The Pros and Cons of Vegan Athletes

The Pros and Cons of Vegan Athletes 7

For a long time, way too long, in fact, there was a popular misconception that being vegan meant somehow being sickly, malnourished and prone to being blown over by a strong breeze.  Likewise, there was also another related myth doing the rounds that said that to be a successful athlete, you needed meat, dairy, and eggs.  The image of defensive ends and front-row rugby players stuffing themselves with red meat sprang to mind.

As with all myths, and especially those two, nothing could be further from the truth.  It has become increasingly established that a vegan diet is actually one of the best ways to get your body into tip-top shape, particularly so as a vegan athlete.

The number of world-class athletes and sports stars that are vegan continues to grow.  Take your pick from any of:

·        Venus Williams – 23-time grand slam tennis champion.

·        Lewis Hamilton – six-time Formula One world champion.

·        Nate Diaz – world top ten MMA fighter.

·        John Salley – NBA legend.

·        Mirco Bergamasco – international rugby player.

·        NFL players:  DaQuan Jones, Cam Newton, Theo Riddick and more.

·        Carl Lewis – nine-time Olympic gold-medallist.

·        Peter Siddle and Jason Gillespie – international cricket players.

And that list is far from complete! [1]

While that is quite some vegan roll-call, in the interests of balance, let’s look in a bit more detail at the pros of being a vegan athlete and then the cons.

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The Pros.

Better oxygenation of the blood:

While meat, dairy, and eggs come with some protein, vitamins, and minerals, they also come with the likes of saturated fat and cholesterol.  Increased levels of both of those means that the blood’s viscosity (thickness) is compromised by becoming even thicker, which in turn means it is less efficient at delivering blood around the body.  Conversely, a balanced vegan diet can deliver just as many nutrients (if not more) and virtually eliminates both saturated fat and cholesterol. That then allows for improved blood viscosity, which enables better physical performance, duration, and recovery. [2]

Better heart health:

For our athletic performance to be the best it can be, it is of course well known that the heart is at the, well, the heart of that!  A vegan diet means much less cholesterol, less arterial plaque and lower blood pressure, which in turn means that the heart is able to work ever more efficiently.  That allows for better endurance for longer periods of time – something that is, of course, vital to athletic performance.

Reduced inflammation:

Another health problem caused by meat and dairy is that of inflammation.  It is becoming increasingly established that the body does not do at all well with animal products and that one negative reaction of that is inflammation.  For athletes who want to achieve the best performance and to also recover from fatigue and potential injury, unnecessary inflammation is, of course, something that needs to be avoided.

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In stark contrast, plant-based food does not cause inflammation.   In fact, there is evidence out there to show that it is not only non-inflammatory but actually anti-inflammatory.[3] Which is, of course, good news for vegan athletes who want to stay in the best condition possible.

Less bodily congestion:

As we saw, a vegan diet means way less cholesterol congestion in the body, which means the potential for much better athletic performance.  There is though also another way in which a vegan diet reduces “clog” in the body – and that is through increased fiber intake.

Plant-based foods come with generous amounts of fiber, whereas meat, dairy, and eggs are very much the opposite of that. A diet that is rich in fiber, as is a vegan one, means better, more effective digestive health, less bloating and can help with weight loss/control as to when eaten it allows us to stay feeling fuller for longer.  All of those are key for athletes to stay in the best shape possible. 

Quicker recovery times:

Plant-based foods come with a great deal more antioxidant content than meat, dairy, and eggs.  What that means for a vegan athlete is that the body is better able to fight off the sort of fatigue that can diminish performance. Those antioxidants can also help to take out free radicals that cause inflammation and other problems in the body. [4]

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The Cons.

While it is very apparent that there are way more pros as a vegan athlete than there are cons, there are still a couple of things to be mindful of.

Falling short on protein / essential amino acids:

Protein is vital to us all, including athletes.  It literally makes us what we are in that it enables the body to function, grow and repair itself.  From an athletes’ perspective, protein is required for muscle mass and other soft tissue development, as well as a cognitive function such as concentration and memory.

However, it’s not just a case of sufficient protein or not.  That’s because protein itself needs its own building blocks – amino acids.

The body can manufacture 11 amino acids itself (called non-essential amino acids) but needs to source another nine externally through diet (known as essential amino acids).  Miss out on any of your essential amino acids for too long a period of time and it’s likely to be the doctor you end up seeing rather than the gym or the sports field.

Meat, dairy, and eggs tend to come with a sufficient amount of the full range of essential amino acids, whereas most plant-based foods come with some, but not all.  That said, there are easily accessible vegan food-stuffs out there that offer up the full gamut of essential amino acids, including tofu, quinoa, buckwheat, nutritional yeast, beans, and rice mix and even the humble peanut butter sandwich.

For a vegan athlete, ensuring that you are meeting your daily intake of essential amino acids is something to be mindful of (as it should be for all vegans) but is far from impossible.


The Pros and Cons of Vegan Athletes 11The Pros and Cons of Vegan Athletes 12

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Vitamin shortfalls:  B12 and D:

While any vitamin shortfall is never good news, there are two in particular that vegan athletes need to be mindful of:  vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

We need vitamin B12 to allow the body to produce and maintain cells, blood, and the nervous system.  If those areas are compromised, so too would be your performance out on the field or in the gym (as well as regular day to day life too).

Vitamin D is crucial for healthy hair, teeth and, critically from an athlete’s perspective, bones.  Weakened bone, among other significant health issues, increases the risk of sustaining serious injuries that also take longer to recover from.

Both vitamin B12 and vitamin D can be obtained relatively easily through a non-vegan diet including meat, dairy, and eggs.  For vegan athletes, that is of course not an option, and not all plant-based foods easily offer up B12 and D. Again though, while this is something to be mindful of, it is not impossible to achieve.  Vitamin B12 can be obtained from things like seaweed, nutritional yeast, and fortified plant-milk, juices and cereals. Vitamin D can also be sourced from fortified milk, juice, and cereals, as well as from mushrooms.

And on top of that, if needs be, a vegan athlete can always look to use vegan-friendly vitamin supplements to ensure optimal health and excel in their sports performance.

Preconceptions (to help spur you on):

While veganism continues to grow in popularity, so does the public understanding of it.  However, there are still misunderstandings and outright prejudices out there against veganism, especially so in sporting and athletic circles.  Sadly, the idea that vegans are weak and unable to compete properly still persists.

While this may be a downside of sorts, every vegan athlete knows how to best turn that around to their advantage.  For example, take vegan heavyweight boxing champion, David Haye. In the run-up to their fight in January 2016, his opponent non-vegan Mark De Mori thought it a good idea to taunt Haye at a pre-match conference by offering him small bags of lamb to “improve his performance.”  Haye, looking suitably unimpressed, later let his vegan prowess do the talking in the ring by knocking De Mori down and out to win the fight! [5]

In conclusion:

Sport is so often about percentages and looking for that extra edge over one’s opponents.  A vegan diet offers athletes of all pedigree and levels a great way to do just that. No diet offers up so much potential for performance, as well as both helping the animals and the planet to boot! 

As we saw at the start of this article, the list of stellar sporting performers eye-opening and is undoubtedly more than just coincidence.  Vegans now walk tall among the ranks of world champions and Olympians – and rightly so! Have no doubt that as veganism continues to grow around the planet, we can expect to see more and more vegan athletes raising trophies and standing on the medals podium. 







Hi, my name is Jason and I am a vegan with a keen interest in plant-based diet and nutrition. This site was set up to help me explore the research, facts, and myths about veganism. Please feel free to contact me if you have any comments, questions or suggestions.

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