Being a Vegan Elite Athlete
Vegan Athletes on the rise
According to the vegan society, the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled in the last 4 years and there are now (2018) over half a million people following a wholly plant-based diet. As veganism sweeps the nation and the developed world, it is perhaps inevitable that there are an increasing number of elite athletes who are becoming vegans. Whether for moral or ethical reasons, or specific medical conditions, or for its reported health benefits, more and more people are ditching the animal products and opting instead for a wholly plant-based diet. The vegan elite athlete is very much a thing of today.
Vegan Elite Athletes
In line with vegans in general, the number of vegan elite athletes is on the rise. A number of high profile sports stars have chosen to follow a vegan diet in recent years and have spoken out about how it works for them. Footballer Jermain Defoe describes himself as ‘virtually vegan’, still choosing to eat fish occasionally. He credits his new diet as the major reason why he is still performing at the top level for club (AFC Bournemouth in the English Premier League) and country aged 35.
“I made changes to my diet last season and instantly felt better for it,” Defoe says.
Top Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton was pescatarian for a while before going fully vegan in 2017. Tennis player Venus Williams follows a raw vegan diet to help combat the symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease which leads to joint pain and tiredness. Other top athletes who follow plant-based diets include double world title-winning boxer David Haye and 3 times Olympic-medallist snowboarder Hannah Teter. Alongside Jermain Defoe, many other top footballers follow wholly or predominantly plant-based diets, most recognisably Jack Wilshere, Hector Bellerin, Fabian Delph, Sergio Aguerro and, last but by no means least, Lionel Messi!
There is even a whole team doing it… Forest Green Rovers in Gloucestershire are a 100% vegan club. All staff follow a vegan diet and there are no animal products are on sale at their stadium on match days either, so the fans are vegan too, at least for one afternoon a week!
Pros and Cons of Veganism
There is a big national debate going on about whether a vegan diet is healthier than a traditional balanced diet. Veganism is relatively new, so more research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn.
There are some obvious benefits of a plant-based diet if it’s done properly. Eating less processed foods and more fresh fruit and vegetables is standard advice that is being shared far and wide to try to improve the general health of the population.
Fruit and vegetables are rich in certain vitamins and minerals, fibre and antioxidants, all of which are beneficial to health.
Avoiding meat and dairy means that vegans generally consume less saturated fat, contributing to lower cholesterol.
Vegans are likely to eat fewer calories than meat-eaters, so they are less likely to become overweight and experience the many health problems that excess weight can bring.
However, there are some significant issues with a wholly plant-based diet. Animals have done much of the useful processing before becoming or producing food for humans, so animal products are very nutrient-dense.
For most people, dietary protein comes from meat and fish, and these are completely missing from a vegan diet. Protein, along with carbohydrate, is key for elite athletes
Vitamin B12 is made by micro-organisms and isn’t produced by plants, so there is none naturally occurring in a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anaemia and nervous system damage, and ultimately compromise heart health if uncorrected.
Iron and Omega-3 essential fat are other potential pitfalls for vegans as the best source of these is meat and fish, respectively, and support many functions of a healthy body. Omega-3 is present in some nuts and seeds but in low quantities. Iron is found in leafy green veg as well as beans and pulses.
Veganism in Elite Athletes
Most people associate dietary protein with meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Most people also understand that athletes generally eat a high protein diet because they need the amino acids in the proteins for muscle development and repair. Therefore, it is clear that being a vegan AND an elite athlete presents a specific challenge… how to get enough protein without eating animal products. On top of this, athletes expend lots of calories in training and matches, so they need to consume enough calories to fuel that activity. Vegans don’t eat many of the most calorie rich foods so there is a second challenge, making sure to eat enough calories.
Vegan Athlete with Discreet & Delicious
Discreet & Delicious Performance Chefs were approached by a Premier League footballer who followed a vegan diet due to a pre-existing medical condition. He understood about the vegan diet and its implications for him as an elite athlete but didn’t have the kitchen skills to be able to make himself an interesting, tasty and varied diet suitable for his specific needs. He needed help, and with input from his club nutritionist, he came to us.
The skills and experience of a Discreet & Delicious Performance Chef allow us to take vegan sources of protein, such as pulses, beans and nuts, and turn them into exceptionally flavoursome food. Effectively making the normal range of meals but in such a way that no animal products are needed. The Performance Chefs understanding of nutrition, on top of their chef expertise, makes them the ideal choice to align the restrictions of a vegan diet with the specific demands of a Periodised Nutrition programme for a Premier League footballer.
Macro-nutrients and Veganism
The key components of a Periodised Nutrition programme for an elite athlete are the day-to-day variation in proportion of the 3 macro-nutrients; carbohydrate, protein and fats. Then, alongside these, the athlete needs a broad range of nutrients and vitamins.
Carbohydrates for vegans are no different to those for anyone else, as all the main sources of starchy carbohydrate are plant-based, such as rice, potato and pasta. In simple terms, carbohydrates provide fuel for the body.
Protein, in a normal diet, mostly comes from meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. For a vegan the majority of the protein comes from things like pulses, beans, tofu and nuts. Protein helps with muscle repair and growth and is clearly a vital dietary element for any elite athlete.
Fats are probably the most complicated. Many people believe fat is the enemy, but the right fats are actually an essential part of any diet. In particular, they enable the body to absorb certain vitamins and facilitate the efficient transfer of electrical signals in our brains and nerves. Omnivores get their good fats mainly from fish, but vegans get much of their essential fats from nuts and seeds, avocados and soybeans.
It takes experience and a good understanding of nutrition to be able to include exactly the right amounts of these macro-nutrients in any diet, but especially in a vegan diet where the options are more limited. It takes experience and skill to make these ingredients into varied and delicious meals day after day.
Discreet and Delicious Performance Chefs
This is where Discreet and Delicious come in. Our Performance Chefs already have a good understanding of performance nutrition, but we also like to work with the player’s personal or club Nutritionists to ensure that we are providing exactly the food that they need and none of the food they shouldn’t have.
A lot of the food recommended by nutritionists, whilst undoubtedly good for the player, can be rather dull and uninspiring. What we do is add the cheffy know-how to make those foods interesting and tasty without diluting the nutritional value.
They don’t need to worry about understanding the nutrition advice they are given and what food they are eating, they can trust us to feed them the right food and make it taste delicious. We work with them to make tweaks to flavour and texture until it is just as they like it… spicier, sweeter, thinner, crunchier.
Improve your performance, minimise injuries and prolong your career. Contact us for more information regarding vegan elite athletes.