Is vegetable fuel the recipe for success for athletes?

You might imagine that athletes regularly eat steak or can just eat whatever they like…after all, they invariably “go away”. But scientists and nutritionists are busting the myth that meat is best for sport, and athletes like Sir Lewis Hamilton and Venus Williams are proving that veganism can be a winning choice.

Of course, the energy athletes need depends on their body, performance goals and training regimen, which means that energy intake differs from sport to sport. However, more and more athletes are extolling the virtues of a plant-based diet and researchers want to know if they perform better thanks to their vegan diet, but this is difficult to prove.

A number of studies suggest that plant-based diets can help people lose weight and get leaner while improving endurance, but most of their findings are for average people, not professional athletes. . Andrew Shepherd, head of performance nutrition at Loughborough University, says: “At this stage there is no strong evidence base that a vegan diet is healthier than an omnivore diet.

However, as more and more athletes successfully swap meat for plants, the field of research is widening and more and more of the benefits of veganism are being tested. For example, a plant-based diet may give athletes an advantage because it tends to be high in complex carbohydrates. These carbs are found in whole grains and are especially important for endurance training, and help athletes maintain a steady supply of energy throughout the day.

“A high carbohydrate diet remains the evidence-based recommendation for athletes who engage in hours of physical activity daily,” according to an article published in the journal Nutrition Reviews. Another study suggests that a plant-based diet can help athletes recover from intense workouts by increasing blood flow and tissue oxygenation and reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.

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With careful management, a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, along with a vitamin B12 supplement, provides all the necessary nutrients an endurance athlete needs, including protein, calcium and iron, and can be accompanied by a wellness supplement. . “The trend we see, with anyone from the athlete to the general population, is that when people switch to a vegan diet, their fruit, vegetable and salad intake increases and as a result they consume more fiber as well as certain vitamins and minerals compared to their previous diet, which may contribute to a short-term sense of well-being,” says Shepherd.

Dr Javier Gonzalez, Reader in Human Metabolism at the University of Bath, agrees that anyone who switches to a vegan diet tends to see the benefits of eating more vegetables. “Plant-based foods tend to have a lower energy density, so people tend to consume fewer calories,” he explains. “Weight loss may be a goal for some athletes.”

On the other hand, vegan diets can make it difficult for athletes who train hard and want to maintain or gain weight to get enough calories. “For athletes with very high energy needs who require a high calorie intake, getting enough can be a challenge,” says Shepherd. “No sport lends itself more positively to vegan athletes, but endurance or ultra-endurance athletes can often see more challenges when adopting this diet.”

Numerous studies show that vegans can end up consuming less protein and fat than omnivores without careful planning and struggle to get enough vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12. “Generally, on a gram-for-gram basis, animal-based protein is more potent in stimulating muscle growth,” Gonzalez says. This can be managed by increasing the amount of vegan protein consumed, such as soy, but simply eating a lot of a plant protein isn’t the answer, as vegan protein sources don’t tend to contain all essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. This means that variety is key and vegan athletes should eat foods with complementary amino acid profiles to meet their muscle building needs.

“The basic rule is that you combine a cereal with a legume. They complement each other because the amino acids that rice lacks can be made up with peas,” says Gonzalez. “If people on vegan diets can combine different protein sources, then they can achieve the same result as people on animal-based protein.”

Fortunately, there are classic combinations that make this easier. “Corn and kidney beans are the Mexican version [of an ideal vegan meal] and the Caribbean version is rice and peas,” says Gonzalez.

Unbalanced plant-based meals can be deficient in some important nutrients, including iron, omega threes and more. “Nutrients are important for general health, but especially for athletes. Take iron, for example; it’s really important for the production of red blood cells,” says Gonzalez. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from our lungs to all parts of the body, while myoglobin – another protein made by iron – carries oxygen to our muscles. More red blood cells make these processes more efficient, which results in better athletic performance. It is therefore vital to get enough iron to make red blood cells in the bone marrow.

Conscious vegans can get enough iron from beans, lentils, nuts, tofu (bean curd) and dark leafy vegetables, and since their diet is often high in vitamin C, absorption of this element important is improved. But sometimes supplements are needed. “For example, vegan foods don’t naturally contain vitamin B12, and taking a supplement would be recommended,” Gonzalez says.

Creatine – a naturally occurring chemical in the body that is also found in red meat and seafood – is a popular supplement for athletes, especially sprinters and weightlifters who need an energy boost and explosive power. It is often used to improve physical performance and muscle mass, as creatine is involved in the production of energy for the muscles. “If you just measure the amount of creatine in the muscle of people who eat meat versus people who don’t, then it will be slightly higher,” Gonzalez says. “But if you really want to get the performance benefits of creatine, you probably need a supplement, because the amount you can get from a supplement is so much more than you can get from meat. .”

Just as a growing number of us are keen to go vegan – with Sainsbury’s predicting in 2019 that a quarter of the UK will be vegan or vegetarian by 2025 – it seems likely that we will see more plant-powered athletes. win medals too. But many vegan “wins” such as better stamina should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt (or should it be B12 yeast flakes) as this area of ​​research is also still in development. emerge and anecdotal evidence is scientifically tested.

Simply put, eating a chicken Caesar salad may be a faster and easier way to meet protein needs than balancing plant-based protein, but for some athletes it’s worth it – and having a nutritionist or a handy chef probably makes it easier. !

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Michael M. Tomlin