Fueling the Vegan Athlete

By Joel Fuhrman, M.D. www.drfuhrman.com.

Animal Products Are Not Necessary For High-Level Performance!

Vegan diets have been associated with a number of health benefits: lower risk of death from heart disease, lower LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, lower rates of type 2 diabetes, lower body mass index, and lower rates of cancers. The primary dietary factor that confers these health benefits is the increased consumption of whole plant foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans, and their associated beneficial nutrients—fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Processed foods and animal products account for 90 percent of calories consumed in the typical American diet, and these foods are devoid of the antioxidants and supportive phytochemicals that are abundant in unrefined plant foods.1 of animal foods does not in itself define a health-promoting diet that will support athletic performance. However, a nutritarian diet (plant-based diet designed to be micronutrient rich) with sufficient protein and calories can maintain low body fat while maximizing muscle endurance and disease-resistance. A properly nourished vegan athlete can compete effectively at a high level in endurance sports.

Vegetarian athletes

Evidence of athletic success on vegetarian and vegan diets was found as early as the 1890s, when vegetarian cyclists and long distance walkers in the U.S. and Great Britain performed as well as or better than their omnivorous peers. In 1912, a vegetarian was one of the first men to complete a marathon in under 2 hours 30 minutes. A 1970 study comparing thigh muscle width and pulmonary function in athletes saw no difference between those on vegetarian and omnivorous diets. Similar results on pulmonary function, endurance, arm and leg circumferences, and strength measures were seen in a 1986 study of vegetarian female Israeli athletes and matched non-vegetarian peers. Vegetarian athletes also performed equally to their omnivorous peers in athletic events of long duration. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians consuming the same quantity of carbohydrate did not show any difference in their rate of completion or time to completion of a 20-day, 1000 km run in West Germany in 1989. 2 Despite these results, which clearly do not indicate an athletic deficiency in vegetarians, concern regarding plant-based diets for athletes persists because of our society’s belief that large amounts of animal protein are needed to build muscle.

Present-day vegan athletes such as Tony Gonzalez of the Kansas City Chiefs, Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, track and field Olympian Carl Lewis, bodybuilder Kenneth Williams, and many others continue to provide evidence that very high-level athletic performance can be achieved without the consumption of animal products or byproducts.


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