About seven 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, “Everyday Nutrition.” A couple of you chimed in, saying that you were vegan. DAMN, I know NOTHING about that, so I figured I would do some research. I also reached out to my vegan athletes. See below for what they had to say! Interested in getting on a call with me, regarding coaching? Click HERE to jump on my calendar!
Eating Vegan: Benefits and Caveats
Veganism has been around for decades but has recently gained more attention. The number of Google searches for “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 a vegan diet, 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 differs from a more general vegetarian diet, in which meat is avoided, but other animal-based products may be consumed.
While some people 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 naturally less calorically dense foods packed with fiber. This means 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 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 the risk for T2D than current 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 worldwide (Benjamin et al., 2017). One of the critical 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 of 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 cannot eat all the nutrient-rich plant-based foods, you may also consider taking a daily multivitamin and supplementing with organic vegan protein powder.
Being Vegan and A Triathlete
With these considerations in mind, you’re probably wondering how a vegan diet can impact your training. The most important thing to remember is that your body doesn’t care how you get the nutrients it needs as long as you provide everything. Your body will burn, use, or store nutrients as 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 quickly be done on a vegan diet by consuming ample fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. As you probably already know, proteins help our bodies rebuild after strenuous workouts. While vegan diets are more than capable of consuming enough plant-based protein to restore appropriately, animal products are full of the nutrients, as mentioned earlier, that vegan diets will lack. They ensure that your protein choices help you meet the recommended daily allotment for iron and other vital nutrients and 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 primary source of saturated fat), you won’t have a problem there! Choose quality oils for cooking and high-fat 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 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. When deciding on a vegan diet, some critical considerations include iron deficiency and other vital 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 crucial consideration for your training is consuming a nutrient-rich, healthful diet.
After chatting with two of my vegetarian athletes, I received fantastic feedback from them. Check out what they had to say:
Ela: Don’t overthink it. Focus on whole plant foods rather than processed foods, and ensure you’re getting enough calories—plants are less calorie dense than animal products, so they fill you up more quickly. It can be hard to make sure you’re eating enough. But if you’re getting enough calories, you should be hitting your macros without worrying too much about it. There is a great Facebook group — Plant-Based Endurance Athletes — where you can get many resources and support. If you’re starting, Dr. Gregor has an app called the “Daily Dozen,” which is twelve things to eat every day (including how much a serving is) for optimal health.
Gary: I’m much newer to a plant-based diet. Here are some of my observations: Sometimes have to work to get in the calories, as Ela mentioned. Initially, I found that hitting macros was a problem (I had been shooting for 40/30/30). I find these almost impossible to beat, but I’ve adjusted my expectations, and my macros are more like 20/40/40 nowadays. I can get closer to the “old” macros by using vegan protein powder, but I’m trying to eat whole foods as much as possible. I’ve stopped paying attention to macros. Being relatively new to this, I also find that planning is critical since I am eating a lot more veggies – I have to keep things stocked and do lots of chopping/prepping items :). My primary fuel for workouts is dates, oats, and buckwheat. Another observation – plant-based doesn’t necessarily equal healthy . . . I could drink cokes, eat potato chips, etc. – all plant-based but artificial and processed.