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Ever since the early days of the bodybuilding industry some decades ago, muscle heads such as Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger (perhaps the most famous of them all) have been preaching the gospel of just how important protein is for muscle growth. Because of this narrative, people have since been taking action to up their intake of protein.
Sure, there are many protein supplements that have emerged onto the market. You can’t seem to go anywhere without seeing protein bars, powders, drinks, and even chews. But despite the boom of the protein supplement industry, one thing is certain: meat has been a staple in the athlete or bodybuilder’s diet for several decades.
But times are changing, and common beliefs are now being tested. One of today’s biggest questions, of course, is this: Do athletes really need meat for protein or any animal products for that matter? Due to increased awareness of environmental issues and heightened compassion for animals, many people are now converting to a vegan diet and lifestyle. In fact, even the most famous bodybuilding meat-eater of them all––Arnold Schwarzenegger ––now follows a mostly plant-based diet and is promoting a vegan diet to his fans.
Meat-Eating vs. Vegan Athletes, which Is Better? Because of the varying opinions and so-called facts that are floating around the internet, many people are torn on which is truly the best for athletes. Meat-eating athletes are touting the necessity of meat for protein, and vegan athletes are touting that vegan protein provides everything you need and more. So which is it? In this article, we’ll explore some facts about each diet to see which is truly better for health and performance. Let’s dive in.
Benefits of a Meat-Inclusive Diet
As you already know, an omnivorous diet is where everything goes, including both animal-based foods and plant-based foods. For centuries, this is the type of diet that humans have followed. Studies even show that it is the diet humans were designed to follow, due to our anatomy and evolutionary history.
Since omnivores are able to eat a wider spectrum of foods as mentioned above, they have more options for ways of getting nutrition. Eggs, for example, provide lots of protein and are packed with many essential nutrients. Also, meat is known for being especially protein and nutrient-dense, which makes it a good source of calories. When omnivores eat a healthy mix of animal-based and plant-based foods, they can enjoy good health and good performance in many cases.
As mentioned earlier, since omnivores (meat-eaters) are open to eating a wide variety of food, it allows them more flexibility and ways to get the proper balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein, and micronutrients. For meat-eating athletes, this is a good thing since it means they can easily consume enough to fuel their workouts and enjoy a long-lasting performance. Here’s a list/recap of the most notable benefits that meat-eating athletes enjoy:
● Rich in healthy fats. Fat has had a bad rep for a long time, but good fats are, well, good for you. Meat and other animal-based products are rich in omega-3 fats, which improve heart health, speed up recovery, and reduce inflammation.
● Rich in zinc and vitamin B12. These essential nutrients are important for athletes because they boost energy levels and even immune function.
● Manages hunger. As an athlete, staying in shape is essential. For athletes who are especially prone to cravings, eating meat and other animal-based products promote satiety, meaning cravings will come less often.
● Rich in protein. As you know, protein is essential for good health and muscle growth and repair. Especially for athletes, it is important to get enough protein in the diet. Omnivorous diets are rich in protein, which makes this no issue.
● More energy. Athletes require a lot of energy to fuel their performances, even more so than the average person. Unlike a vegan diet, an omnivorous diet allows meat-eating athletes a wider range of calorie sources, allowing them to easily meet their energy and nutritional needs.
Cons of a Meat-Inclusive Diet
On the flip side, this flexibility in the diet also serves as a cause for concern. Since omnivores are able to eat just about any type of food, they are also more likely to eat the wrong kinds. Junk foods such as chips, fast food, desserts, and candy bars are all prime examples of bad foods that omnivores tend to eat in excess. In fact, omnivores tend to be more overweight compared to their plant-eating friends.
Moreover, an omnivorous diet is also high in saturated fats, cholesterol, and artificial hormones. For this reason, omnivores also tend to suffer more from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Unfortunately, meat-eating athletes are not immune to the cons of an omnivorous diet. Just as with those who don’t partake in athletic sports, meat-eating athletes can still develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other health concerns if they do not watch their diet. As a general rule, an omnivorous diet should consist of mostly plants with high-quality and organic meat-based products in the mix.
Pros of a Vegan Diet
Contrary to the diet of meat-eating athletes, vegan athletes refrain from eating any and all animal-based products such as meat, eggs, dairy, and even honey. Instead, they enjoy a diet entirely based on plants such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and even algae.
Thanks to modern science and research, we now know that a vegan diet is very beneficial for overall health. In fact, vegans tend to have lower BMIs, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and lower risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and diabetes. They’re even reported to live longer according to several studies.
One of the greatest benefits vegan athletes enjoy is an abundance of good-for-you fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients. It’s a common fact a large percentage of Americans don’t get quite enough fiber and plant-based nutrients. By eating a vegan diet rich in plant-based foods, vegans enjoy greater general health.
For vegan athletes, eating a diet rich in plants provides many benefits, such as:
● Improved heart performance. A vegan diet maintains heart health, which reduces weight and improves cardiovascular performance.
● Improved blood viscosity. This allows more oxygen to reach your muscles, further improving your performance and longevity in longer workouts.
● More energy. In general, plant-based foods are rich in carbohydrates. Since carbohydrates are more readily available for the body to use as energy, many vegans report having more and sustained energy throughout their performances.
● Reduced fatigue. Many foods in today’s world contain free radicals, which lead to muscle and overall fatigue and longer recovery time. Since plants are rich in antioxidants, they help to neutralize free radicals to prevent these negative effects.
● Possible increase in VO2 max. As you know, your VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use at a given time, especially during especially intense workouts. Since a vegan diet reduces body fat and improves blood and oxygen flow, vegan athletes tend to enjoy a higher VO2 max.
Cons of a Vegan Diet
No matter how great a vegan diet may be, there are still a few cons that any vegan athlete should consider. As an athlete, it is absolutely essential for you to get enough calories and proper nutrition. If you don’t, malnutrition and weakened performance could be the result.
While a vegan diet is indeed a great way to improve your overall health, it tends to be much less calorie-dense compared to the omnivorous diet of a meat-eating athlete. This means that although you may feel full and believe you’re eating enough, it can still be very possible that you aren’t. If you’re not eating enough calories, your performance will suffer as a result. Therefore, you’ll need to be more mindful that you count your calories to ensure you’re eating enough to fuel your workouts and performances.
Furthermore, a vegan diet makes it difficult (but not impossible) to get enough vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B12, and iron. The great news is, many vegan foods are either a natural or fortified source of most of these nutrients. Vitamin B12, however, is only naturally found in eggs, meat, milk, or a massive amount of soy or rice. If you don’t get enough vitamin B12 in your diet, you risk developing health issues such as a loss of balance, weakened memory, or even dementia in severe cases. Since it’s not readily available in plant-based foods, you’ll need to supplements to ensure optimal health.
The Verdict: Which is Better?
As you can see, both meat-eating athletes and vegan athletes experience their fair share of benefits and disadvantages. Meat-eating athletes enjoy more and richer sources of calories (energy), while vegan athletes enjoy foods that are especially nutrient-dense. Therefore, both meat-eating athletes and vegan athletes can do and perform well with their diets.
However, for the sake of overall health beyond athletic performance, a vegan diet is clearly the better of the two. Not only can it provide the right amount of calories and nutrition to fuel and boost your performance in those intense sessions, but a vegan diet can also provide an abundance of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that promote optimal health. In fact, vegans tend to be thinner and have a reduced risk of developing some of the most dangerous diseases, therefore living longer and healthier lives.
Not only that, but a vegan diet may just be the best action you can take to protect the environment and save the lives of many animals. And who knows? You may just experience greater performance due to the simple fact of feeling proud about your healthy and beneficial decision to become a vegan athlete.