Insight piece by Kundai Murapa | Instagram: @kundaimurapa
The vegan movement has certainly picked up momentum over the past few years. It’s kind of hard to miss the whole show. With an increased level of public consciousness towards nutrition and ecology, plant-based living has taken center stage as a worthy alternative to daily living. The impact of meat and animal consumption on our ecosystem as well as the ethical pitfalls associated with raising animals for food has inserted the issue into almost all conversations. It has been proven that the average adult can definitely sustain a normal life on a purely plant-based diet. Many people do it, probably a few you know, maybe you do it yourself. While this is the case, one contentious issue has always been the case of the vegan athlete. Can you optimize performance and body composition, remain competitive and ready on a purely plant-based diet?
In this article, we’re going to peel back the layers, confirm some facts and debunk some myths about being a vegan athlete. While we’re at it, why not check out the NUTRITECH vegan options here. Available in a variety of flavors, sugar-free, and with all-natural ingredients, this pea protein isolate packs a straight-from-source protein punch! With that said, let’s delve deeper into the world of plant-based performance.
Performance is the ability to produce work. When it comes to athletic performance, your work output needs to be sustainable and optimal (endurance and strength). Maximizing these aspects comes down to your training as well as your diet. When it comes to diet, how does a plant-based diet square up when it comes to maximizing performance? Plants have a diverse array of nutrients that are important drivers in the metabolic process, either as co-factors to metabolic enzymes, or precursors to the production of stuff your body needs in its structure (e.g. calcium for bones).
Because plants have the lions share of essential nutrients, they are pretty effective as a nutrition source when it comes to athletic performance.
A common misconception by proponents of animal-based diets over plant-based diets is that you don’t get complete protein from plants, therefore you can’t build muscle on a vegan diet. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is true that single source plant foods don’t typically have all 9 essential amino acids in one go, it doesn’t mean you can’t mix and match. It’s also not true that no plant source is complete. In fact, there are several single-source plants that have a complete and dense high-quality protein profile. Such things as quinoa and hemp seed are great examples. Then you have spirulina, a species of blue/green algae, which in its natural, unprocessed state has a complete protein density that rivals some supplements such as whey concentrate!
So if the argument is that you cant pack on quality, lean muscle on a vegan diet because of protein, think again!
Now let’s go into some of the actual benefits a plant-based diet can provide for performance and body composition.
1. Sustained Energy Release
One big advantage of plant-based performance is you can get a more sustained energy release. That’s because plants have fiber and animal sources don’t. But what does fiber have to do with anything? Isn’t it just there to help me poop? This might be the question you’re asking yourself, but the thing is, fiber does so much more than help you poop. We will get to that later in the article, but for now, its all about energy. Fiber helps you experience a more sustained energy release because it mediates the uptake of sugar from your gut to your bloodstream. This means you can enjoy the benefits of carb and glycogen replenishment while avoiding that dreaded carb crash. This management of blood sugar also helps keep your insulin sensitivity in check, ultimately contributing to better body composition and general health.
2. Fat as Fuel
Most plant-based oils are unsaturated, either monounsaturated or polyunsaturate, with a few exceptions that come with saturated fats (coconut and palm). Unsaturated fats are well understood to be healthy fats. That’s because they are easy to metabolize as energy and don’t contribute to bad cholesterol levels. They are also the source of essential fatty acids such as omega 3s and 6s. Back to the fuel side of things. Unsaturated fats are readily metabolized for energy and since they are mainly plant-based, it makes sense to expect an energy boost in this regard.
3. Antioxidant Abundance
Antioxidants are essential for healthy living, and just as much for optimal athletic performance. You won’t get much in the way of antioxidants from animal sources, but you can bet your socks that plant sources will sort you out. Plants with deep pigments and strong flavors often indicate a high concentration of antioxidants. These special chemicals work by protecting your cells as well as boosting your metabolic capacity, both key factors in performance and body composition.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Fuelled Recovery
Plants are often responsible for providing anti-inflammatory support to your living system. Why is this important? It’s important because inflammation limits performance capability and recovery time between training or competition. The sooner and more effectively you can reduce inflammation, the sooner you can get back to work. Many animal sources have been proven to promote inflammation, albeit mild in most cases.
5. Micronutrient Density
Another big quality plant sources have over animal sources is the micronutrient profile. Essential vitamins and minerals can be sourced from either plants or animals, but it seems plants have a higher variety of nutrients than meat and other animal-based foods. In many cases, even the nutrients present in animal sources will usually be in higher concentration in select plants. It’s fair to remember though, that certain nutrients cant be sourced from plants, a discussion we will get into below.
6. Specialized Phytochemicals
Plants also come packed with some very interesting chemical compounds that can actively enhance performance. The most tried and trusted example of this is good old caffeine. A natural stimulant and thermogenic, no serious training nutrition plan is complete without this one. Other plant-derived chemicals such as ecdysterone, indole-3-carbinol, and phosphatidic acid are all plant-derived natural molecules with highly researched anabolic and performance enhancing qualities. They are also super safe and legal.
7. More Efficient Nutrient Turnover
As we mentioned earlier, we were going to get back to how fiber and your poop can enhance your performance. Yes, that’s a sentence you just read, but hear us out. Consider the fact that all your energy and essential nutrients come through your gut. It makes sense that keeping it clean and functional will just optimize the efficiency of nutrient uptake correct? That’s exactly why plant sources and their fiber content help with nutrient turnover. Another important role of plant fiber is the prebiotic effect. Prebiotics are non-digestible food substances that feed your good gut bacteria. What this does is it allows them to continue doing a good job, which includes converting fiber to short-chain fatty acids for energy, clearing out bad LDL cholesterol and producing certain vitamins like some B vitamins and vitamin K.
So we’ve given you a whole bunch of benefits when it comes to plant-based living. But the truth is, living on 100% plant sources is not sustainable for max performance, gains or even normal health. That’s because while plants have the edge on meat and animal sources when it comes to nutrient variety, there are in fact certain nutrients that seem to be deficient in the average vegan diet.
These nutrients include:
One thing to remember is a lot of these vegan deficient nutrients are available in plants too. They are just in such inadequate quantities, or available in plant sources not commonly consumed. Vitamin B12, D, calcium and omega 3 are much better sourced from animal products if you want to get enough of them with the convenience of normal nutrition. This doesn’t mean you can’t go vegan. There is also the very good option of supplementing, using multi-mineral and multi-vitamin support is a great way to level out any nutrient deficiencies you might encounter when on a vegan plan making use of our Vitatech health and wellness range. You can also keep your eyes peeled for foods fortified with any of the above-mentioned nutrients.
Being a top-performing athlete has its specific demands. And we’ve just shown that if one chooses to live a plant-based lifestyle, whether, for ethical or health reasons, they can totally hit their goals, knock down PBs and look amazing while doing it! Having said that, no one way is superior to the other, its all about your approach, demands, and understanding of individual differences.
Your nutritional needs are just as unique as your fingerprints, that’s why here at NUTRITECH, we cater to athletes from all walks of life and have formulated our range of vegan and plant-based alternative sports nutrition.