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With more and more athletes recognizing the importance of nutrition, some are turning to vegan diets. But is this the best way to optimize performance?
Most vegans believe that their diets are superior for health, body composition and performance. But most meat-eaters would argue that vegan diets lack essential components that have a negative impact on health and performance. So who’s right?
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The research certainly shows that plant-based diets can be very healthy. Most vegans will eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, which provide antioxidants that are vital for maintaining optimal health. Their diets are also high in fiber, which has been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers, and they don’t take in a lot of Trans fats –- the type of fat found in processed foods.

On the face of it, this kind of diet seems like it would be fantastic for improving athletic performance.

However there are also a number of potentially quite serious issues with a vegan diet.

Protein

The first one of these is protein intake. Protein is an essential macronutrient – without it you’d cease to function. General guidelines state that most people should consume around 45 to 55 grams of protein per day. However, this figure is based purely on the minimum amounts needed to survive. Anyone involved in high level sporting competition, or looking to build muscle mass and strength needs more protein than that.

Most athletes will consume around one gram of protein per pound of body-weight. This target can be difficult to hit, even if you do eat animal products. A 160lb person would need 160 grams of protein, which would equate to roughly:

- 1 large chicken breast, 8 ounces rump steak, 1 small container cottage cheese, 1 whey protein shake, 3 large eggs.

Consider that none of these foods are allowed on a vegan diet, and you can see how difficult it would be to get sufficient protein.

Essential Fats

Fats, while often given a bad name by the media are also vital for performing as an athlete. Unsaturated fats, particularly essential fats like omega 3 help to reduce inflammation, improve recovery, decrease joint stiffness and maintain optimal health. These are found in high amounts in oily fish. The only vegan source of omega 3 is flax seed, which has a far lower concentration of omega 3 and isn’t absorbed as well by the body.

Despite popular belief, athletes also need saturated fats for hormone production. Saturated fats are found mainly in red meat and full fat dairy products – both off the menu for vegans.

Creatine

You might have heard of creatine as a nutritional supplement. It’s a natural substance that’s found in your body and also contained in high amounts in red meat. Creatine’s main role is to provide energy for explosive muscular contractions and to buffer lactic acid – two important factors for athletes. Creatine intake in a vegan diet is typically extremely low.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 plays a key role in brain and nervous system function. It’s mainly found in meat, eggs and dairy products, but only found in very low amounts in vegan foods.
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