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Vegan as an athlete: A critical look at a mega trend

Vegan as an athlete

What you should know about veganism in sports

Vegan diet: The new trend under the microscope

The trend of vegan and vegetarian nutrition has experienced a real boom in recent years. Vegan cookbooks, Instagram channels, and films about the benefits of a plant-based diet are being produced and released in record time. 

Quite a few of these documents are specific to vegan athletes. In this context, there is often talk of a “plant-based” diet.

Before we talk about the pros and cons of a vegan diet for athletes, let’s clarify some terminology. Because that is one point why people often talk past each other.

What exactly does “plant-based” mean? 

Let’s take a closer look at the definition of “plant-based”. What does a plant-based athlete really eat?

The British Dietetic Association defines a plant-based diet as, “a diet composed primarily OR exclusively of products of plant origin. These include vegetables, fruits, nuts […] and few OR no animal foods” [1].

This is contrasted with the definition of Ostfeld RJ. which says a plant-based diet consists of barely processed foods such as fruits, vegetables […] and excludes the consumption of ANY animal products.[2]

So we see, the popular term “plant-based” is somewhat woolly defined and leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation. So if an athlete announces he would eat a plant-based diet, it does not necessarily mean he lives vegan.

Other vague statements are various statements of athletes / media regarding achievements, which are brought in direct connection with the chosen diet.

It is not uncommon to find long lists of celebrated successes and top performances achieved by “plant-based” athletes. These lists should convince us that a vegan or vegetarian diet does not impair physical performance, but promotes it.

One detail that is often omitted is a precise indication of how long the athlete has been living a plant-based diet – and whether he or she is vegan or vegetarian. 

We are absolutely not saying that a vegan or vegetarian diet cannot be combined with a successful career. It is only meant to be a hint that many important details often do not become completely clear.

What effects does a vegan diet have on performance?

This question is not so easy to answer. Francis Holway [3] sees here three ways of approaching an answer:

The logical view

If someone decides to switch to a vegan diet, the first thing that will happen is that the intake of carbohydrates will increase. The intake of protein, on the other hand, will decrease.

Of course, there are also plenty of ways to take in protein via plant-based products. A vegan lifestyle is also not necessarily accompanied by a protein deficiency!

Nevertheless, a decrease in protein intake will most likely be noted at the beginning of the transition. Especially when little thought has been given to the decision.

By pure logic, one could now conclude: For endurance athletes – great, for strength athletes rather – not good.

There is no question that sufficient protein intake is also very important for endurance athletes. However, at the first moment, a decrease in protein intake will have more impact on strength athletes.

This is what scientific data says

The best way to get serious information is to use scientific data. However, reading and understanding scientific studies is not easy.

There is also still rather little meaningful data in some areas. If a trend is rather new, there may not yet be any long-term studies on the topic simply due to time constraints.

Scientific data

This graph shows the number of published studies on plant-based athletes over the past several years.

It is clear to see that interest in this regard has increased noticeably since 2014. However, 6 years is not a long time in the world of science.

Also, upon closer examination of the studies, it becomes clear that most of these studies focus on endurance athletes. This is not a bad thing, but it must be clear that the results of these studies are not very meaningful for strength athletes.

The key messages of the studies conducted are [3]:

  1. A well-planned and well-designed (vegetarian/vegan) diet can help athletes improve their performance.
  2. With the right combination and correct timing of protein intake, protein can also be supplied by plant-based protein sources
  3. A vegetarian/vegan lifestyle in athletes (mainly women) increases the risk of iron deficiency
  4. Vegetarians/vegans show a lower content of creatine
  5. In some cases, the decision to follow a vegan diet may be an attempt to mask an eating disorder.

When athletic performance was directly compared between plant-based and omnivorous (“normal”) diets, it was shown:

  1. In most cases, no significant difference could be found
  2. Possible added value for ultra-endurance athletes (but too few studies to make a generally valid statement).
  3. Almost no representative data for strength athletes

Some studies related to weight training can be found, which were conducted on 40-50 year old men (health sport). These data cannot be directly applied to young athletes.

The subjective experience values

Many well-known documentaries about vegan athletes are based on empirical values. Of course, empirical values are also very important; they may and should definitely be taken into consideration when investigating a topic.

What is wrong, however, is to equate empirical values of individual persons with data from large-scale studies!

That would be like someone claiming that smoking is not harmful. After all, there are people who smoke all their lives and still grow very old.

In the words of Louis Burke, “The plural of anecdote is not evidence!”

What you should pay attention to in your protein intake

As addressed, it is possible to consume plenty of protein even as a vegan athlete. However, there are some things you should know.

A distinction can be made between so-called “complete and incompete proteins”.

There are amino acids that our body cannot produce itself. For this reason, we must take them in through food. They are called essential amino acids.

If all of these amino acids are present in a food, it is called a complete protein. If, on the other hand, some essential amino acids are missing, one speaks of an incomplete protein.

You can think of it as assembling a castle out of Lego. The amino acids represent the individual Lego building blocks. Once all the building blocks are in place, the castle becomes completely stable. However, if some building blocks are missing, this can become a problem.

Now, the fact is that animal sources of protein usually have the better amino acid profile than plant sources. Virtually all the Lego bricks are present.

Thus, if all animal sources of protein are avoided, the plant sources must be combined so that, overall, as many essential amino acids as possible are still supplied.

A practical example

Legumes are low in sulfur-containing amino acids such as cysteine and methonine. On the other hand, they contain relatively high levels of lysine and isoleucine. So to get an overall balanced amino acid profile, you need to look for a protein source that is rich in cysteine and methionine.

Relatively high amounts of methionine are found, for example, in cereals and some soy products such as tempeh or soy flour. If these two foods are now combined, the amino acid profile of the meal is improved accordingly. 

This game can now be repeated with all amino acids.

More natural is to resort to products designed to contain all essential amino acids. For example our RECOVERY 8 You can read more about proteins HERE learn more.

Known vegan athletes 

Some well-known athletes who have adopted a plant-based diet include:

Laura Philipp
Andreas Vojta
Venus Williams
Jermain Defoe
Novak Djokovic
Lewis Hamilton

The choice of words “plant-based” here is deliberate. As explained at the beginning, the definition is not entirely clear.

Tennis star Djokovic, for example, reveals that he does eat fish from time to time. World-class triathlete (and MoN athlete) Laura Philipp lives vegetarian, but primarily vegan.

It’s a similar story with Serena Williams. It is often cited as an example of a top vegan athlete. However, the tennis ace reveals she tried her hand at the vegan lifestyle, but couldn’t give up chicken.

That’s how 84% of people feel, by the way, according to the Human Research Council (2014 survey). 84% return to meat consumption according to this data. [4]

With regard to the study just mentioned, it is also worth mentioning that in the meantime many substitute products have come onto the market and now life without meat is probably easier than in 2014.

This is what our nutrition expert Robert Gorgos says

Nutritionist Robert Gorgos has been a nutritionist in professional sports for many years. He works with top athletes on a daily basis who follow different diets.

Based on scientific evidence and his experience, Robert basically says it’s wrong to label a diet as perfectly good or perfectly bad. 

What matters most is the execution! An extreme example: There are also junk food vegans, just as there are junk food omnivores. 

In the end, the focus is on a healthy, nutrient-rich diet that takes into account the specific requirements of an athlete in each discipline (read more  HERE ). 

Robert says it’s often simply more efficient to also rely on animal products as a competitive athlete. In one of the past webinars , Robert gave the example that it is difficult for a professional cyclist who lives in a hotel during a training camp to put together a vegan diet that includes all the important nutrients for top performance.

Therefore – generally speaking – a plant-based/emphasized diet with “animal” support is sensiblefor competitive athletes in ordertomaintain an optimal and healthy diet in the long term. 

This recommendation is also confirmed by the data of Lucas et al. He puts this recommendation in the following graph:

The suggestions listed here will provide you with good nutrient density and promote your health. Also a plus of this diet is that it is not only healthy, but also sustainable.

The eggs on the list at the bottom can be consumed by you as an athlete a little more often. That doesn’t mean they should knock vegetables out of first place. However, they offer a good source of protein, which does not have to be banned from your diet.

That is why our products are vegan

In the manufacture of our products, we place particular emphasis on excellent compatibility and naturalness.  We want every athlete to be able to eat optimally – even if various allergies / intolerances are present. 

And natural ingredients prove their worth especially at high loads, when the stomach can react more sensitively. This is the main reason why Robert Gorgos has developed our products vegan.

In order to optimize the protein supply after training (keyword amino acid profile), we combine different protein sources in our products (e.g. rice protein with pea protein) and supplement them specifically with individual amino acids. Or, as with RECOVERY 8, add all 8 essential amino acids at once. 

Around the training (before and after) a pure vegan catering is quite possible as well. However, it should be composed very consciously so as not to risk nutrient deficiencies.

[2] Definition of a plant-based diet and overview of this special issue. J Geriatr Cardio. 2017
[3] WE Nutrition Conference:  Advantages and disadvantages of eating plant based – Franciy Holway

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Robert Gorgos

Robert Gorgos

Robert is a authority when it comes to sports nutrition science. As a nutritionist, he coaches many well-known top athletes, including the professional cyclists from BORA – hansgrohe. At the same time, he is a competitive athlete himself. And: Robert has developed the sports nutrition of MoN Sports.

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