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Veganism - Could it be The Optimal Diet for Athletes?

Veganism is a lifestyle that excludes all animal products and aims to limit animal exploitation as much as possible. In addition to animal meat (like vegetarians), vegans choose not to consume dairy, eggs, or any other products of animal origin.

Over the last few weeks, a number of people have told me that they have watched the ‘Game Changers' documentary on Netflix, which advocates that veganism is an optimal diet for athletes and that animal foods are harmful for athletic performance and overall health. Consequently, a number of them have been inspired to sign up for the Veganuary movement this year. Have you had a chance to see this documentary yet?

As an integrative sports nutritionist, while I agree that it may be possible for a small subset of the population to thrive on a vegan diet, IF they do it right; I also STRONGLY contest the Game Changer claims that a vegan diet is the optimal diet for ALL athletes. Principally, this does simply not make sense because we are all biochemically unique and there is no one optimal diet for everyone.

Upon analysis, most of the claims presented in the Game Changer documentary are also inaccurate or misleading and they play very loosely with the scientific research. If you want to find out more about this specifically, you can watch this fantastic rebuttal interview from Chris Kresser - one of the most respected practitioners in the field of Functional Medicine.

Now while I agree with the fact that moving to a more plant-based diet can be fantastic choice for most people’s health, there are a number of specific reasons why I ask my clients to think very carefully before making the decision to go vegan.

1) Obtaining a healthy balanced vegan diet can be a very difficult thing to achieve: Animal products provide specific nutrients, e.g. calcium, iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and certain amino acids which are much more difficult to obtain from vegan diets. Although these nutrients are present in plant-foods, they are typically harder for us to digest and absorb than those found in animal products (1).

2) Vitamin B12 & Vitamin A: In addition to the above, there are no reliable natural vegan sources of vitamin B12 (a nutrient critical for proper mental function) or Vitamin A, essential for muscle tissue repair (among many other things). The ONLY sources of B12 available to vegans are fortified foods like cereals and nutritional yeast or supplementation (2). In addition, there are also no direct plant-food sources of Vitamin A. Although it is possible for beta-carotene, a plant-based nutrient (found in foods such as: carrots, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens etc) to be converted by the body to vitamin A; research suggests that this conversion rate is very poor for most people (3).

3) Protein: Ensuring sufficient protein intake is essential for everyone; but it is even more critical for athletes due to its important role in training adaptation, bone health and muscle growth and repair. Animal proteins are ‘complete’ meaning they contain all the essential amino acids that the body needs in the right ratios. However, many plant-based proteins are not, or they contain a much higher carbohydrate to protein - meaning it can be difficult to get enough protein from just one regular portion.

4) Many ‘Vegan’ products on the market are highly processed or contain excess levels of sugar and sodium: Just because a food is labelled as vegan – it does not mean it is healthy. Most fake vegan meats, ready meals, desserts, snack bars and veggie chips (still fried in vegetable oil and usually topped with salt) are heavily processed and packed with nasty chemicals, additives and processed protein extracts – these are not nutritious food choices. Unfortunately, may people trying to be vegan tend to over rely on these over processed unhealthy products.

5) High Quality Animal Foods are NOT unhealthy: Non-processed good quality (organic or grass-fed) meat and animal products contain many important nutrients and health benefits. Furthermore, the nutrients that they contain are generally more readily digested and used by the human body. From a health perspective, the biggest problem from eating animal products arises from our increasing consumption of poor-quality animal products, due to conventional factory animal farms, antibiotic and hormone use in farming, poor quality animal feeds etc. The quality of these animal products is simply not comparable to minimally processed animal products from small farms that raise animals humanely and provide them with natural diets and so consequently have a much superior nutritional profile.

So, if you are considering switching to a vegan diet for whatever reason, please do your research or speak to a qualified Nutritionist like myself, who can help you work through the process and educate you on how to balance your nutrients.

This is particularly important advice, if you are a recreational or professional athlete - as you are likely to have much higher nutritional requirements in order to power your performance and remain healthy (4).

Research Sources:

(1) Rogerson, D., 2017. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), p.36.

(2) Watanabe, F., Yabuta, Y., Bito, T. and Teng, F., 2014. Vitamin B12-containing plant food sources for vegetarians. Nutrients, 6(5), pp.1861-1873.

(3) Burri, B.J., 1997. Beta-carotene and human health: a review of current research. Nutrition Research, 17(3), pp.547-580.

(4) Pramuková, B., Szabadosová, V. and Šoltésová, A., 2011. Current knowledge about sports nutrition. The Australasian medical journal, 4(3), p.107.

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