By William Brady, M.A.
When thinking of making a transition to a healthier and cruelty-free vegan diet, one concern I often hear, particularly in men, is whether or not a vegan diet can support muscle building and athletic performance.
The concern is not from thin air – certainly the dominant view in popular body building and sports culture is that to maximize performance one needs a meat-packed diet in order to get the proper amount of protein, iron, etc. However, I am always surprised to see that a majority of information floating around in gyms, and even from legitimate coaches and athletes, is based on mere opinions and anecdotes but not any scientific data.
If you are one of the people who has concerns about a plant-based diet and sports nutrition, ask yourself where your concerns come from. Are they based on scientific articles you read, or are they based on a general knowledge or a “feeling” you have?
In this article I will attempt to wash away a few common misconceptions about vegan sports nutrition. I will illustrate that a vegan diet–done properly–provides no disadvantage from the perspective of sports nutrition and will also provide a few helpful suggestions for taking first steps towards a vegan diet with an athlete’s needs in mind. Importantly, this article will utilize actual scientific data to provide an objective assessment, rather than a partisan campaign.
Examples of Current Vegan Athletes
Before getting into the science and specific nutrients, it is normally helpful for those who are skeptical of a vegan diet applied to sports nutrition to see some actual cases. Here I will only show a few striking cases, but if you are wondering why the cases are not easy to find, just remember this simple point: just because something is not traditionally done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done successfully. Similarly, there mere fact that most people eat a meat-based diet does not mean a plant-based diet does not work. It’s only a tradition.
One of my favorite cases to talk about is the power lifter Patrik Baboumian. Patrik is currently known as the world’s strongest man in Germany (nicknamed ‘The Armenian Viking’ due to his original birthplace), and has won multiple championships in the world-renowned Strongman Competition. He also deadlifts 795 lbs, squats 685 lbs, and benches 475 lbs. And this is all raw power lifting, meaning without the use of special gear that can increase numbers dramatically. To put these numbers into perspective, some of the best raw power lifters in the world are deadlifting in the 900lb range. So Patrik is up there with some the most elite power lifters in the world, and he fuels his muscles with a completely plant-based diet as a vegan.
Moving from power lifting to body building, there are a growing number of vegan and vegetarian competitive bodybuilders. One great success story is Joel Kirkilis, an Australian bodybuilder who has won the ANB Victorian Championships and second prize in the NABBA/WFF International Bodybuilding competition. If you look this guy up, you will see that he is, well, huge. He is completely vegan and lists some of his favorite foods as tofu, broccoli, spinach and quinoa.
There many examples in the realm of more traditional American professional sports cropping up these days as well. Tony Fiammetta is a fullback for the New England Patriots, weighs 240 lbs, and is a vegan. Mac Danzig is a well-known vegan MMA fighter who has been a UFC champion. Scott Jurek–one of the leading ultra-marathon runners in the world–is vegan.
It is also appropriate to point out that some famous and successful professional sports trainers are vegans and advocate the vegan diet. Mike Mahler has trained multiple MMA champions (e.g. Frank Shamrock – a UFC light heavyweight champion) and is a vegan who advocates the diet to his clients. Robert dos Remedios is a collegiate strength training coach voted by the NCSA to be the best trainer in the country in 2006. He is vegan and advocates the diet to his clients.
Finally, I always like to brag about my younger brother Ryan Brady, who was a pole vaulter at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the top 25 track and field programs in the nation. Ryan has measured a vertical jump of 36.5 inches and a 40 yd dash time of 4.47 seconds. To put those numbers in perspective, the average NBA player has a vertical of around 35 inches. Ryan is a vegan.
As the cases of vegan athletes continue to pile up, the idea of the plant-based diet applied to sports nutrition will begin to lose some of its mystery. But for now, here is some science to back up the idea that a plant-based diet can successfully fuel athletic performance. I will go through three topics briefly: protein, energy, and overall performance.
William Brady is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and neuroscience at New York University. He has been vegan for 2 years and in terms of sports performance he trains for speed and explosive power. He runs the site Vegan Cooking For Men that contains nutrient-dense (and delicious) cooking ideas and other information for vegan athletes.
Image Credit: Bodybuilder photo via Shutterstock
There are two studies I’ve seen investigating the specific question of protein needs for muscle-building in vegans and vegetarians. Lemon et al. (1992) and Tarnopolsky (1988) found that within the range of around .36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (g/lb) to .68 g/lb, nitrogen balance in muscles could be achieved after intense weightlifting with vegetarian body builders. Basically, nitrogen balance in muscles is an indicator of muscle recovery, since negative nitrogen balance would indicate muscles are broken down. Participants in the studies who ate more protein most likely had it flushed out of their system.
These studies are great for two reasons:
- They provide scientific evidence that vegetarians can recover completely from intense workouts, which is a mainstay of any athletic performance regiment.
- They suggest that vegetarians/vegans may need only around 60-120 g of protein for optimal recovery if you weigh 170 lbs. A recent review (Campbell et al. 2009) on athletes using a range of diets(including both plant and meat-based diets) analyzed multiple studies to argue for .75g / lb for athletes. So if you wanted to be on the safe side, for a 170 lbs athlete you would want around 130g of protein.
What’s interesting about these numbers is that most people I know who are meat-eating athletes claim they must get anywhere from 1g of protein per lb of body weight all the way to over 2g of protein per lb. That means most people, if they weighed 170 lbs, are eating 170 – 360g of protein per day.
There are at least two things that could be true about these numbers:
- It could mean that eating plant-based protein is more efficient than meat-based protein.
- It could just be another example of how “general-wisdom” is not based on fact, and people are eating way more protein than they actually need.
The great thing about becoming a vegan is that you tend to investigate more about nutrition than the average person and learn how to change your diet to optimize your health and performance.
One thing you will notice pretty quickly is that a plant-diet increases the consistency of your energy levels both throughout the day and also during workouts. Some days I feel like I could continue doing a second workout after I finish a full body intense workout already. There is some science behind this, and the advantage seems to come mostly from the fact that vegan athletes are more likely to get more of the carbohydrates they need because they do not simply resort to meat to get filled during a meal.
Carbohydrates have been shown for a while to be the main fuel during heavy lifting and most forms of exercise (Lemon 1998), and there have been studies suggesting that carbohydrates should make up around 60% of an athlete’s diet (Lambert & Flynn 2002). Because of the foods vegans are likely to eat, they are already at an advantage for energy levels.
There is another often overlooked fact about a plant-based diet in terms of energy. You may recall from high school biology class that the ecosystem can be broken down in a pyramid form in terms of energy efficiency. On Earth, energy comes from the sun. At the base of the pyramid, you have plants that take in energy directly from the sun. These “producers” contain about 25,000 Kilo calories squared per year. If you move up the chain you have insects and very small mammals (“primary consumers”) that contain about 4000 Kilocalories squared. If you move up on to the highest level, the level containing the animals ingested by a meat-based diet, (“tertiary consumers”), the energy lost is so great that they only contain about 25 Kilocalories squared! That is correct: plants contain about 10,000 times more units of energy than animals eaten in a meat-based diet. What would you guess is best to eat if you want more energy?
Unfortunately, studies directly comparing overall sports performance of vegans or vegetarians to meat-eaters do not exactly exist as far as I am aware.
However, there is an interesting older study I found (Minckenberger 1989) that investigated vegetarian ultramarathoners who ran the wildest race I have ever heard of. It involved running about 680 miles in 19 days (35 miles per day!). The study tested their performance, caloric intake, and vitamin and mineral levels. Besides the fact that the vegetarians actually finished the race–impressive for anyone, no matter what you eat!–they were all found to have normal levels of all the items they were tested on compared to non-vegetarians.
There is also some data on creatine levels and supplementation in vegetarian athletes. One study showed that vegetarians had lower creatine in their blood and urine compared to meat-eaters, but this may have nothing to do with creatine levels in skeletal muscles which are what may be important for explosive athletic performance (Delanghe et al. 1989). One study found that vegetarians who supplemented with creatine had significant increases in their power output during exercise, while meat-eaters did not. However, another study found that vegetarians did not show gains in power output from creatine supplementation (Shomrat, Weinstein & Katz 2000; Clarys et al. 1997).
My recommendation given these conflicting results is to try creatine supplementation if you are training for explosive power. Because some data suggests that vegetarians / vegans may be lower in creatine levels than meat-eaters, you could take it just in case if you are worried. I train mostly for speed and explosive power and have had decent, though not dramatic, results with supplementing with 5g of creatine per day. Just to be precise, I’ve seen about a 5% increase in my 1 repetition maximum in both bench press and squat.
Vitamins and Minerals
The only other aspect of nutrition one might worry about for vegan sports nutrition is vitamins and minerals.
The good news is that a recent survey (Fuhrman & Ferreri 2010) found that vegans have been shown to have normal levels of almost all vitamins and minerals related to athletic performance. One mineral of interest to many people is iron, and the article basically dispels the myth of vegans not getting enough iron. As it turns out, a plant-based diet has tons of available source with high iron content. Most people get caught up on the fact that plant-based iron (non-heme) is absorbed about 10% less than meat-based iron (heme). However, your body absorbs non-heme iron more efficiently than heme iron when iron stores in the body are low. Moreover, vegans are very likely to intake a high amount of dietary iron due to a more balanced diet, so whatever difference there would be quickly cancels out. Just to throw some evidence in that direction, a recent study looking at iron intake in vegetarians found that there were absolutely no cases of low-iron intake or anemia in the vegetarians studied (Hunt 2003).
The review does, however, make some recommendations specifically for vegan athletes about supplementation for the following items:
B12 isn’t difficult to get enough of if you take a multi-vitamin or eat vegan foods fortified with b12 like many tofu products, vegan milk, cereals, oatmeal, and nutritional yeast. However, you can always supplement if you feel your diet planning has not worked out. Almost everyone is deficient in Vitamin D, including meat-eaters, so no matter who you are you should be supplementing vitamin D. Zinc is common in a multi-vitamin as well. When it comes to taurine, I would suggest supplementation for the more serious athletes. Apparently higher levels of taurine have been associated with increased muscle efficiency.
So, what are the first steps if you want to start eating vegan without giving up your athletic goals? We’ve got some recommendations on the next page!
First Steps to Vegan Sports Nutrition
I have reviewed some great examples of vegan athletes and multiple sources of scientific evidence suggesting that vegans and vegetarians have no disadvantage in sports performance of all types (and possibly a few advantages when it comes to energy levels) compared to other diets. The two main possible concerns related to maximal sports performance (for advanced athletes) was with creatine and taurine levels. However, supplementation of both creatine and taurine is easily available and commonly among many athletes.
What if you’re not an advanced athlete? The upshot for you is that going vegan for a healthier and cruelty-free diet will not affect your ability to get stronger or achieve an optimal fitness level. The one caveat is that in order to get stronger and achieve the optimal fitness level, you need to get serious about planning your diet properly. Of course, this is not unique to vegans. Even meat-eaters (and perhaps, especially meat-eaters) need to pay special attention to what they are eating in order to maximize sports and fitness results. I have some food recommendations below for getting adequate protein in a vegan diet, as well as good sources for supplementation.
You really just need to experiment with the diet yourself with the help of real scientific data and not just advice from your know-it-all friend. Science suggests trends and can get help debunk false claims made by the common gym-rat who does not have experience with a vegan diet. In the end you must literally be your own source of evidence and your own anecdote. Try a vegan diet yourself and see what you notice about your own performance. If you run into trouble at first, don’t give up. Think about what you are eating, and try to fix any inadequacies you might have overlooked.
My guess is that over time you will not feel held back, and in fact you will feel even better than before. However, know ahead of time that it will take some effort to shake old dietary habits. Most people will see immediate health benefits from going vegan just because they will be forced to eat a more balanced and healthy diet by restricting themselves from eating meat that dominates most western meals. I wish you the best of luck in your journey towards and healthier and cruelty-free diet. Many people who go vegan find that it changes more than their diet; it changes their lifestyle as a whole.
Food Recommendations for Beginner Vegan Athletes
- Seitan (3 oz): 31g
- Tofu (1/2 Block): 23g
- Tempeh (1/2 Block): 19g
- Lentils (1 cup cooked): 18g
- Split Peas (1 cup cooked): 17g
- Spinach (3 cups cooked): 15g
- Asparagus (3 cups cooked): 12g
- Mushrooms (3 cups cooked): 9g
- Quinoa (1 cup cooked): 8g
If you want premade vegan protein powder geared toward sports nutrition you can take Sun Warrior Protein or Spirutein. However, they are really pricey, so my recommendation is to order 2lbs of raw pea and raw rice protein separately. You can order them from NOW Sports for really cheap. If you take them both you have a complete amino acid profile.
Sources for Vegan Vitamins and Minerals
Note that most multi-vitamins and supplements are in gelcaps that are non-vegan because they are made of gelatin. Check out DEVA Vitamins for a great selection of everything you might need, all vegan-friendly and not over-priced.
Check out the next page for references.
Clarys P, Zinzen E, Hebbelinck M, Verlinden M. (1997). Influence of oral creatine supplementation on torque production in a vegetarian and non-vegetarian population . Vegetarian Nutrition 1(3):100-105.
Delanghe J, De Slypere JP, De Buyzere M, Robbrecht J, Wieme R, Vermeulen A. (1989). Normal reference values for creatine, creatinine, and carnitine are lower in vegetarians. Clin Chem. 1989 Aug;35(8):1802-3.
Furhman & Ferreri (2010). Fueling the vegetarian (vegan athlete). Current Sports Medicine.9(4); 233-241.
Hunt JR (2003). Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2003; 78(Suppl.):633SY9S
Lambert CP, Flynn MG (2002). Fatigue during high-intensity intermittent exercise: application to bodybuilding. Sports Med. 32(8):511-22.
Lemon PW (1998). Effects of exercise on dietary protein requirements (1998). Int J Sport Nutr. 1998 Dec;8(4):426-47.
Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. (1992). Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. J Appl Physiol. 1992 Aug;73(2):767-75.
Mickenberger R, V. (1989). Vegetarier im Hochleistungssport (Vegetarians and excellence in sport), Thesis, Institute of Sports Medicine, Goethe Universität, Frankfurt.
Shomrat A, Weinstein Y, Katz A. (2000). Effect of creatine feeding on maximal exercise performance in vegetarians. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2000 Jul;82(4):321-5.
Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. (1988). Influence of protein intake and training status on nitrogen balance and lean body mass. J Appl Physiol. 1988 Jan;64(1):187-93.