It is the trend of the 21st century: veganism! No other lifestyle gains as much popularity so quickly. Not only in Germany but all around the world people swear off animal products, food in particular. But what about a high athletic workload? How does that work with a vegan lifestyle? This Tutorial Thursday tries to shed some light on this difficult topic.
Veganism – more than just a diet
In Germany, there are up to 7.8 million vegetarians and about 900.000 vegans as of 2015 (source: VEBU january 2015). With a tendency to go up! Vegetarians generally refrain from eating fish or meat but will drink a glass of milk and eat the occasional scrambled egg. According to statistics, the step towards veganism isn’t that hard for vegetarians. Veganism is the total abdication of animal products. So no eggs, no milk, no animal fats, and anything similar. Convicted vegans also don’t use leather products or clothing made of wool and silk, ban everything that was tested on animals and the most radical supporters don’t have pets.
I know, this is a difficult topic and it is bound to create heated discussions about nutrition. Especially, when it becomes dogmatic. Thus, I will not cover ethic or moral reasons for or against such a diet/lifestyle. Instead, I will simply focus on the health and physiological facts. This will not be a subjective opinion, it will be free from economical or political agendas and as comprehensible as the report of the FIFA ethic commity. After all, this is a Tutorial Thursday.
I am sure we can create a shitstorm about this post in one form or another.
And yet, I will slip into the role of the messenger who has the difficult task to deliver bad or annoying news from time to time. The question that arises: bad news for whom…?
Facts like this: from an evolutionary point of view we are omnivores by now. Our genetics, metabolism, and our anatomy leave no doubt that we have developed into omnivores. Eating meat has enabled us to develop a shorter digestive tract and spend that saved energy (less organs need less energy in the form of calories) towards developing a greater brain. Evolution can be seen as the controller in this business that optimizes processes in the big company that is our body. Some people have to be let go and newly acquired ressources have to be redistributed.
Our colon is about 5 m shorter that that of our closest relative, the primate. Primates spend up to two thirds of their day eating plants to cover their energy demand. Depending on size and sex this can be up to 20 and 30 kg of plants and fruits. The argument that the silverback (effectively the king of the gorillas) eats only plants and is more or less a huge mountain of muscles doesn’t really hold here. Humans simply don’t have the equipment to ingest a great amount of vegetable food and turn it into usable nutrients like carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Cows, for example, can turn a meadow into proteins and multiple saturated fatty acids. They also have a different pH-value in their stomach (of which they have four) than humans. They have the necessary enzymes and bacteria, their food stays longer in their digestive tract, and is ruminated several times. But they have to eat almost 70 kg of food per day…
Is veganism the healthier alternative?
You just have to look at the facts here. The combustion engine will not work with diesel… But a diesel motor can go with super lead-free for a while!
Yes, correct! I would never tell you to just eat meat and animal products since our digestive tract can handle this best. Let’s remember: I mentioned the word omnivore. Thus, vegetables should definitely form the basis as well. Maybe not as a source of carbohydrates in the first place. Rather, because of the important micro nutrients like vitamins, trace elements, minerals, and secondary plant products. These are essential for our health. Some of them can also be found in animal products bbut the main portion is found in summer squash, kale, champignons, apples, almonds, seeds, and co.
This is first and foremost basic health. But what if I was a professional athlete? I would have a higher demand for nutrients. Every one of my cells releases free radicals and my metablosim is under stress. With a plant-based nutrition and its great amount of anti-oxidants this shouldn’t be a problem.
How do I cover my energy demand?
When we look at the macro nutrients it is starting to become interesting, though. Here, the demand for carbohydrates, fats, and protein is enormously increased. Just to satisfy my daily calorie demand – that can reach as much as 5000 kCal per day with training twice a day – I have to start thinking differently. Vegan athletes mostly use cereal, starchy food or sugar. Not a good idea because these also contain many antinourishing elements that can irritate your immune system and lower your power output (more on that in a future Tutorial Thursday).
Rice and certain tubers and roots are the best alternative because they don’t provoke sideshows in your colon and supply many important ingredients (sweet potatoes are very nutritious for example) while offering a high energy density.
The fatty acid balance does also look different in a body of a vegan: less anti-inflammatory omega-3-fatty acids! This is due to the fact that (for humans) the only usable vegetable omega-3-fatty acids come from flax seed, or linseed oil respectively. It contains said multiple unsaturated fatty acid in huge amounts but the human digestive tract can only absorb about 5% of it. Every physical activity and every muscle work provokes little inflammations in your body. The right ration of anti-infallamtory to inflammatory (omega-6 in this case) substances plays a major role in the circus of peak performances. Most vegans eat big amount of cereals, legumes, and processed food. These are rich in omega-6 fatty acids. We obviously need those, too, but in the right ration to the antagonist, omega-3 (see also our Tutorial Thursday about eggs or the Tutorial Thursday that talked about meat). You could compare it to the cooling water in the motor of your car. Omega-3 is a factor that keeps it from overheating and exploding. As a professional athete you should take more omega-3 in relation to omega-6. The most lucrative sources of omega-3 are, unfortunately for vegans, deep-sea fish, poultry, and beef. Sorry! But don’t panic, certain nuts, hemp and flax seed can cover at least a portion.
Where does the protein come from?
And then there was protein. Many vegans claim that you don’t actually need as much protein. Their opponents claim that vegans consume virtually no protein at all…
Ok, admittedly, there have been a range of different studies with the most controversial views and results. Unfortunately, the bodybuilding sport and its way of thinking have had a huge effect on all other sports. And yet no scientist of coach can make a knowledgable claim on how much protein every single person has to consume at the minimum. There are only experiences. The aforementioned facts, humans being omnivores and having a shorter digestive tract, seem to support the view that we should prefer animal proteins. The high bioavailability (usability) and the enormous concentration of this nutrient in healthy, active meat, fish, and eggs are a big entry on the pro side of our list. A vegan argument is that the better acid-base balance of a purely vegetable diet comes with a more effective protein absorption. Thus, vegetable proteins could be used better.
This probably needs further studies. However, the fact remains: every cell and especially your immune system consists of protein. Thus, we can’t live healthy if we don’t properly supply our body with this important component. Especially, if you want to become stronger and faster. If you solely rely on legumes, soy, and nuts as your protein sources you will risk getting caught in the anti-nutrient trap. These foods all contain great amounts of lectine, gluten, phytoestrogen, and phytic acid which can attack your intestinal wall (leaky gut syndrome), irritate your immune system, negatively influence your nutrient intake, confuse your hormonal balance, and steal your energy. Meat and milk from intensive factory farming will do the same.
Vegan professional athletes as role models
Last week, I have read an article about vegan MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters. It cited a recognized nutritionist from the USA, Mike Dolce.
He has designed nutrition plans for many MMA fighters and optimized their diets. Some of them were vegan athletes. According to Mike Dolce, these fighters offer lack the necessary energy and power to complete a full camp in preparation for a season or a fight. Even though he fully understands their moral and ethic motivations he would like to recommend them additional animal sources for their nutrition.
But what was that with the super lead-free?
Because there those that seem to contradict these views. Countless vegans that don’t complain about health issues despite a physically demanding lifestyle with high athletic workload. Even in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship, a professional MMA fight organization) there are a few vegan fighters. Mac Danzig or Alex Caceres, for example. They train up to three times a day and six days a week. Without problems, as they say. Even here in Germany we have an extreme example: Patrick Baboumian. He is a strength athlete with Armenian roots and in 2011 he was officially the strongest man in Germany. Since 2005 he lived as a vegetarian and switched to vegan only a short time afterwards. A very strong man. With a strictly vegan diet.
Some questions remain unanswered
The question that arises here is, naturally, whether the vegan fighters and athletes would perform at the same level if they wouldn’t eat vegan. Would they be stronger or weaker? Would a different diet make them different athletes? According to their statements switching to a vegan diet had nothing but positive effects. With patrick Baboumian, the question arises whether he would have been able to achieve his impressive records if we had been a vegan all his life. He started with strength training when he was 15 and it was only 11 years later that he switched his diet. To what degree did the non-vegan diet lay the foundation from which he profits now as a vegan athlete? Would he have achieved the same if he had been vegan all his life?
We will probably never get answers to these questions because vegans will never switch their diet just to test the other lifestyle. And even if we did get two athletes, one vegan and one omnivore, to switch diets we still wouldn’t get reliable answers because we couldn’t take all the other influences into account. It could be that the organism of athlete A can better adapt to the new diet than the organism of athlete B. We would need two identical athletes, with the exact same daily routine, the same training regimen, and the only difference at all being their diet. But this comparison will only be possible if we can clone people. And that, my friends, will hopefully never happen.
Quality before quantity
In the end, all these comparisons are redundant anyways because people don’t decide to go vegan because they hope for a better athletic performance. They do it because they won’t tolerate it when animals get harmed for their personal advantage. And finally it only counts how you feel with a certain diet. If you want to live vegan for ethical or moral reasons and you don’t have health issues with this diet (you absolutely have to be honest to yourself here) then by all means: do it! It is a remarkable lifestyle and I have great respect for the kind of discipline and devotion necessary to do it.
If you rather want to live as an omnivore you still have to make sure that vegetables form your daily basis. And all animal products should be of good quality. With meat and fish from factory farming, milk products, and bad animal fatty acids you will only harm your body in the long run!
At the end of the day there is only one thing that counts: whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian (part time vegetarian), pescetarian (vegetarian that eats sea food and fish), omnivore or carnist (meat eater), for maximum athletic performance the quality and the composition of your meals play the most important role!
How about you? Do you have experience with vegan diets and sports? Do you know vegan athletes?