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The pros and cons of Vegan Diets for performance and the planet

Whether you choose to embrace veganism for performance or for ethical reasons, what exactly are the pros and cons as an athlete trying to reach your pinnacle of sports performance?

Reading the popular press, it seems as though veganism is the hot new ticket to ultimate sports performance. From the NFL, NBA, Premier League and across all professional sports, including triathlon, high performing athletes around the globe are crediting their plant-based diet for success citing improved recovery, optimal body composition, clarity of thought and better mood. The results speak for themselves, yet this growing movement appears to fly in the face of traditional sports nutrition dogma and the requirements for high quality protein, as well as other essential nutrients, found most easily in animal products. Add to this a rising awareness and concern for environmental issues and the impact that intensive meat and dairy industries have on both environment and animal welfare, and Vegan diets are certainly in the spotlight. Whether you choose to embrace veganism for performance or for ethical reasons, what exactly are the pros and cons as an athlete trying to reach your pinnacle of sports performance?

The pros:

  • Diet quality: A well planned vegan diet includes plenty of fresh plant foods – consumption of which are linked with positive health outcomes, largely through a reduction in inflammation, which may also help boost recovery. Sometimes a switch to a vegan diet can simply encourage a higher consumption of these quality foods and a greater focus on nutrition – this switch, in itself, leading to better performance (and health) outcomes rather than the elimination of animal products per se. On the flip side, most of us in the western world eat too much meat – especially processed meats, which are closely linked with rates of bowel cancer and other health concerns.
  • Protein should be adequate – often one of the concerns for athletes adopting veganism or even a vegetarian diet. However, protein needs are easily met and usually exceeded even by vegetarians, unless an extremely caloric restrictive diet is being followed. Vegans, though, may have more difficulty in meeting these levels without conscientious effort. Vegan protein sources include: tofu and tempeh; soy or wheat based protein foods; legumes, nuts and seeds. Beyond these, grains, cereals, breads, sports bars and protein drinks also provide significant amounts of protein. In order to obtain the full quota of all essential amino acids, vegans need to eat a variety of different types of vegetable proteins through the day.

The cons:

  • A vegan diet may require more planning for some nutrients: Animal products are rich in iron, calcium, zinc, riboflavin and Vitamin B12. While vitamin B12 needs to be supplemented in a Vegan diet with a daily tablet or injection, other nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc and iodine can be easily managed with careful meal planning. Omega 3 from foods like flax seeds, walnuts and algae supplements are also important essentials of a vegan diet. It must also be said that nutrition planning can also be seen as a pro – most people, including athletes could spend a little more time planning and considering what they eat
  • It can be hard to eat sufficient calories. When training loads are high (hello triathletes in full training), it can be hard (not impossible, just harder), to simply eat the volume of high fibre plant food required to meet energy needs. Meat inclusive diets tend to be higher in fat, making meals more calorie dense.

What about the environment?

Without a doubt, the industrial meat and dairy industries play a hugely destructive role in climate change and environmental damage. However, industrially grown soy, grains and maize are not the environmental answer either, with their reliance on fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, which, by their very nature, erode smaller animal habitats and lives including small mammals, insects, birds and reptiles. Research instead supports sustainable forms of farming and food production – both crops and livestock that helps to restore soils and biodiversity through seasonal rotations and diversity of crops, and reduce carbon footprints.

What can you do?

Athletes the world over are proving without a doubt that high level performance can be achieved on a Vegan diet – indeed many report improved performance. If you are considering going Vegan (or even if you’re not and just want to improve your nutrition), think about consulting with an experienced nutritionist or dietitian who can help you maximise your diet based on your goals and personal health status.

Consider carefully what you are eating – whatever that is. Educate yourself on the issues surrounding health, environment and animal welfare, and draw your own conclusions. Have respect for other’s choices, even if they don’t align with your own. Whatever your dietary preference – conscious intake, quality and variety are key, including plenty of fresh vegetables and other plant foods.