DON’T HAVE A COW: Can a Vegan Diet Improve Athletic Performance?
by Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D
A quick Google search of “vegan athletes” generates over 3.8 million hits, up 2 million since spring of this year. The New York Times alone has over 800 stories related to the phrase, a two-thirds increase since just a few months ago. My suspicions have been confirmed—more and more people are adopting vegan diets to support improved athletic performance, and the concept has intrigued others.
Professional vegan athletes are hardly a rarity—from triathletes, ultra-runners, tennis players, and even mixed martial arts fighters. Do they do it because they are animal rights activists? Proponents for what’s best for the environment? Well, maybe those are some side benefits. But these athletes are first and foremost professionals; they get paid to win. Not being the fastest or the strongest is out of the question. And they have tapped into gold when they can find a way of eating that gives them that extra edge beyond their competitors.
Why Vegan Diets Are Effective for Athletes
There are a few possible reasons why vegan diets and people who eat them benefit in athletic performance.
- 1. Higher in Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for activity. There’s no way around that fact. Carbohydrates that you consume are broken down into glucose for immediate use or stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Glycogen is that all-important material that the body uses during endurance sports. Much of the goal of training is to maximize the amount of glycogen you can store and then use for your event. And what does a well-rounded vegan diet look like? It’s loaded with high-carbohydrates foods—fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. On average, a meat eater consumes less than 50 percent of his or her diet from carbs, a vegetarian about 50 to 55 percent, and a vegan around 50 to 65 percent.
- Heart Healthy
It probably seems pretty obvious that a healthy heart can benefit physical performance, especially for the athlete that intends to exercise throughout life. A vegan diet, naturally cholesterol-free, low in saturated fat, and high in fiber, helps support this most essential muscle. People who avoid animal products also have lower blood pressure and less heart disease!
- More Health Conscious
Research has shown that people who follow vegan diets also consume more fiber, antioxidants, less fat, and zero cholesterol. Statistically, vegans also tend to be more educated, consume less alcohol, and watch less television! All of this lends to ideal conditions for refining athletic performance.
- Better Digestion
Fiber, which is only found in plants, helps aid with digestion, thus making those who consume it literally feel, well, lighter! Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate. Once consumed, it passes through your long digestive track mimicking tiny scrub brushes and speeding up overall digestion. No one wants to run a race while carrying several meals and snacks in their gut! Fiber keeps food moving and your gut clean.
- Rapid Recovery
Some athletes have suggested that consuming a healthful vegan diet speeds recovery time. If you recover faster, you train more, thus getting an edge over your competitors. While different reasons for this have been proposed, it may be as simple as plants are extremely nutrient-dense, providing plenty of antioxidants and phytochemicals to support healing.
Exercise and vegan eating have their own respective benefits. Being active boosts your psychological well-being, your immune system, bone mass, and strength and balance, while decreasing your risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and depression. Vegan diets reduce your risk for heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. Together, these two powerful lifestyle choices can make a super fit being.
Most importantly, vegan diets are not just for professionals! Adopting a healthful, plant-based diet—full of fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains—may be the best tip you can get for finding the energy and motivation to get off the couch and see what you are capable of doing.
Try not to jump, pedal, swim, or run when you feel this good!
Dunford M. Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals. 4th Edition. American Dietetic Association.
Mangels R, et al. The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications. Third Edition.
Jacobs KA, et al. Int J Sport Nutrition. 1999;9:92-115.
—Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., is director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting preventive medicine, especially better nutrition, and higher standards in research. She is also an avid runner and vegRUN.org coach.
Are you an athlete who eats less meat or a vegetarian or vegan diet? What differences have you noticed in your performance since adopting a plant-based lifestyle?