be detrimental to their efforts because of the lower protein content of a typical vegan diet. Other weightlifters feel that a vegan diet enhances their training regimen by reducing fatigue and improving general health. Unfortunately, there are no studies looking directly at vegan weightlifters, but there is a fair amount of research that can be used to extrapolate to vegans. 

Protein? Where do you get it from? 

As a vegan, I hear this question most often. On average, vegans consume about .9 g of protein/kg of body weight and obtain 13 percent of their energy from protein. This meaning, if a vegan eats 18 calories per pound, which is on the lower end for serious weightlifters, they will naturally consume 1.3 g of protein/kg of body weight, likely meeting protein needs. However, if more carbohydrates, such as pasta, are primarily chosen to increase caloric intake, the percentage of protein may be less. Because of this, vegan weightlifters should make an effort to also select high protein foods. Examples of these higher protein/complete vegan proteins are legumes, soy foods, quinoa, and wheat gluten (seitan). 

 

Many athletes associate better performance with protein intake. The typical American actually over consumes protein and is under consuming fiber. So the real question should be where do you get your fiber? There are just a handful of studies that specifically relate to protein in athletes, especially focused on strength training. In Lemon et al. researchers studied 12 men starting an intensive weight training program of 1.5 hours for six days a week. They compared one month of supplementing with carbohydrates (on a diet of 1.4 g/kg of protein per day) to one month of supplementing with protein (for a total of 2.6 g/kg of protein per day) for the same people. They determined that a protein intake of 1.6 to 1.7 g/kg was needed to achieve nitrogen balance. However, muscle size and strength increased the same amount on both regimens. The authors thought that extra amino acids for the muscle-building during the carbohydrate phase were coming from amino acid pools found in the digestive tract, kidneys, or liver. These sources are small and will eventually be depleted.

So, what all does that mean? Essentially, the study was only on a small number of athletes imply that protein needs (per body weight). This may be greater in the beginning stages of training when muscles are making larger increases and protein is increased, than when muscle mass has plateaued. So when beginning a new resistance training program, more protein is needed until the body adjusts to the new stimulus. 

Keeping Lean for Performance:

Plant-based diets help athletes & non-athletes maintain a leaner physique without changing training. Studies has found that vegans have lower average body mass (BMI) than even vegetarian counterparts, while meat eaters tend to have the highest BMI per group. So, if you are looking to stay a little leaner, you may start leaning towards a plant-based diet. 

In conclusion, there is much overwhelming evidence that shows a plant based diet of veggies, fruits, nuts, grains, and beans is perhaps the best diet for cardiovascular health. In fact, some doctors say it's the only diet ever shown to reverse heart disease. Given heart health is a main concern for both athletes and non-athletes alike, it would make sense to choose this diet for top performance. 

 

References:

Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. J Appl Physiol. 1992 Aug;73(2):767-75.