12 August 2012

Can vegans win gold?

With the Olympics having been so prominent, the question arises, can a vegan diet provide enough fuel for a top athlete? Many worry that while good for our health generally,  a vegetarian or vegan diet, will be short on meat, short on energy, short on performance. So let us go “Out on a Limb”, examine some evidence and hear from some experts in the field. But first:

Thought for the Day
Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups:
alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and fat.
                                 - Alex Levine

Nancy Clark, who rather euphemistically describes herself as “two-thirds vegetarian” — she only eats meat at dinner, not breakfast or lunch — is a sports nutrition expert in Massachusetts and the author of “Nancy Clark’s Food Guide for Marathoners.” Nancy claims that currently there is not enough solid research to know how vegetarian — let alone vegan — diets affect athletes.

That in itself strikes me as remarkable. Is no one interested? Seems like sport is similar to the cancer field, where research investigating nutrition as a therapy is only recently beginning to gather momentum. However, as Clark says, anecdotally vegan athletes do fine.

Some of the “anecdotes" were pretty good. Check the link to Carl Lewis – probably the world’s greatest Olympic athlete. Carl said he became a full vegan because it improved his performance. Sadly, the great Aussie swimmer, Murray Rose died recently. Back in the 50s, Murray was a full vegan and became perhaps the first of the super swimmers.

David C. Nieman, a vegetarian and professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, has run 58 marathons or ultramarathons and has studied runners at extreme events. Asked if an athlete can get enough protein on a vegan diet, Nieman says that dairy products and eggs, are the easy ways to get protein in a plant-based diet.

However, as a vegan, you still have grains, nuts, soy. Eat enough of those and you will be fine. However, while these are good sources of vegan protein, they are not as bioavailable as meat. So you need to eat a greater volume of them relatively speaking

The one issue Nieman is concerned about is vitamin B12, which is found only in meat. B12 is important for endurance athletes ( and everyone else), since it affects red blood cell production. But many cereals and soy milks are fortified with B12 now, or you can take supplements.

D. Enette Larson-Meyer, an associate professor of human nutrition at the University of Wyoming, as well as a longtime competitive athlete and author of “Vegetarian Sports Nutrition” answers another important question regarding how to obtain the complete range of proteins from a vegan/vegetarian diet.

“Years ago, studies in rats showed that if they were fed only one source of protein, like corn, all day, they did not get sufficient amounts of essential amino acids. From that, the idea grew that you had to combine proteins at the same meal. But since then, other studies have found that if you get multiple sources of protein throughout the day, that will be fine. For example, have rice at breakfast and beans at lunch or dinner.”

What about calories?

According to Nancy Clark it is not hard at all. “My favorite weight gain or weight maintenance advice is to drink juice. Grape juice, pomegranate juice, tart cherry juice. They have plenty of calories, and if you pick the right juice, especially pomegranate or tart cherry juice, it looks as if they can help with recovery. Tart cherry juice was a very popular topic at a recent American College of Sports Medicine meeting. It’s a potent beverage, in terms of speeding recovery. And it’s vegan.

What about weight loss or gain?

David Nieman says that vegetarians tend to weigh 6 to 10 pounds less than meat eaters. “But the lower weights are probably due to self-selection bias. Many vegetarians are more health conscious to start with. You can overeat on a plant-based diet. There are obese vegetarians. Junk food can be vegetarian. You still have to make healthy food choices, whatever your diet.” Clearly, with obesity being such a huge issue, being lighter is a good thing.

So what is best?

David Nieman:
“What we know is that when it comes to endurance performance, it’s all about the fuel, primarily carbohydrates, and you can get sufficient carbohydrates whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat eater — unless you follow a really goofy diet, which some people do. It’s possible to eat a lousy vegetarian diet, just as you as can eat a lousy meat-based diet.”


What fuel goes into your tank?

Would you eat like a dog?


CDs Eating well, being well – summarizes how to eat well as a vegetarian or vegan.


  1. Hi my daughter is currently training as a elite ballet dancer at 12yrs. She was a vegetarian for all her life, but now with so much training she eats at least 4 large meals of beef a week she is to weak to dance without it. Lea Rose

  2. That sounds ghastly! Surely common sense tells you that is a bad diet. At 12 years old she would not know,but you are her mum, and should be told.