Written by Ross Celano
Introduction Veganism refers to a diet that consumes food from plant origins including “cereals, legumes, root crops, oilseeds, fruit, vegetables, nuts and mushrooms” (Pilis, Stec, Zych & Pilis, 2014, p.9) and do not consume any animal products. For an athlete to build muscle, protein and amino acids are crucial. Because vegans do not eat animal products, they are more likely to be protein deficient compared to omnivores (those who eat animal products and plant- based foods). Although this is the case, it is possible that they can consume adequate amounts of protein and amino acids to build muscle. This is because firstly, the correct approach of a vegan diet can lead to sufficient amounts of protein and amino acid intake. Secondly, athletes can find the vegan diet too restrictive and difficult to maintain. Thirdly, there are multiple plant-based foods that are high in protein. Lastly, some animal products contain higher amounts of essential amino acids compared to plant foods.
Vegan diet and protein intake The correct approach of a vegan diet can lead to sufficient amounts of protein and amino acid intake. With any diet, a proper method is needed to consume adequate amounts of macro nutrients and micro nutrients. Without an understanding or correct implementation of the vegan diet, athletes could establish health problems (eg, malnutrition) due to nutrition deficiencies. According to Rogerson (2017) and Saunders (2014), tactical management of nutrition through food and supplementation can allow vegan athletes to reach sufficient dietary needs. In other words, vegans can consume adequate amounts of protein and amino acids if they strategically plan their diet with the combination of correct foods and supplements. When this diet is undertaken effectively, there are generally more positive outcomes than negative outcomes. Clarys et al. (2014) suggests that the vegan diet is the healthiest one (when compared to omnivores, vegetarians, semi vegetarians, and pesco vegetarians). The vegan diet is also the “most protective diet against cardiometabolic diseases, based on their high fibre content and favourable fatty acids composition” (Sobiecki, Appleby, Bradbury & Key, 2016, p. 475). These other health benefits suggest that the vegan diet has many benefits if it is undertaken correctly. As mentioned previously, athletes who are trying to build muscle need sufficient amounts of proteins and amino acids to do so effectively. Although vegans and vegan athletes are more susceptible to be protein deficient, it is possible that they can consume enough protein and amino acids to build muscle if the diet is strategically monitored.
Vegan diet restrictions on athletes Athletes can find the vegan diet too restrictive and difficult to maintain. It is no surprise that most individuals are omnivores, but some people decide to take on a different approach and try a vegan diet. According to Pilis, Stec, Zych & Pilis (2014, p. 9), an individual may try a vegan diet due to “ecological, economic, religious, ethical and health considerations.” Since vegans don’t eat any animal products, they rely heavily on plant-based foods to reach their recommended daily intake of nutrients. As this may be ok for some, the vast majority of
people would find it difficult to consume large amounts of plant-based foods to reach their required levels of macro nutrients and micro nutrients. Bradbury, Tong & Key (2017), suggests that vegans primarily eat legumes, vegetarian alternatives and nuts. Although these foods may be palatable for some, others would much rather consume meat or animal alternatives such as beef, chicken, eggs, pork and cheese. This is because animal products are generally easier to eat and more palatable in larger quantities when compared to plant- based foods. Another reason why the vegan diet is so challenging to sustain is due to the low energy intake of the foods consumed. According to Clarys et al. (2014), the average amount of energy a vegan will consume a day is 2383 kilocalories (kcal) compared to omnivores, who consume an average of 2985 kcal per day. This displays that vegans consume about 600 kcal less than omnivores per day. As mentioned previously, protein and amino acids are important for athletes wanting to build muscle, however, consuming enough calories per day will also assist in athletes wanting to build muscle. Because vegans generally eat less calories than omnivores, they are more likely to eat fewer proteins which may result in them being protein deficient. Conversely, it is still possible that vegan athletes can consume ample amounts of protein and amino acids to build muscle.
Plant-based foods high in protein There are multiple plant-based foods that are high in protein. Although omnivores get most of their protein from animal products, there are some plant-based foods that contain high amounts of protein which is important for vegans. Some animal products that are high in protein include eggs, chicken and beef. Some high protein vegan friendly sources include pulses, grains, legumes, tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds and vegetables (Rogerson, 2017). These foods/food sources may not be as energy dense or palatable as animal products, however, they are high in protein. Wallis & Orobetz (2017), suggest that 1 cup of soybeans (cooked) contains about 22g of protein. This displays that soybeans are a very good source of protein. Rogerson (2017), displays other specific examples of high protein plant-based foods which include pumpkin seeds (30.2g of protein per 100g), lentils (24.6g of protein per 100g), black beans (21.6g of protein per 100g), raw almonds (21.2g of protein per 100g), tempeh (20.3g of protein per 100g), tofu (17.3g of protein per 100g), rolled oats (16.9g of protein per 100g), and quinoa (14.1g of protein per 100g). This suggests that there are several vegan foods that are relatively high in protein which is important for muscle growth. Although vegans/vegan athletes are more likely to have a protein deficiency, vegan athletes who want to build muscle should know that it is possible to consume adequate amounts of protein to increase muscle mass.
Protein content in animal products vs plant-based foods Some animal products contain higher amounts of essential amino acids compared to plant foods. It is much more difficult to consume these amino acids when they are not coming from animal products. Amino acids such as Branched Chained Amino Acids (BCAA’s), are vital in muscle repair and growth for athletes. Vegans may be susceptible to deficiencies in some of these BCAA’s. According to Schmidt et al. (2015), vegans consume much lower levels of BCAA’s such as isoleucine, leucine and valine compared to omnivores. They also intake less essential amino acids such as histidine, lysine, methionine and phenylalanine. These amino acids are considered essential amino acids because they cannot be produced by the body which means that they need to be consumed in the form of foods and supplements. Essential amino acids are important for muscle repair and growth, which will help athletes build muscle. Athletes such as vegans who struggle to intake adequate amounts of amino acids may struggle to increase muscle mass. Vanacore (2018), suggests that vegans had a significantly lower amount of muscle mass and lean body mass when compared to omnivores. This may be due to animal products containing higher levels of essential amino acids than plant-based foods. Vegans are also more likely to have some micronutrient deficiencies such as vitamin B12 compared to omnivores (Brown & Derrick, 2018). According to Bradbury (2017, p. 15), “non-meat eaters only partially replace red and processed meat with other high-protein source foods.” This suggests that vegans need to eat a higher quantity of high-protein plant-based foods to equal the protein that derives from animal products. Because vegans are more likely to be protein/amino acid deficient when compared to omnivores, it is much more difficult to build muscle when compared to omnivores. Nonetheless, vegan athletes can still consume enough protein and amino acids to build muscle with a strategic diet consisting of a wide range of plant-based foods and some supplements.
Conclusion Veganism is a type of diet in which individuals don’t consume any animal products, as they receive all of their nutrition from plant-based foods. As this diet continues to grow in popularity, there are some positives and negatives that come with the diet. Individuals or athletes that decide to take on the diet should complete some research to decide if this diet is suitable for their needs. Vegan athletes are more likely to be protein deficient, vitamin B12 deficient, intake lower calories and lack some essential amino acids due to the diet. However, it is possible that athletes can still consume adequate amounts of these proteins, amino acids, calories and micronutrients. With strategic planning, it is possible (but difficult) for a vegan athlete to build muscle. Some of the reasons why this is the case include having a correct method of the vegan diet can lead to sufficient amounts of protein and amino acid intake; vegan athletes can find the diet too restrictive and difficult to maintain; there are many plant-based foods that have a good protein content; and some animal products have greater quantities of essential amino acids compared to plant-based foods.
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