By William Brady, M.A.
When thinking of making a transition to a healthier and cruelty-free vegan diet, one concern I often hear, particularly in men, is whether or not a vegan diet can support muscle building and athletic performance.
The concern is not from thin air – certainly the dominant view in popular body building and sports culture is that to maximize performance one needs a meat-packed diet in order to get the proper amount of protein, iron, etc. However, I am always surprised to see that a majority of information floating around in gyms, and even from legitimate coaches and athletes, is based on mere opinions and anecdotes but not any scientific data.
If you are one of the people who has concerns about a plant-based diet and sports nutrition, ask yourself where your concerns come from. Are they based on scientific articles you read, or are they based on a general knowledge or a “feeling” you have?
In this article I will attempt to wash away a few common misconceptions about vegan sports nutrition. I will illustrate that a vegan diet–done properly–provides no disadvantage from the perspective of sports nutrition and will also provide a few helpful suggestions for taking first steps towards a vegan diet with an athlete’s needs in mind. Importantly, this article will utilize actual scientific data to provide an objective assessment, rather than a partisan campaign.
Examples of Current Vegan Athletes
Before getting into the science and specific nutrients, it is normally helpful for those who are skeptical of a vegan diet applied to sports nutrition to see some actual cases. Here I will only show a few striking cases, but if you are wondering why the cases are not easy to find, just remember this simple point: just because something is not traditionally done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done successfully. Similarly, there mere fact that most people eat a meat-based diet does not mean a plant-based diet does not work. It’s only a tradition.
One of my favorite cases to talk about is the power lifter Patrik Baboumian. Patrik is currently known as the world’s strongest man in Germany (nicknamed ‘The Armenian Viking’ due to his original birthplace), and has won multiple championships in the world-renowned Strongman Competition. He also deadlifts 795 lbs, squats 685 lbs, and benches 475 lbs. And this is all raw power lifting, meaning without the use of special gear that can increase numbers dramatically. To put these numbers into perspective, some of the best raw power lifters in the world are deadlifting in the 900lb range. So Patrik is up there with some the most elite power lifters in the world, and he fuels his muscles with a completely plant-based diet as a vegan.
Moving from power lifting to body building, there are a growing number of vegan and vegetarian competitive bodybuilders. One great success story is Joel Kirkilis, an Australian bodybuilder who has won the ANB Victorian Championships and second prize in the NABBA/WFF International Bodybuilding competition. If you look this guy up, you will see that he is, well, huge. He is completely vegan and lists some of his favorite foods as tofu, broccoli, spinach and quinoa.
There many examples in the realm of more traditional American professional sports cropping up these days as well. Tony Fiammetta is a fullback for the New England Patriots, weighs 240 lbs, and is a vegan. Mac Danzig is a well-known vegan MMA fighter who has been a UFC champion. Scott Jurek–one of the leading ultra-marathon runners in the world–is vegan.
It is also appropriate to point out that some famous and successful professional sports trainers are vegans and advocate the vegan diet. Mike Mahler has trained multiple MMA champions (e.g. Frank Shamrock – a UFC light heavyweight champion) and is a vegan who advocates the diet to his clients. Robert dos Remedios is a collegiate strength training coach voted by the NCSA to be the best trainer in the country in 2006. He is vegan and advocates the diet to his clients.
Finally, I always like to brag about my younger brother Ryan Brady, who was a pole vaulter at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the top 25 track and field programs in the nation. Ryan has measured a vertical jump of 36.5 inches and a 40 yd dash time of 4.47 seconds. To put those numbers in perspective, the average NBA player has a vertical of around 35 inches. Ryan is a vegan.
As the cases of vegan athletes continue to pile up, the idea of the plant-based diet applied to sports nutrition will begin to lose some of its mystery. But for now, here is some science to back up the idea that a plant-based diet can successfully fuel athletic performance. I will go through three topics briefly: protein, energy, and overall performance. Full references for all cited studies can be found on the last page.
William Brady is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and neuroscience at New York University. He has been vegan for 2 years and in terms of sports performance he trains for speed and explosive power. He runs the site Vegan Cooking For Men that contains nutrient-dense (and delicious) cooking ideas and other information for vegan athletes.
Image Credit: Bodybuilder photo via Shutterstock