Common sense has long said that high-level athletes need as much protein and calories as possible — and many people assume a vegan diet is lacking in both. But then why do we keep seeing athletes pop up like Patrik Baboumian, a world-record holding powerlifter who follows a strict vegan diet?
It turns out that a lot of popular ideas surrounding veganism, vegetarianism and plant-based diets in general may be false. Elite athletes can and commonly do excel at their sport without eating animal products — and it may work for you too.
Why are so many athletes following plant-based diets?
I spoke to Registered Dietician Brittany Modell to learn more. She told me that athletes have different reasons for adopting a plant-based diet, including health, environmental and ethical concerns. Although various athletes have their own motivations, many have been public about the benefits they’ve seen.
Andre Patton, a wide receiver who plays in the NFL, has said that he feels the difference from eating a vegan diet, and that he wakes up in the morning more energetic and ready to go.
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American tennis legend Venus Williams eats a vegan diet to reduce fatigue and joint pain associated with Sjögren’s syndrome, an incurable autoimmune disease she was diagnosed with in 2011.
Medical researchers are thinking more and more about inflammation as a root cause of a lot of our ailments. Inflammation is a necessary immune response, but sometimes it goes too far. It’s been proposed to be a common factor in heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. Stress, anxiety and other mental health challenges have also been linked to inflammation.
On a day-to-day level, inflammation can cause swollen and painful joints, chronic bloating and fatigue — three things that would make any athlete’s performance suffer. Hence, it makes perfect sense why so many people say they feel better when they switch to a more plant-based diet.
The myths about the vegan diet
While both personal experience and research supports a vegan diet being possible even for athletes, beliefs about animal products being necessary for performance still float around.
One common mistaken idea is that animal protein is critical to athletic performance. Muscles need protein and amino acids to repair themselves and grow, but the exact amount of protein we should be consuming has been under some debate. While some athletes try to consume as much protein as possible, Modell tells me that most Americans end up eating more than the daily recommended amount of protein, which is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For someone who weighs 150 pounds or 68 kilograms, that’s about 55 grams of protein per day.
Modell explained that athletes actually need sufficient carbohydrates to perform, especially in endurance sports. Carbs are often overlooked, especially because of the pervasive rumor that eating them makes you gain weight. But your body stores the glucose from carbohydrates as high muscle glycogen.
Glycogen is essentially the fuel your muscles use to perform, and more readily available fuel means a higher energy output. So, a higher intake of healthy carbohydrates allows athletes to perform at high intensity levels. A plant-based diet filled with whole grains, fruits and vegetables typically gives people the fuel they need when exercising.