The truth about vegan fitness

The greatest misconception about vegans is that they’re barely able to lift a dumbbell. But more professional athletes are now going meat-free

Serena Willams? Vegan. Lewis Hamilton? Vegan. Jermain Defoe? Vegan. Patrik Baboumian? Vegan – and one of the strongest men in the world. By now you’ve probably got the point that giving up meat doesn’t mean giving up your fitness goals, too.

So, where does this idea come from that vegans are weak, feeble, and definitely gym-dodgers? Gergo Jonas, a vegan and strength and conditioning specialist, has a few ideas.

Why do people think vegans don’t train?

Jonas believes many people are still unclear about what veganism means. He says, ‘Instead of someone who doesn’t use any animal products, people think vegans are 1970s-style hippies – and they weren’t well-known for going to the gym!’

But there may be a (whole)grain of truth in the idea that vegans have less energy than meat-eaters. Jonas says, ‘Vegetables, beans and lentils can be very filling but if you only eat until you feel full, you may be undereating.’ This means you could be missing out on calories and essential nutrients that can affect your ability to train properly.

Because you can naturally lose weight on a plant-based diet,1 it’s important to track your calorie intake. ‘If you used to eat 2,000 calories a day on a meat-based diet, you need to eat the same amount when you go vegan,’ says Jonas. ‘And if you start training seriously, you’ll need to eat even more.’

Don’t your muscles need meat though?

Another fitness myth – just ask any of the professional vegan athletes above. Heavyweight boxer David Haye or Barney du Plessis, the world’s first vegan bodybuilder, would also disagree that you need animal protein to train properly.

‘Endurance athletes – tennis or football players, or marathon runners – tend to up their intake of carbs rather than protein during training,’ says Jonas. ‘This is because they need the energy to sustain long training sessions, and your body doesn’t use protein for fuel.’

While it’s true that we need protein to repair and rebuild muscle,2 it doesn’t need to come from meat; a balanced vegan diet should provide all the nutrients you need.3 Make sure you’re eating plenty of plant proteins such as tofu, beans, pulses, legumes such as chickpeas, quinoa, nuts and seeds.

Can a vegan diet improve my performance?

Yep! Haye credits going vegan with his successful return to the ring after a shoulder injury,4 while Defoe believes a vegan diet gave his goal-scoring skills a boost.5 This may be because various plants have anti-inflammatory properties and in particular, berries, leafy greens, nuts and tomatoes.6 Jonas says, ‘When you’re training, you create micro-tears in the muscles that become inflamed. But the anti-inflammatory compounds in plants can help your muscles recover much faster, which in turn improves your performance.’

So, next time you’re at the gym and someone starts making fun of vegan athletes, you’ll be able to run rings around them.

Shop Vegan Sports Nutrition Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies. Written by Rosalind Ryan on November 23, 2018 Reviewed by Personal Trainer Gergo Jonas on November 26, 2018

Sources
1. Huang R-Y, et al. Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Available from: www.link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11606-015-3390-7
2. British Nutrition Foundation. Protein. Available from: www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/nutrients-food-and-ingredients/protein.html
3. NHS. Vegetarian and vegan diets Q&A. Available from: www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/vegetarian-and-vegan-diets-q-and-a/
4. Guy Kelly. The Telegraph. David Haye: going vegan made me stronger than I’ve ever been. Available from: www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/david-haye-going-vegan-made-stronger-than-ive-ever-been/
5. Alisa Hrustic. Men’s Health. This World-Class Soccer Player Credits His Comeback To a Vegan Diet. Available from: www.menshealth.com/nutrition/a19544509/jermain-defoe-vegan-diet/

6. Harvard Health. Foods that fight inflammation. Available from: www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation