Lizzie Armitstead isn't the first athlete to achieve Olympic success on a non-meat diet. In fact there are a number of successful vegan or vegetarian athletes, including ultra-runner Scott Jurek, pro triathlete and ultra-runner Brendan Brazier, and US Master's Running Champion Tim Van Orden.
The most common concern when switching to a plant based diet for athletes is getting sufficient protein. All athletes need protein at higher levels than the average person. Endurance athletes need protein in particular for muscle repair, whereas strength athletes require it for muscle mass. The general recommendations for athletes are around 1.4-1.8 g per kg body weight. There are only a few plant sources of protein (e.g soya) that supply a good balance of all the essential amino acids and many plant protein foods can be harder to utilize. To achieve optimal protein intake on a plant based diet does require more careful planning but it is possible. Focus the diet around protein rich plant foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, soya especially fermented soya (tempeh, natto, miso) and grains like teff and quinoa in addition to leafy greens. Many athletes will benefit from using vegan protein powders like rice, hemp or soya, which can be easily added to dishes, homemade protein bars or smoothies especially post training.
While research on vegan athletes appears lacking there are studies on vegetarian athletes indicating similar if not better intakes of vitamins, minerals and fibre as well as lower intake of cholesterol (2). One potential benefit is the greater intake of antioxidants and phytonutrients which play a key role in reducing free radical damage which occurs during vigorous exercise. This may therefore help vegan athletes to recovery faster.
High training loads does place more stress on the body and there is no doubt that certain nutrients can be lower in vegan diets such as vitamin B12, zinc, iodine and omega 3 fatty acids. Supplementation of B12 is recommended due to limited vegan sources (it is really only available from animal products). B12 is important for athletes, since it affects red blood cell production as well as being essential for nerve health. But many foods and milk alternatives are fortified with B12 now, or you can take supplements. For those pounding the streets or working out at the gym regularly it's a good idea to check your vitamin D and calcium levels for bone health. Calcium rich foods include fortified milk alternatives, tahini, leafy greens, soya products, almonds, beans and dried figs. Iron deficiency is also more likely which can affect performance and lower immunity.
Better for Endurance Athletes?
It is likely that endurance athletes are more likely to perform well on a vegan diet compared to those involved in strength and explosive sports. This is partly due to differences in levels of intramuscular creatine. Creatine in the form of creatine phosphate is a source of energy in high-intensity exercise. Depletion of creatine phosphate is a cause of fatigue in repeated bouts of such exercise, and possibly also in short-term endurance exercise. Vegans and Vegetarians generally have less intramuscular creatine than omnivores because creatine is found only in muscle meat. This means vegans are more likely to experience significantly more benefits from creatine supplements (3). Another reason a vegan diet may suit endurance athletes is that plant based eating is naturally higher in carbohydrates and fibre to sustain energy levels while being lower in fats.
There is no doubt you can perform well without the meat but it does require more attention to your diet - no bad thing of course for your long term health and sporting success.
Superberry Protein Balls
A great energising boost before or after a workout - ideal as well as an afternoon pick-me-up or when you fancy a sweet treat. Make a batch of these and store in the fridge or freezer.
Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus chilling
Cooking time 2 minutes
Makes 20 balls
]2 tbsp. coconut oil, melted
3 tbsp. xylitol or 1-2 tsp granulated stevia
220g nut butter (cashew, almond or peanut)
4 tbsp. coconut flour
60g vegan vanilla or berry protein powder
1 tsp acai or goji berry powder (optional)
50g dried berries (cranberries, cherries etc.)
Desiccated coconut, to coat
1. Place the coconut oil and xylitol (or stevia) in a pan. Gently melt over a low heat, stirring to dissolve the xylitol. Allow to cool slightly and then tip into a food processor and add the nut butter. Process briefly until combined.
2. Add the coconut flour, protein powder and acai or goji berry powder, if using, and blend again to form a stiff dough. If it seems too wet add a little more coconut flour or protein powder. The mixture should be firm but soft. Add the dried berries pulse briefly, just to break them up slightly.
3. Tip some desiccated coconut onto a plate. Take small spoonfuls of the mixture and roll into walnut-sized balls, then roll them in the coconut until coated on all sides.
4. Chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes to firm up before eating. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the fridge for up to 5-6 days or freeze for up to 1 month.
Per ball: 117 kcal; 5.5g protein; 8g fat; 2.8g saturated fat; 7g carbohydrates; 2.5g sugars
(1) Nieman DC (1999). Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 70, 570S-575S
(2) Eisinger M, Plath M, Jung K, Leitzmann C (1994). Nutrient intake of endurance runners with ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet and regular western diet. Zeitschrift fur Ernahrungswiss 33, 217-229
(3) Maughan RJ (1995) Creatine supplementation and exercise performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition 5, S39-S61