Veganism and sports? A winning combination
Many people turn to Anonymous and to vegan Facebook groups asking about vegan athletes. The answer to the question, confirmed also by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the ADA) in a position paper they published, is that vegetarianism and veganism are suitable for athletes. A vegetarian or a vegan diet which satisfies energy needs and contains a diversity of protein-rich foods from a plant source such as soy, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, can meet the needs of competitive athletes, with no need for special food supplements.
The protein rush
It is known that athletes require large amounts of protein. The popular belief is that a vegan diet is low in protein compared with a regular diet, and many think that after a workout, cheese, tuna, or some other food of animal origin should be eaten. Truthfully, sports nutrition is a little more complicated than the obsessive consumption of protein. The fact that this field developed the tendency of overfeeding with meat, eggs, milk, and industrial protein powders is completely absurd. True, protein contributes to muscle building, but this is hardly all there is to it.
Antioxidants and the prevention of infectious diseases
Not many realize that despite the critical importance to our health of physical exercise, it also causes muscle destruction in parallel with its creation, due among other things to a state of oxidative stress. Contrary to animal foods, plant foods actually assist in the prevention of such damage and in the healing from them after anaerobic and/or strenuous physical exercise (sprints, power practices, and the like). Plant foods, especially fresh or cooked fruits and vegetables, contain an abundance of antioxidants – for instance, vitamin C, beta carotene, and vitamin E. Foods from an animal source, in contrast, contain only trace amounts of these substances. In fact, some research studies show than in comparison to the general population, the blood of vegetarians, and even more so of vegans, contains large quantities of these important substances.
Also the immune system of professional athletes weakens due to the physical stress. Athletes tend to suffer, for instance, from upper respiratory tract infections. Here, too, a vegan diet has certain benefits thanks to the antioxidants which are naturally found exclusively in plant foods. That said, it should be noted that the literature in this field is insufficient. Hopefully in the next few years more studies dealing with the advantages of a vegan diet will be published.
Renowned vegan athletes
Not yet convinced? You should know that you're not the first vegans practicing physical exercise. The most famous vegan athlete is the sprinter Carl Lewis, who even claims that his astonishing achievements some two decades ago were a result of his transition to a vegan diet in 1990. No less inspirational vegan athletes are Dave Scott, who won the Ironman world championship six times; Fiona Oakes, a marathon runner who broke a number of Guinness world records; and the runner Scott Jurek who took first place 18 times in different ultra-marathon competitions. (Ultra-marathons are running competitions which are longer than marathons, and which take place in hard-surface conditions, e.g. running hundreds of kilometers in deserts and/or on mountains).
Among vegan ultra-marathonists, you can find Israeli representatives: In 2014 the three winners in the longest run (200 km) in the "Sovev Ha'emek" (meaning "surrounding the valley") ultra-marathon are vegans: first place, Eden Paz; second place, Guy Zloff; third place, Ronny Tadmor. Ariel Rozenfeld came first in the 61 km run, and in 2013 won first place in 100 km run. In the following short lecture, he talks about the transition to veganism a few years earlier, about the fear that he would have to renounce his beloved sport, and how surprised he was when he found out that his achievements have, in fact, much improved thanks to the nutritional change.
You can find vegan representatives in the body-building and weight-lifting fields as well, which may be a bit surprising, considering that these fields are the most closely identified with a strictly animal-based diet: Jim Morris, for instance, the 78(!)-year-old body-builder, Kenneth Williams, and Alexander Dargatz, who won the 2005 body-building championship five years after becoming vegan. The strongest man in Germany joins them – Patrik Baboumian. Another representative is the WBO boxing champion Timothy Bradley. You can get an impression of his startling muscles in the next short video:
Another impressive example is the body-builder Frank Medrano, who practices calisthenics, which are power trainings using your own body weight without the assistance of weights or other accessories. It is much more impressive than it sounds, as is shown in the next video:
And there's no need to look overseas: One of the inspirational vegan athletes is found right here with us. His name is Avi Lehyani, he's 53 years old, vegan for nearly 30 years, and has Israel's record in power lifting for his age and weight group.
And yet, what do vegan trainees eat?
First, it is important to understand that nearly all of the studies concerning sports nutrition are short-term and small-scale, relevant mainly for professional athletes. So if you just started taking a pilates class twice a week or go for a run every other day, this protein obsession really isn't especially relevant for you. It is important to have a meal which includes proteins and carbohydrates after physical exercise, but how important is it really when we're talking about moderate aerobic physical exercise? Not very.
What about people who do power training and body-building? They may find it somewhat beneficial to eat a protein-rich meal after practice. Here, too, the recommendation is to eat a meal composed of proteins and carbohydrates; for instance, tofu or other legumes with or without grains on the side. It is also recommended to add fresh and cooked vegetables, which enhance mineral absorption and which, as mentioned, contain important antioxidants.
Listed below are some examples of dishes rich in plant protein. Most of these dishes contain mainly legumes: chickpeas, lentils, various types of beans, or soy. They can be eaten with a side dish of grains, preferably whole, such as rice, bread, bulgur, pasta, buckwheat, or quinoa. If the protein is the important part in your view, it is especially recommended to insist on the legumes or the soy, in which the protein is more concentrated (it is especially important if you're not a voracious eater). As mentioned, you should also add fresh fruits or vegetables.
- Scrambled tofu
- Chickpea flour omelet
- Lentil soup or bean soup
- Soymilk-based oatmeal porridge
- Tofu steak or tofu schnitzel (you can vary with a seitan schnitzel from time to time, but not regularly since the protein it contains is of a lesser quality).
- A cup of edamame with a little lemon juice and salt
- Lentil cutlets or cutlets made from other legumes (from time to time you can use ready-made cutlets by Teva Deli)
- Soy Bolognese spaghetti
- A large vegetable salad with at least half a cup of lentils or chickpeas or half a pack of tofu
- A soymilk-based fruit shake
When you don't get home directly after practice, you can settle for a sandwich with baked tofu or legume cutlets (lentil cutlets, for instance) with vegetables and a little whole raw tahini or hummus or a vegetable-based spread.
I do not recommend the use of protein supplements routinely for athletes. But from my experience, some people have little appetite after practice, and in that case this option may be relevant. In most stores that sell products of this kind, you can find protein powders based on soy or on other legumes or cereals. Some prefer to order such supplements from abroad, where they are less expensive.
There's even an Israeli company called C Energy, which developed a good line of products for vegans. They offer protein bars, powder for a protein shake made of a mix of legumes, and powders for preparing a protein-rich soup.
Another small point about protein: Many athletes, vegans and omni-eaters alike, get into a protein obsession and start to calculate their daily protein intake in order to make sure that they are consuming an adequate amount in accordance with the recommendations. I would like to emphasize that if you are not a professional athlete, this issue is simply irrelevant. Your protein requirement would probably be slightly higher than the basic requirement -- 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. According to the above-mentioned ADA position paper, the amount of protein needed for trainees is 1.2 – 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram. If you pay heed to your consumption of legumes, tofu, and TSP once or twice a day, you'll reach these quantities anyhow, without bothering with meticulous calculations.
What should we eat before practice?
About an hour before practice, you can optionally eat a small meal which contains grains and legumes in a relatively small portion that wouldn't burden you. If you feel that this is too heavy, you can settle with a grain-based meal (without the legumes). A few minutes before practice, it is recommended to eat a simple carbohydrate, such as a fruit or 2-3 dates; for hard practice, a slice of bread with jam or a small energy bar. Before and after practice, it is recommended to avoid eating foods high in fat, since this will slow down the absorption of the carbohydrates and protein consumed before and after practice.
And a few other issues regarding a sports diet
Another important issue is iron consumption. Athletes are prone to suffer from anemia, since strenuous physical exercise causes an increase in iron loss. It is important to pay heed to an iron-rich diet for vegan athletes, and more so female vegan athletes, as women tend to suffer from anemia considerably more than men due to the menstrual blood loss. In order to enhance the absorption of the vegetal iron found in legumes, whole grains, nuts, green leaves, seeds, and whole tahini, it helps to separate warm beverages and caffeine-containing beverages from meals, as well as to include fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal.
Zinc, too, is a weak spot for some vegans, since its sources are rather limited. Since the sources of zinc are identical to the sources of iron, the recommendations regarding iron absorption apply here as well.
Bone health is another important issue for athletes. Here, calcium is only one of the players. In fact, physical exercise on its own is one of the best things you can do for your bones.
Adequate intake of omega 3 is important for athletes. Consuming a spoonful of ground flax seeds or chia per day may be enough. Many athletes prefer to consult with nutritionists in order to be sure that their diet is suitable to the type of activity that they perform. As vegans, it may be prudent to approach a vegan nutritionist who is deeply familiar with the field.
Vegan Weightlifting: What Does the Science Say?
Performance, A., 2009. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(3), pp.509–527.
Fuhrman, J. & Ferreri, D.M., 2010. Fueling the vegetarian (vegan) athlete. Current sports medicine reports, 9(4), pp.233–41
Trapp, D., Knez, W. & Sinclair, W., 2010. Could a vegetarian diet reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress? A review of the literature. Journal of sports sciences, 28(12), pp.1261–8.
Hietavala, E.-M. et al., 2012. Low-protein vegetarian diet does not have a short-term effect on blood acid-base status but raises oxygen consumption during submaximal cycling. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), p.50.
Barr, S.I. & Rideout, C. a, 2004. Nutritional considerations for vegetarian athletes. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 20(7-8), pp.696–703.