High performance athletes shy away from veganism for fear of low protein, but experts say it improves their recovery time

A plant based diet is helping runners and models bounce back from hard training sessions despite not getting their protein from meat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 11:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 2:00pm

High performance athletes need more protein than the average person, and they tout this as a reason for eating meat and avoiding vegan meals.

But Richie Kul, male model and tennis player, says that since changing to veganism he has noticed an improvement in his recovery time.

“I immediately started feeling better. I started healing quicker after matches and training. I also used to suffer from acne, but it cleared up dramatically” Kul said.

Kul puts the change down to the lack of dairy products in his diet. He thinks it is bizarre that we are the only species that insists on consuming milk after infancy, particularly from another animal all together.

Wayde Nash is a vegan ultra-runner. He placed 5th in the 2017 Vietnam Jungle Marathon and has raced in competitions such as the Philippines’ 2017 50-kilometre Cordillera Mountain Ultra. He has had a similar experience to Kul.

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“I noticed an improvement in my recovery, including a reduction in inflammation in my joints,” Nash said. “Previously I would have sore or tight knees the day after a long run, but after giving up dairy, I found that while I would still have tired muscles, my joints didn’t hurt as much as before.”

Their experience is not unique.

Chrissy Denton, senior nutritionist Nutrition Nation, said: “Many athletes have shown improvements in energy levels, recovery time and overall sports performance. However, it can be a slow transition therefore sports performance may be affected in the first few months.”

Athletes typically need between 1.2 grams to 2g per kilogramme of body weight, depending on training.

Ching Lam, from healthy meal company Eatology, said it is possible to get it from plants, but vegans must make an effort to vary their diet.

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“Plant proteins are harder to digest,” Lam said. “So the quality of protein in a vegan diet matters as much as the amount. Emphasis should be placed on eating from a variety of sources because more plant protein are incomplete, for example, some do not contain all the essential amino acids.”

Denton agreed with Lam: “This does require choosing protein sources and complementary mixtures of high quality plant proteins.”

For example, lentils, nuts, soy products, beans, and whole grains,

“I like to get my protein from a wide variety of sources and I make sure to eat some with every meal,” Nash said. “I eat a lot of beans and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans, cashews and almonds are great, certain grains like quinoa are high in protein, I love tofu because it is so versatile, and I will put peanut butter on almost anything.”

Things vegans may struggle to consume are vitamin B12, iron and zinc. Both Denton and Lam suggested vegans should consider supplements to get the appropriate level.

Plant-based sources of B12 include dark leafy veggies such as spinach and kale, dried beans, peas, lentils, tofu, fortified breakfast cereals, nuts and seeds, dried fruit and prune juice.

Kul admitted that any major lifestyle change, such as cutting out meat, can be jarring at first. But he added that it should be easier for high performance athletes because they are already making sacrifices, such as choosing not to go to restaurants with their friends to focus on their sports. But ultimately, if people frame a vegan diet as a sacrifice, it will become a burden.

“When we calibrate our thinking to see it as joyful, healthy and restorative, our lives are made all the richer for it,” Kul said.

But just because someone is vegan doesn’t mean they are healthy, warned Lam: “It’s worth keeping in mind that even deep fried oreos are vegan! Vegan doesn’t necessarily equal healthy, and a varied balanced diet is very important for meeting all of our nutrient requirements.”