About 5 months ago, I reached out to my viewers to find out what they were interested in when it came to learning about triathlon and BEYOND. One of my questions was, “What would you like to see more of on “JenRulon.com” Blog?” Almost 65% of you said “Every Day Nutrition.” I couple of you chimed in saying that you were vegan. DAMN, I know NOTHING about that, so I figured I would do some research. On a side note, I opted to take out dairy for a month now and honestly, it has been going really well. At first, I missed it but I was relying on it as a source of protein. Now, I am forced to cook and eat Greek Yogurt and Granola for Dinner :)
Eating Vegan: Benefits and Caveats
Veganism has been around for decades but has gained more attention in recent years. In fact, the number of Google searches for the term “vegan” has nearly tripled since 2014! Because of its rise in popularity, more and more people are asking about its benefits, drawbacks, and practicality, especially for serious athletes. In this post I’ll describe what a vegan diet is, explain some of its biggest health benefits, and mention some caveats and recommendations for those considering it.
What is a Vegan Diet?
According to the Vegan Society, “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.” In terms of nutrition, that means not consuming dairy, eggs, meat, or any other products of animal origin. This is different from a more general vegetarian diet, in which meats are avoided but other animal-based products may be consumed.
While some people decide to avoid animal products for ethical or environmental reasons, many adhere to a vegan diet for its proven health benefits.
One of the best-known health benefits of a vegan diet is its ability to help shed extra pounds. Removing animal products means replacing them with foods that are naturally less calorically dense and packed with fiber. This means that it’s possible to feel more satisfied while eating fewer calories!
Several randomized control studies (the gold standard in scientific research) demonstrate that a vegan diet is associated with significantly greater weight-loss and reduction in body mass index (BMI) scores, EVEN when compared to other more conventional low-fat, vegetarian diets (Jakse et al., 2017; Moore et al., 2015; Turner-McGrievy et al., 2017; Turner-McGrievy et al., 2007). Moreover, the subjects in several of these studies were permitted to eat ad libitum, or until they were satisfied, meaning that they didn’t have to restrict their food intake to lose weight.
Blood Sugar and Insulin Sensitivity
The prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is increasing worldwide, and poor diet is one of the most significant contributing factors. Because a vegan diet is low in fat and packed with nutrients, it can help to regulate blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity, thus reducing the risk for T2D.
Several studies show that subjects at risk for T2D who adhered to a plant-based vegan diet for several weeks saw significantly reduced hemoglobin A1C levels, a measure of average blood sugar over time (Barnard et al., 2009; Barnard et al., 2006; McMacken and Shah, 2017; Rinaldi et al., 2016). Moreover, several of these studies reveal that a vegan diet is more effective in reducing risk for T2D than conventional dietary recommendations for diabetes management.
LDL, HDL, and Total Cholesterol
While diabetes is certainly a major concern, heart disease is still the top cause of adult mortality in the world (Benjamin et al., 2017). One of the major risk factors for heart disease is hypercholesterolemia, or high cholesterol. A vegan diet has been shown in several clinical studies to significantly reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and total cholesterol levels in subjects, reducing their risk for heart disease (Najjar et al., 2018; Wang et al., 2015).
Caveats and Recommendations
While it is clear that a vegan diet can have several health benefits for a variety of people, some may have concerns about adequate macro- and micronutrient intake on plant-based whole foods alone. While there is evidence that a vegan diet contains lower amounts of certain nutrients such as protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine, and selenium (Kristensen et al., 2015), it is widely held that a well-planned vegan diet can include ALL necessary macro- and micronutrients, as well as confer the major health benefits mentioned earlier.
The biggest concern for most athletes is getting enough protein to build and maintain muscle mass for optimal performance. As a reference point, chicken breast has about 25g of protein per 100g of meat. Here are some high-protein, plant-based alternatives (with protein content from the USDA):
- Seitan: 18g protein per 100g
- Tofu: 19g protein per 100g
- Adzuki Beans: 20g protein per 100g
- Pinto Beans: 22g protein per 100g
- Black Beans: 22g protein per 100g
- Peanut Butter: 24g protein per 100g
- Lentils: 25g protein per 100g
- and many others…
If you’re unable to eat all of the nutrient-rich plant-based foods, you may also want to consider taking a daily multivitamin and/or supplementing with an organic vegan protein powder.
Being Vegan and A Triathlete
With these considerations in mind, you’re probably wondering about how a vegan diet can impact your training. The most important thing to remember is that your body doesn’t really care how you get the nutrients it needs, as long as you are in fact providing everything it needs. Your body will burn, use, or store nutrients how it sees fit. Your job is to make sure you’re fueling it properly for whatever kind of activities you want to do. For the athlete, this means consuming ample amounts of each macronutrient, regardless of diet.
Athletes need diets that consist of up to 70% carbohydrates. This can easily be done on a vegan diet by consuming ample fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. As you probably already know, proteins are what help our bodies rebuild after tough workouts. While vegan diets are more than capable of consuming enough plant-based protein to properly rebuild, animal products are full of the aforementioned nutrients that vegan diets will lack. Ensuring that your protein choices help you meet the recommended daily allotment for iron and other important nutrients will help you avoid deficiencies that can sideline your training. Finally, consuming enough quality fats should also prove less than challenging for the vegan athlete. It is recommended that a healthy diet not consume more than 5-10% of saturated fat. Since vegans do not consume animal products (the main source of saturated fat) you won’t have a problem there! Choose quality oils for cooking and high fat content foods like nuts, seeds, and avocados for well-rounded fat consumption.
The Bottom Line
There has not been any conclusive evidence of vegetarianism or veganism either hurting or helping athletic performance. Choosing a vegan diet may be the right choice for you for many reasons, and you may even feel that your training improves; however, this is more likely the result of an overall cleaner and healthier lifestyle than a direct link to veganism. Some important considerations when deciding on a vegan diet include iron deficiency as well as other key nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium. Being a vegan athlete takes planning and thoughtful consumption of appropriate foods for the health of your body. Whether you choose a vegan lifestyle or not, remember that the most important consideration for your training is consuming a nutrient-rich, healthful diet.
*If you are wanting some links to our findings, please reach out to me and I will send you the information!