The vegan lifestyle has been gaining more popularity with high-profile athletes switching to this type of diet such as Venus Williams, Derrick Morgan and Hannah Teter.
The main concern with a vegan diet is about reaching the recommended protein intake. In a regular diet, meat is the primary source of protein — but it’s not the only one. Some plants and protein supplements can provide a sufficient amount of this macronutrient.
Other worries include not getting enough fat and vitamins that dairy products, meat and fish provide. It means that once again, vegans have to rely on supplements, like vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids and calcium. While this type of diet can be challenging, there are plenty of reasons why elite athletes are going vegan — let’s dive in.
A Short History of Veganism
Before we get into the reasons, it’s important to understand how veganism came to be. People mostly hear about the diet side of veganism, but there’s more to it than that. Being vegan is alos about excluding animal cruelty and exploitation in any way, from food to clothes.
The term “veganism” was first used in 1944, but the practice is much older than that. Pythagoras of Samos, an Ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher, promoted kindness toward animals in 500 BC. Hindus, Jains and Buddhists also believe in not causing pain to animals, so they chose to not consume meat.
When it comes to Western countries, veganism showed up much later. In 1847, the first vegetarian society formed in England and three years later one appeared in the U.S. as well. It took nearly 100 years for Donald Watson, a British carpenter, to come up with the term “vegan” for people who didn’t eat dairy and eggs, unlike the vegetarians. Since then, veganism has grown (and is still growing) thanks to access to scientific data and research.
Why Athletes Go Vegan
Being an athlete is more than just staying physically active, it’s an occupation and requires serious dedication, as well as a special lifestyle to fuel their fitness. So, when athletes decide to go vegan, they do it based on research and recommendations by healthcare providers, scientists and dieticians. Here are some of the reasons why:
1. It does not alter performance
When eating for performance, you need to make informed choices. It’s important to eat food that will help you achieve the same and better results as a regular diet. This means that replacing meat with crackers won’t do. A vegan diet can be just as beneficial for your athletic career as meat-based nutrition, according to a 2019 study.
Conducted in Germany, this study included 76 runners and recorded their performance based on the food they ate. They were divided into three groups: 26 runners ate meat and plants, 26 were on a vegetarian diet, and 24 on a vegan diet. The results showed no difference in endurance and capacity between groups. Because of this, a vegan diet is a good choice as any other and suitable alternative for athletes.
2. It’s helpful with some underlying health conditions
At the end of the day, athletes are only human, meaning some of them may have certain medical conditions that can affect their performance. For example, tennis pro Venus Williams became vegan because of her auto-immune disease.
Williams was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome in 2011, which causes numbness, fatigue, pain and swelling of joints, gastrointestinal problems, and dryness of the eyes and mouth. With a plant-based diet, she was able to reduce inflammation and fatigue returning to her best performance fast.
3. Being vegan can help with weight management
A plant-based diet is excellent for weight management. Plants contain loads of fiber which can make you feel full until the next meal. Additionally, you can eat larger portions without restricting calories. However, based on a 2019 study, vegans had better body mass index (BMI) than vegetarians and those on a regular diet.
Nonetheless, simply switching to a vegan diet doesn’t mean you will lose weight, since some foods are also great for gaining pounds. So, if you need to gain weight, try including more nuts, quinoa, legumes, dried fruits and sweet potatoes in your diet. Otherwise, plan your diet carefully with a dietician and your doctor to achieve the best results without affecting your athletic performance.
4. It offers more control of what you put in your body
At the first glance, it may seem impossible to turn plants into something tasty and similar to what you are used to. But you can make excellent spaghetti from zucchini and burgers from a combination of veggies and legumes. The best way to begin your vegan journey? Start with collecting information about available products, plants and recipes.
Athletes need energy and whole grains are a better option to get it than refined grain, like white flour and white rice. Also, you need to know what type of food makes you feel great and what can affect your performance by making you bloated and gassy. Here is some advice on how to plan your meal: one-third of the plate should be complex carbs, the other third lean protein sources and the last third should go to vegetables.
5. The food industry has gone a long way
Considering the intake of protein is the main issue when going vegan, athletes needed to find a fitting replacement. This became possible when vegan protein powder landed on the market. It offers plant-derived protein full of amino acids and without the common allergens, like soy and eggs. There’s also vegan junk food, but just like in a regular diet, anything processed should be avoided as much as possible.
Plant-based kinds of milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole-grain pasta and bread, are some of the tasty and healthy options. With any type of diet, you must pay attention to ingredients and how they are turned into products. If you are interested in a vegan diet but want to ensure you eat only the healthy stuff, you have options. Visit online groups, consult a dietician and read the newest literature on the subject to stay up to date.
6. It can bring more oxygen to the muscles
Blood transports nutrients and oxygen to organs and tissues, including muscles. Since a vegan diet can be cholesterol-free, it can improve your circulation by enhancing blood viscosity. As a result, your muscles will receive more oxygen and nutrients that can help them recover from strain and build your physical endurance.
Elevated levels of bad cholesterol are responsible for inflammations and certain coronary diseases, like high blood pressure. They can also cause insulin resistance and diabetes, which may prevent you from achieving desired athletic results if unmanaged. But not all vegan products are without cholesterol, especially those full of saturated fat, like processed food. Because you also need good cholesterol, include extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and purple veggies into your diet to get it.
7. A vegan diet supports good causes
Some athletes see veganism as more than food. For them, this is a movement that can change the planet and end animal suffering. Cutting meat and dairy consumption can also lower the carbon footprint and preserve some endangered species that are hunted for meat, fur and skin legally and illegally in certain parts of the world.
8. It’s good for the heart
Seeing that a plant-based diet can lower bad cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, improve circulation, and manage weight, it’s good for the heart. Athletes are not exempt from cardiovascular diseases, but they can affect their performance and even damage their careers.
A vegan diet can make veins and arteries expand and prevent stiffness, allowing blood to run freely. Plants have a significantly low to none percentage of saturated fat, which is most commonly found in animal products. Since you will keep your weight under control, risks of diabetes and obesity may become low and not affect your heart’s health.
9. A plant-based diet can fight off inflammation
Pro lacrosse player Paul Rabil used a vegan diet to reduce inflammation that was caused by sciatica. It caused him the debilitating amount of pain that he had to receive cortisone injections and months of physical therapy. Meat and dairy can worsen the inflammation, leaving you with constant pain that negatively reflects on your performance.
10. A vegan diet is full of antioxidants
When the body is exposed to intense physical activity it produces molecules called free radicals. These chemicals can cause a lot of damage to cells and organs, leading to muscle inflammation, heart conditions, and other diseases. Antioxidants are responsible to protect you from these free radicals and you can get lots of them from plants.
Vitamins E and C are some of the most famous antioxidants that can speed up your recovery after physical exertion. To have a high-antioxidant vegan diet, make sure to include spinach, carrots, broccoli and potatoes. Cabbage, avocados, radish, lettuce, pumpkin, and kale are also among the plants full of antioxidants. The good news is that dark chocolate is also a great source of antioxidants, as well as some nuts, like pecans.
The bottom line
These are all valid reasons why elite athletes are going vegan which can inspire you to do the same. Just do your research before switching to being vegan and see if maybe you would do more than just changing the diet. After all, the planet could use another supporter of eco-friendly living and animal welfare.