Introduction to Vegan Diets
Vegan (noun);a person who does not eat or use animal products.
In 2016, The Telegraph reported that the UK has seen a 360% increase in veganism over the last decade. The reason for the dietary choice’s growing popularity is thought to be largely due to awareness of animal welfare issues brought to light through social media and the number of high-profile figures who have adopted veganism, including athletes such as Venus Williams (tennis) and David Haye (boxing).
There are 7 sub-categories of individual who choose to abstain from certain/specific animal produce to various degrees. ‘Veganism’ is considered the category that is most restrictive in which the individual does not consume any form of animal product.
What are the major concerns?
Note: this blog post seeks only to discuss human health and performance issues, not ethical and animal welfare issues.
There are thought to be a number of benefits to a well-structured vegan diet. You may find performance benefit through an increase in anti-oxidants, particularly vitamins C and E. An increase in antioxidants is thought to aid in managing inflammation, both systemically and acutely post-exercise (although this is merely a hypothesis and has yet to be demonstrated in empirical research). A plant-based diet is also a higher-carbohydrate diet, which may have a performance benefit if regularly engaging in endurance exercise (Fuhrman and Ferreri, 2010).
Obviously (I hope), eliminating any major food group from your diet reduces your intake of various nutrients. When eliminating all animal products you are removing a huge variety of essential nutrients for health, performance and optimal body composition (meaning: increased muscle tissue and reduced body fat). Deficiencies in a vegan diet are thought to be of even greater concern if little attention is paid to accommodating for losses that exclusion creates (Craig, 2009).
Primary concerns are:
1. Maintaining total energy intake (the amount of calories you consume) for optimal function is often a struggle for vegans due to the low energy density of plant-based foods on average. Low-energy intake is the reason why many see an initial reduction in body weight when first begining a vegan diet. However, this can subsequently lead to a reduced immune system, impaired reproductive function and muscle loss.
2. Plant-based diets and the consumption of raw food (in particular) can cause poor nutrient absorption due to the various compounds contained within plants that interfere with uptake in the gastrointestinal tract.
3. Protein intake is of paramount importance for regular exercisers and anyone seeking to optimise their health and body composition. Veganism’s most voiced criticism is the frequent lack of complete proteins (proteins containing all essential amino acids) when assessed empirically. Complete proteins are found primary in animal products and exercisers rely on a few specific amino acids called branched-chain amino acids. These three amino acids are paramount in building and maintaining muscle tissue but are very scarce in a plant-based diet.
How are they best addressed?
The purpose of this blog is not to “convert you” (the vegan) to eating as an omnivore, but to help optimise your intake to achieve your health, performance and body composition goals.
1. Focus on consuming energy-dense foods.
Most plant-based foods primarily comprise of sugar, starch and fibre. They typically lack significant energy to support metabolism and performance during workouts. Try ensuring the daily consumption of various energy-dense foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds and oils.
2. Plant-based foods often contain anti-nutrients and nutrient inhibitors such as polyphenols and phytates.
To reduce the level of anti-nutrients and inhibitors that can lead to deficiencies the following steps can be taken (Rogerson, 2017):
– Breads can be leavened.
– Grains and nuts can be fermented or sprouted.
– Frequent consumption of raw foods should be avoided.
3. ‘Protein’ comes from the Greek origin “proteos” meaning: of first importance and must be optimised.
There are various high-protein plant-based foods such as: pumpkin seeds, lentils, black beans, almonds and quinoa. However, these foods are only “high-protein” compared to other plants. Good luck eating 100g of protein each day from black beans; you would need well over 1kg of beans to get your protein intake!
My opinion is that supplementation with protein shakes and amino acid supplements are absolutely essential to health and certainly to performance in the gym. Although the quality of rice/pea protein is far inferior to Whey, Sun Warrior produce a good post-workout shake (LINK) and consuming branched-chain-amino-acids with each feeding should be considered part of the meal.
Veganism, being a relatively new dietary choice, has only a small body of research behind its long-term effects on human health. There are certainly some benefits of a well-structured vegan diet ranging from increased fibre intake to perhaps introducing the person to a great variety of plant-based foods.
However, as with all dietary choices that exclude major food groups, a vegan diet must be carefully planned and seek to replace the broad range of nutrients that are subsequently limited with the exclusion of animal products. Exercisers must ensure that caloric and protein needs are met and this, in the vast majority of cases, means relying heavily on a supplementation protocol to ensure a healthy intake.
Thank you for reading.
I am more than happy to answer questions and comments below.
I wrote a blog in October that aims to shed light on how we often look toward the complicated to explain relatively simple reasons why we may not be losing body fat efficiently.