Why Vegan Athletes Keep Winning

Brendan Brazier

Brendan Brazier, The Vegan Iron Man

A few years ago we covered a story about how one family followed a vegan diet with unfortunate consequences. To help rebalance this we felt it is time to write something more positive about veganism and fitness. There are many vegans who are healthy, fit and strong. They follow careful diets, get all the energy they require plus a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats to aid muscle growth. So, let’s take a deeper look into the world of veganism.

Veganism

For those of you who are just researching the concept of veganism here is a quick explanation. Veganism is simply the practice of abstaining from all animal products. While diet is what most people first consider when talking about veganism, it can also covers clothing choices and other lifestyle choices. Often people will describe themselves as an ethical vegan or a lifestyle vegan.


Another name for somebody on a vegan diet is a strict vegetarian. Whereas vegetarians tend to consume animal products such as eggs and dairy, vegans boycott these products too.

No Whey!

Now to fitness. As you probably know, healthy cellular development requires amino acids. Amino acids are derived from dietary protein, and most common sources of protein come from animals – whey protein from cows milk, casein protein from eggs, plus protein from meat (essentially an animal’s muscle tissue is consumed, digested and broken down to help our own muscles to grow).

The most popular protein supplements are also made from the same – casein and whey protein shakes being consumed by the bucket load in most bodybuilding gyms these days. However, not only are vegan protein sources equally effective, some science indicates that vegetable protein is actually better than animal protein for human development.

Vegan Diets and Fitness

However, although animal products make up a bulk of the protein supplements on the market, there are many very successful vegan athletes. Vegans compete in some of the most gruelling athletic challenges, such as Ironman Triathlon (a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile cycle and then a marathon to finish) as well as ultramarathons (which is any race over 26.2 miles, but can involve running over 50 to 100 miles).

Some vegans have competed at the top of their sports.

  • Sarah Stewart, and Australian Paralympic basketball player has now competed in 3 Paralympic Games and her team won silver in the London 2012 Games.
  • Brendan Brazier, a pro Ironman triathlete and won the Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon twice.
  • Keith Holmes was an American Middleweight boxer during the 1990’s
  • Carl Lewis was a sprinter and long-jumper. He won 10 Olympic medals, including 9 golds.
  • Mike Mahler is a vegan strength coach who has developed kettlebell lifting for performance and power development.
  • Fiona Oakes is a British marathon runner. She won the 2007 Halstead Marathon and broke the Essex County Champion Course Record at the same time. In 2011 she won the Great North Run half marathon. In April 2012 she competed in the Marathon des Sables, a 156 mile ultramarathon in southern Morocco that lasts for 6 days.
  • Murray Rose – known as ‘Seaweed Streak’, was an Australian swimmer who won Olympic golds in 1956 and 1960.
  • Dave Scott – Won the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii 6 times, in 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1987 while being a vegan. In 1996 when he was 42 he came 5th, although by this point he was no longer a strict vegan.

There are certainly some exceptional vegan athletes. So, how do they do it?

Well, in short, a healthy and balanced vegan diet provides all the protein that is needed for normal development. It only goes wrong when people attempt to follow a vegan diet by simply taking their normal animal based diet and just eliminating all animal products. This does result in malnutrition in many cases. But what then of athletes who require optimum nutrition that provides plenty of energy, aid muscle growth and recovery?

Vegetable Based Diet Makes Stronger Athletes?

A research paper published in Sports Medicine in 2006 came to a very interesting conclusion:

“Vegetarians have higher antioxidant status for vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (tocopherol), and β-carotene than omnivores, which might help reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress.” (Venderley and Campbell, 2006).

This suggests that recovery time may be improved for vegetarians, and it is assume for vegans too, which means that they may be able to train harder.

The Vegan Athletes Diet

A vegan athlete does not need to be more careful with their diet than a non-vegan, they just need to make different dietary choices. Before we go into details, lets first run through a selection of vegan foods that are high in protein:

  • Pulses – peas and beans
  • Lentils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Tofu and Soy
  • Spinach and greens

Pulses

For many vegans pulses provide the bulk of dietary protein. Protein is required in all cellular life, not just human cells. So the cells of plants also contain proteins, and some plants contain more than others.

Pulses, which includes all beans (soybeans, mung beans, kidney, adzuki, chickpeas, lentils) and peas provide an excellent source of protein, and they are high in fibre and have low GI too, which means that they provide a good source of slow release energy and are much easier on the bowels than a lot of whey.

Soy Beans

Soy beans are one of the highest sources of vegetable protein, being around 40% protein. They are actually an oilseed and not a pulse.

You can buy soy beans to snack on, but soy is used to produce a range of vegan products such as soy milk, and they are also used to make tofu, tempeh and textured vegetable protein (TVP). Soy beans may also been the most environmentally friendly source of protein for human consumption as they produce more protein per acre than any other agricultural produce.

Soy beans are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and help to lower cholesterol, making them one of the “superfoods”.

Nuts

Nuts are also very high in protein. Cashews are 18% protein, almonds around 21% and peanuts about 24%. Other good nuts include Brazil nuts, pine nuts, pistachio and walnuts. Pecan and chestnuts are the poorest protein sources.

Seeds

Seeds, such as pumpkin and flax seeds contain around 18% protein and watermelon seeds are 28% protein. Sunflower seeds and sesame seeds also contain around 18-20% protein.

Sarah Oakes’ Diet

Sarah Oakes told Trionz that “a typical day’s diet consists of plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, pulses and rice. I do not buy any supplements or buy any specific products to assist in my very strenuous lifestyle“.

Vegan Protein Powders

There are now several vegan protein powders on the market for those athletes who wish to supplement their diet. The ingredients of vegan protein powders vary, but can include a range of plants such as sprouted brown rice, amaranth sprout, quinoa sprout, millet sprout, buckwheat sprout, garbanzo bean sprout, lentils, and adzuki bean, flax, sunflower, pumpkin seed, chia seed, and sesame seed sprouts.

Soy and hemp protein powders are also popular. Hemp protein is made from hemp seeds and is becoming a popular choice, especially for vegan bodybuilders. Hemp seeds have a lower protein percentage than soy beans but humans can digest and absorb more of it.

Being a Fit Vegan

So, how should you put all this together? Well, the key is in variety. The biggest mistake is to rely on a limited selection of foods. Many foods need to be eaten together to get the maximum advantage. For example, rice eaten with lentils. However, the real key is to just have a varied diet, and get plenty of the usual fruits and vegetables as well as picking once specifically for their protein.

Further Reading

More like this in the Diet and Nutrition section

  3 comments for “Why Vegan Athletes Keep Winning

  1. Tammie Grey
    September 13, 2012 at 4:03 am

    Does being vegan can provide you all the proteins you need? Isn’t lean meat better?

  2. MotleyHealth
    September 13, 2012 at 8:12 am

    As stated in the article, vegans get all the protein that their body needs. Meat is actually a worse source of protein, according to some of the experts.

  3. Liam
    September 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks for an interesting article, just want to point out that protein combining is a myth. ( I. e. humans do not need to combine protein with different amino acid profiles in the same meal to get “complete” protein.)

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