Hi Jess, can you be vegetarian or vegan and still be a high level athlete?
Lewis Hamilton, Venus Williams, and Novak Djokovic – you’ve heard of them, right? All three are a pretty big deal in their respective sports, but what you may not know is that they all follow a plant-based diet.
We know that individuals choose a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons, and the number of people doing this is increasing. It's natural then that as this population grows we're likely to see even more plant-based athletes.
As a general rule of thumb, vegetarians have higher intakes of vegetables, fruit, fiber and even phytonutrients (the good stuff from plants) than their meat-eating counterparts. We also know that there can be a whole heap of health benefits to going plant-based. The question remains though; does this equate to better athletic performance?
It may come as a surprise to some that a study showed that vegetarian endurance athletes’ cardiorespiratory fitness (essentially running on a treadmill until they no longer could) was greater than those on an omnivorous diet.
Another study looked into the effects of a vegan diet on muscle growth and strength and found that a high-protein (~1.6 g/ kg/day), plant-based diet is no different than a protein-matched mixed diet in supporting muscle strength.
In truth, there isn’t a whole bank of research showing that a vegetarian diet will improve endurance or strength-based performance over animal-based, however, what we can say is it’s unlikely to be a disadvantage.
You may wonder if there are any key considerations for vegetarian or vegan athletes. The answer is yes, there are some nutrients to be mindful of when following a vegetarian diet. Firstly, despite the ongoing misconception, you can consume enough high-quality plant-based protein on a well-planned vegetarian diet. Great examples include tofu, grains, nuts, soy, and, of course, Huel.
Keep an eye out for iron intake, this is essential for carrying oxygen to the muscles. Green leafy vegetables, beans, and lentils are great sources.
Remember to also consume enough calcium to support bone health and prevent injury through foods such as fortified plant-based milks and tofu. And, as vitamin B12 comes from animal sources, look to supplement (or include Huel in your daily nutrition).
A final thought: while nutrition is integral, you also need to consider training, sleep, hydration, and recovery when aiming to perform at your best in your chosen sport.
The simple answer is yes, you can follow a plant-based diet and perform at a high level. Just be mindful of certain nutrients and plan effectively.
Jessica Stansfield ANutr
Junior CX Nutrition Manager
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