Food, Fitness and the Vegan Diet: Challenging the Myths
by Annette White
In the beginning
In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, a vegetarian activist and keen cyclist by the name of Leslie Large advertised for other vegetarian cyclists to contact him. This was the beginning of the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club (VCAC), and its aims then were the same as now - to provide a means of contact for vegetarian cycling enthusiasts, and to prove that, in terms of fitness and achievement, they can easily keep pace with their meat-eating counterparts.
At a local marathon-running race a few months back, where VCAC members were competing in their easy-to-spot club vests, I chanced to overhear a conversation between two spectators. One remarked to the other, "Oh, look. He's a vegetarian."
Her companion then gazed at the runner with admiration, smiled knowingly, and said, "It must be much more difficult to do that when you're a vegetarian." Her friend nodded in agreement, with either blissful ignorance or maybe indifference. Not exactly what Mr. Large had in mind, that almost 120 years on from his visionary work, the general public would still regard vegetarianism as some kind of handicap to athletic achievement. Especially when there is now so much evidence to the contrary.
So there are two questions to which we need to provide answers. Firstly, is it possible for a vegetarian or vegan to achieve an equal level of fitness and achievement to that of an equivalent athlete following an omnivorous (meat-eating) diet? Secondly, can the adoption of a plant-based diet actually result in an improved level of fitness as a result of improved general health?
The list of vegetarian and vegan athletes who have excelled is impressive, and, to name just a few - Ruth Heidrich (six-times triathlon IronWoman), Sixto Linares (24-hour triathlon world record holder), Robert Millar (cyclist), Ed Moses (Olympic Gold medallist), Martina Navratilova (tennis legend), Dave Scott (six-times US triathlon IronMan). ... There are many, many more, too many to list here, and the number is growing all the time. Anecdotally, we know that there can be nothing notably deficient in the diets of these athletes. So what are the requirements of a diet to train on, and how can this be achieved on an animal-free diet?
The main source of energy for the human body comes from carbohydrates. These are the starchy foods like pasta, rice, potatoes, bread and legumes. Endurance athletes generally store very little energy as fat, so their aim in diet and training is to build up storage of energy in the form of glycogen, thus enabling the muscles to work harder and for longer. A good way to build up glycogen stores is to eat a high-carbohydrate diet alongside aerobic training. If necessary, this can be topped up with energy drinks (pure carbohydrate) and high-carbohydrate snacks (but not sugary ones!). As a vegan diet is based around complex carbohydrates, there is no problem in meeting the fuel requirements.
Athletes need protein to build muscle and repair muscle damage. Training is a process by which minute amounts of "damage" to muscles takes place, in a controlled situation. When the body repairs the muscles, it repairs them stronger than they were before - this is how strength is built up. For this to happen, the body needs protein as a source of nitrogen. Protein also provides smaller units which are known as amino acids. Whereas it is true that meat contains all the essential amino acids, a combination of common plant foods is equally able to meet the required level, eg plant foods such as potatoes, grains and most nuts and seeds. And non-root vegetables such as pumpkin seeds, beans, peas and lentils actually exceed the body's protein requirements. There is no point in athletes consuming large amounts of protein foods in the hope that this will increase muscle. The excess cannot be metabolised and will just be excreted by the kidneys, increasing their workload and that of other organs unnecessarily. When athletes begin to train and increase their intake of food accordingly, any increase in protein required will be easily covered - there is no need to specifically increase protein on its own. Nor is it the case that they need to eat animal muscle to build human muscle. In terms of endurance athletes, the Kenyans and Ethiopians reign supreme - yet their diet is traditionally based on rice, a complex carbohydrate also high in fibre and B vitamins. It is energy, rather than protein, that is the crucial requirement.
Other nutrients - where are they?
The need for a balanced diet (and by that I don't mean one which must contain animal products) applies to athletes as much as anyone else. But there are some nutrients which have particular relevance to anyone doing any kind of training, for whatever purpose and at whatever level. One group of particular importance are the B vitamins, whose functions can be summarised as follows:
- B1 - Thiamine: for the breakdown of glucose into energy
- B2 - Riboflavin: enabling the body to utilise energy
- B3 - Niacin: metabolism of energy
- B6 - Pyridoxide: used in haemoglobin, the substance which transports oxygen around the body
- B12 - for maintaining body cells in optimal condition, especially the nervous system.
Others worth a mention:
- Pantothenic acid - helps convert carbohydrates to energy
- Vitamin E - transportation of fat and absorption
- Calcium - bone formation, muscle contraction, blood clotting, nerve transmission
- Phosphorus - bones are made of it! - and also for muscle contraction
- Sodium - regulation of body fluids in cells and nerve-impulse conduction
- Chloride - digestion via hydrochloric acid and blood Ph balance
- Potassium - enzymes and energy
- Iron - for haemoglobin for oxygen transportation
- Magnesium - enzyme activity, muscular contractions, the nervous system and recovery from muscle fatigue.
With the exception of B12 (and I'll deal with that one separately), every single one of these nutrients that have special importance to athletes can be found in vegan foods such as fruits, vegetables, bread and cereals. Some are found in one type of food only, eg vegetables, while others can be found in several.
What about B12?
B12 is derived from micro organisms in the environment, and is found naturally in meat and animal products. This is often cited as a reason why a vegan diet cannot be balanced or healthy. However, B12 occurs naturally in fermented products such as miso and is also added to many foods that vegans eat. For example, just a quarter of a litre of Alpro soya milk contains 125% of the recommended daily intake of B12! - and that's just from soya milk. B12 is also present in yeast extract, margarines and fortified soya products such as Sosmix. Hence B12 deficiency is very rare in vegans, despite the popular myth that it is a likely outcome of adopting the diet.
"I know that my vegan diet is a major reason for my sporting success..." - Judith Oakley, cross-country runner and three-times Welsh Mountain Bike and Cyclocross champion
What evidence is there (other than anecdotal) to support her view?
At the Academie de Medicine of Paris, a Dr J Ioteyko did some research on the endurance capabilities of vegetarians and meat-eaters from all walks of life. The vegetarians averaged two to three times more stamina than the meat-eaters. Moreover, their recovery abilities were outstanding, taking just one-fifth of the time to recover of the meat-eaters.
In 1968, a group of Danish researchers tested a group of men on a variety of diets with the help of a stationary cycle which measured both strength and endurance. Fed an omnivorous diet of meat and vegetables for a period of time, they were tested and managed to pedal for a maximum time of 114 minutes before reaching exhaustion point. At a later date, the same individuals were put on a diet high in meat, milk and eggs for a similar period. On this diet their pedalling time dropped significantly, to an average of only 57 minutes. The third phase consisted of the group going onto a strict vegetarian (vegan) diet consisting of grains, fruits and vegetables. Their performances soared and they were able to reach an average of 167 minutes.
Another study carried out by doctors in Belgium involved a simple strength and stamina test, using a grip-meter. The vegetarians averaged 69 whilst the meat-eaters averaged just 38. In terms of recovery, the vegetarian group also scored significantly higher.
In terms of general health and longevity, the advantages of a vegetarian diet have been well documented. Vegetarians and vegans suffer significantly less from a whole range of modern diseases, such as heart disease, strokes, diabetes, Crohn's disease and most types of cancer. They tend to live longer and spend less time in hospital. It is not surprising, therefore, that vegetarian and vegan athletes perform as well as, if not better, than meat-eaters. A vegan diet in particular is full of antioxidants, whose role is to fight disease in the body and aid recovery from stress. Vitamins C, E and A (beta-carotene) are essential to fight disease - and these are abundant in vegan foods but totally absent in meat and dairy products. At the same time, animal products contain saturated fats and cholesterol which are implicated as factors in heart and circulatory disease. The fats which are beneficial to health, ie the unsaturated fats, are easily available in a vegan diet from seeds, nuts, beans, avocados and vegetable oils. Meat and milk contain no complex carbohydrate and no fibre. Meat contains no calcium or vitamin D. More research is needed on the direct comparisons between the fitness of meat-eaters and vegetarians. However, there is clearly no disadvantage in a plant-based diet and there may well be significant advantages.
This brings us to the final, and most difficult, question that we need to answer. Why is it that, in the face of all the evidence, there is still the widespread view that a vegetarian/vegan diet is deficient and inadequate? And despite all the available information, the popular view of veganism is that it is at worst dangerous and extreme, but, more often than not, some kind of joke!
The general public is not renowned for going in search of information which might challenge the accepted view, or even worse might make them feel they should change something central to their lifestyle, such as what they eat. Yet with the current plethora of diet and fitness books, lifestyle magazines and TV programmes, surely there has never been a better time to change? And there are, of course, other social factors at work here, especially the huge vested interests represented by the vastly profitable industries which buy, sell and market animal products, all at a phenomenal cost to animals, human health and the environment. Were public taste ever to start shifting away from animal products, then there would be massive and well-resourced and well-orchestrated campaigns to reverse the trend, both from government (at tax-payers' expense) and the food industry. That is a certainty.
As vegans we really only have one option. If we want to change public perception, we have to do it ourselves. This means that every time we read or hear something inaccurate or misleading about the vegan diet, we must challenge it. This won't make us popular, and it isn't easy. But it is only by arming ourselves with the facts and being prepared to (politely and non-aggressively) argue our case that we will begin to make a difference. Until this happens, vegans will continue to be regarded as "alternative," and not taken seriously.
It's up to us - and that means you, too!
The above article is not intended as comprehensive guide to nutrition; please read further on the subject.
More information can be obtained from:
The Vegan Society - www.vegansociety.com
The Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club - www.geocities.com/vegetariancac/
Vegan Runners - www.veganrunners.makessense.co.uk
- Dalgleish, Scott Exercise and the vegan diet
- Haas, R Eat to win
- Higdon, Hal The complete diet guide for runners and other athletes
- Langley, Gill Vegan nutrition
- Scott, D Dave Scott's triathlon training
- Scott, L The food of champions
- Walsh, Stephen Plant-based nutrition and health