So you wanna be a vegan athlete – what the hell is wrong with you? Settle down vegans, I’m only kidding, (well partially), I know how easy it is to rile you guys up. It may be the protein deficiency and blood sugar instability that sets you all off so easily. Ok kidding aside, I’m not a vegan-hater, just not a vegan-lover, and it’s not because I read a book or worship some meat-eater who pretends to know better. I have never seen a truly healthy vegan in my office, athlete or non-athlete, and rarely do I see a truly healthy vegetarian. Let me explain why I think this is and why I don’t think veganism is right for almost all people. Maybe you think it’s working for you – and maybe it really is. But more likely it isn’t the ideal diet for you but you just think it is. Huh? Read on…
A Dietary Change For the Better (?)
The classic vegan athlete I see (physically in my office) or hear about often is one who used to have a really unhealthy diet. They once ate a diet that often consisted of processed artificial foods, excess sugar, diet soda, and plenty of bad fats. Basically, their diet was a train wreck. Then they switched from this type of diet to either vegetarian, (often still eating milk and eggs – “ovo-lacto”), before going to hard-core vegan, though some have gone straight to the vegan route. What happens when they make this change? They feel great! They’ve cleaned up their diet from so many processed and artificial products that they’re reaping the health benefits. A vegan diet is so much better than what they were eating previously and if there were only a processed artificial diet and vegan diet to choose from then I’d go vegan too.
Vegan athletes feel that they cannot eat a healthy and clean diet without eliminating everything that contains or came from some living creature. However, consuming pasture raised eggs and undenatured dairy often equates with improved health (and fitness) for many even more than the fully vegan diet. And many see even a further improvement in their health when they add in grass fed meats and wild caught fish too, (a Paleo Type Diet).
Vegan Athletes and Protein
Vegan athletes tend to be deficient in protein. But I’ll add to this statement because the rebuttal here is that a healthy person doesn’t need much protein – maybe just 40 or so grams a day. To this I call bullshit – that’s just enough to get you by but not be healthy or sustain fitness. Heck, you only need roughly 10mg of vitamin C a day to prevent scurvy, but hopefully you’re striving for more than that (a bite of an orange), for overall health. Ideally a person should consume at least 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, and athletes should shoot for at least 1.5 g/kg. Many athletes during high intensity or long duration training periods should plan on 2.0 g/kg.
Vegan protein sources are almost primarily grain based and incomplete for the most part. Yes, quinoa is a so-called “complete protein” grain, but still not optimal when compared to animal proteins or even those proteins from an animal – especially whey and egg – perhaps the two best complete and bioavailable sources of protein.
Vegan athletes then turn to legumes, (beans & lentils), hempseed, and various grains such as amaranth and buckwheat for protein, increasing their dietary carbohydrate content. Yes, most legumes (the beans) are carbs, not proteins. Peanuts have a good amount of protein, though they are more of a fat. And then there is the somewhat dreaded soy. Soy proteins are notoriously known for their estrogen-mimicking effects on the human body – clearly not healthy. Soy proteins, (the ones that make up so many soy protein products and “fake meat” items), are often derived from petroleum-based solvents which is obviously not good for any body. Fermented soy, however, can be beneficial, and this includes tempeh, tamari, miso, and soy sauce. Though not a significant amount of protein, especially the soy sauce, they’re pretty good sources for vegans. But you only should, (and can), eat just so much soy, even fermented. Tofu is typically processed and it’s coagulated soy milk. Soy milk, like agave, (which is similar to high fructose corn syrup), are two foods that I feel should be removed from the food industry, especially health food stores. They are in no way healthy and they have no place in a healthy diet. But they’re both vegan.
Vegans, Fats, and Inflammation
Vegans are very susceptible to creating inflammatory problems directly due to their diet. As discussed in detail here in the Sock Doc First Aid Series Part III, high carbohydrate foods combined with refined omega 6 oils is a recipe for disaster. Many vegans eat a lot of these types of foods and even those who eat raw vegetables, nuts, and seeds need to be careful to not consume too many omega 6 fats. To help prevent this, flax and walnut oils can be included in the diet, providing some omega 3 fats. Unfortunately this still leaves the diet devoid of the important arachidonic acid (AA) fats from their natural source – animals. If you’re vegan there’s no way to get around this roadblock; of all the dietary fats I believe AA fats are vital and highly undervalued in regards to optimal health.
Nutrients and Phytonutients in a Vegan Diet
Vegans who consume a lot of raw, organic plant-based foods and shy away from the refined grains and processed foods tend to have very healthy levels of vitamins and minerals and especially those ever so healthy phytonutrients (powerful antioxidants that give the plants their flavors and colors). This is definitely one perk of the vegan diet, though any non-vegan healthy diet should also contain a lot of these fruits, vegetables, and herbs too. Since plant foods do not provide vitamin B12, many vegans need to supplement. Fortified foods often don’t make up for the deficiency and are of course only found in those processed unhealthy foods anyway.
Are Vegan Athletes Truly Healthy?
I’ve heard this line many times: “I’m very healthy and I’m vegan.” Then the person making that statement goes on to ask me why they keep getting injured, sick, or can’t get out of some low energy or training funk. Yes, I’m well aware that this is common for even non-vegans, but my point is that a lot of vegans think they’re healthy and they’re not.
Health is not merely the absence of some pathological disease. Many people think they are healthy but often they are not as healthy as they could be. Do you sleep well throughout the night without awakening and then wake up feeling refreshed without aches and pains? If not, I’d define that as poor health. Do you take any medication – whether it’s an anti-inflammatory, hormone replacement, a drug to wake up, to go to sleep, or to have sex? Taking any medication is a sign of some health problem, (though they are sometimes necessary). Do you lack physical and/or mental energy during the day? How about your digestion? Are you one of the many women (and sometimes guys) like those I see in my office who think it’s normal to have a bowel movement just a couple of times a week? That’s definitely not healthy. Do you need to wear an orthotic in order to walk without pain or need some form of traditional footwear with support and “cushion” so you can walk, stand, or even exercise? If you do you’re definitely not healthy from my perspective.
Think about how healthy you really are, and if your diet is promoting or deterring health.
The Vegan Athlete Role Model
Oh please don’t say that there are great athletes out there who are vegan and that’s your vegan justification. That’s just all wrong type of thinking. There are also great athletes eating McDonald’s and only drinking Red Bull and Diet Coke and they’re awesome. (Maybe they’re on drugs?!) You don’t know if that athlete is suffering some health problem, either functional or pathological. Don’t equate fitness with health and don’t assume that being vegan got him or her to the top of their sport.
Yes, some vegans choose to eat in such a way due to ethical or religious reasons and although I don’t agree with it, I understand and respect it, (more the religious aspect). I’ve never tried to change a person’s diet away from vegetarian or vegan which they are following due to their religion. I’ve tweaked it as much as possible within those religious guidelines and for vegetarians that often means a lot more eggs and whey protein and dairy fats. Those who choose to be vegan due to ethical reasons, feeling as though all other diets are unethical, I think are somewhat misled. There are ways to still eat non-vegan and be ethical and humane towards animals – even if you don’t actually eat them; case in point is the vegan omission of eggs and honey.
Eggs & Honey: Vegans Just Say No!
Vegans won’t eat eggs due to the commercial treatment of hens and egg factories, and eggs have the possibility of becoming a living creature. I’ve got a good dozen egg-layers running around my yard and I know more than a thing or two about these birds, one being is that the egg which they lay isn’t going to turn into a cute little chick unless it has been inseminated by a rooster. So no rooster – no chick. But the hen will still lay her egg every day and if you don’t eat the egg, then you’re wasting food. It’s that simple. Now even if you have a cool-as-hell rooster around as I do, (we call him the Colonel), that hen then has to go broody to have that little chick hatch from the egg. That means she has to sit on it, and stay on it. Many hens never go broody – actually we’ve never had one go broody. So again, that perfectly laid source of protein egg containing vital nutrients for health will once again be wasted – not if it’s laid, but when it’s laid. You’re not going to stop a hen from laying, at least not naturally. So I could be very direct here and say vegans waste food, but I won’t go there though I just did. And yes I understand that many vegans don’t want to support commercial farming of eggs; neither do I.
Vegans also won’t use honey because they feel it harms, enslaves, or kills bees. I’m a beekeeper and can tell you that a responsible beekeeper isn’t just stealing honey and then feeding the bees nutrient-poor sugar water and they sure aren’t stealing honey from a hive and leaving the bees to die. If there is a hive full of honey then eventually the queen has no place to lay her eggs and guess what – she takes off with much of her staff. The hive swarms and honey is left behind in a hive with half a colony and that’s ready to be robbed by other bees or pests. A beekeeper will only take off the surplus honey. Some years, such as this past year, there wasn’t much honey surplus and most colonies have now needed sugar water to get ready for the upcoming winter, without it they will most likely die. If they die then that’s less bees next year and that’s worse for pollination for all the vegan crops. And the notion that keeping bees in a hive is a form of enslavement is just plain nuts; sorry but it is. The traditional hive is a great place for a colony to live and thrive and protect themselves. They can come and go when they please too – I’ve never known a slave to have that freedom. Again, I understand that commercial farming of bees is a huge problem.
A Final Vegan Note
Here’s the point – follow a diet that works for you and don’t assume that you’re on the ideal diet for your genetics, chemistry, lifestyle and activity level based solely upon what you read or what someone else is doing. You need to figure out and fine tune your own individual diet. If you were eating junk food for years and switched to vegan and feel awesome then I applaud you, (really, but not literally – sorry), but assuming that you’re now on the road to optimum health is shortsighted. You very well, and I’ll say from experience most likely will, feel even better if you add in some high quality protein and vital fats and nutrients that come from, and are in, animal products. Notice that I said “come from” – you don’t need to be a meat-eater to have a healthy diet, but swinging to the opposite team isn’t necessarily the best idea for most either.