Side Note: I am not vegan. Nor am I an expert in nutrition. I like to do research and learn about different types of eating for athletes and women I work with. With that said, if you have anything to say in a comment about being a vegan, please, please share below. We are listening!
Veganism has been around for decades but has gained more attention in recent years. 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 most significant 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 their 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 more significant 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 a 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 standard dietary recommendations for diabetes management.
LDL, HDL, and Total Cholesterol
While diabetes is undoubtedly a significant concern, heart disease is still the top cause of adult mortality in the world (Benjamin et al., 2017). One of the significant 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 significant 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 organic vegan protein powder.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re considering going vegan for ethical, environmental, or health reasons, if done right a whole-food, plant-based diet can provide you with many benefits! As with any diet, just be sure to build your meals around nutrient-rich food sources rather than processed ones. Finally, if you’re an athlete considering going vegan, you may want to consider supplementing with other vitamins and protein sources to ensure you’re meeting the additional nutritional demands of your training.