I write for LAVA Magazine, and the following is an adaptation of an article which I wrote for triathletes – but it is highly applicable to anyone who wants to be extremely active and eat a plant-based diet – without destroying your body.
As we move iron in the weight room, thrash through the ocean chop, hammer our cranks for hours on end, and then repeatedly pound our flesh on hot pavement, do we need the meat, milk and eggs of animals to maintain and restore our amino acids, vitamins and minerals – or can we get all our performance and recovery needs from plants alone?
There are certainly two opposing and highly opinionated viewpoints in the charged discussion of whether veganism or vegetarianism can fully sustain a weekly regimen of training, swimming, cycling, running, weight lifting and sports.
If a plant-based diet doesn’t give the body everything it needs, could it actually be dangerous for a highly active individual's brain and body? But if a plant-based diet is actually enough, then could meat-eaters be engaging in unnecessary or unethical consumption of excessive and metabolically damaging proteins?
In this post, we’ll consider the advantages and disadvantages of veganism or vegetarianism, and the biggest mistakes made by those who adopt a primarily plant-based diet, since there a multiple variations of this type of diet, let’s define a few terms:
Ovo-lacto vegetarians are vegetarians who do not consume meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, but do consume eggs and milk.
Ovo-vegetarian is a term used to describe someone who would be a vegan if they did not consume eggs.
Lacto-vegetarian is a term used to describe someone who would be a vegan if they did not consume milk.
Vegan is the strictest category of plant-based diets. Vegans do not consume any animal products or by-products, and in some cases do not consume honey and yeast.
There are a multitude of successful vegan or vegeterian athletes, including ultra-runner Scott Jurek, pro triathlete and ultra-runner Brendan Brazier, pro triathlete Hilary Biscay, US Master’s Running Champion Tim Van Orden, and top ultraman finisher Rich Roll.
One of the primary advantages cited by the plant-based diet community is the acid-forming properties of meat and dairy products, compared to the relatively non-acidic, or “alkaline” forming whole plant-based foods. The logic is that an excessively acidic blood pH could result in inflammation, and thus impair recovery.
The reason for the increased acidity of a meat-based diet is that animal protein is rich in sulfur-containing amino acids that increase production and excretion of sulfuric acid during their metabolism. There are many who claim that this acidity can be so high that the body actually leaches calcium from the bones to neutralize the acids.
Interestingly, studies of prehistoric hunter-gatherer diets show that only about half were net acid-producing, while the other half were actually non-acidic, and the more non-acidic diets were achieved by populations who consumed fattier portions of meat, such as marrow, brains and tongue. So while it could certainly be possible that a meat based diet could potentially increase acidity, this effect could be balanced through consumption of proper amounts of fats – and the relatively healthy Inuit population is a perfect example.
And the calcium leaching risk?
Multiple studies have revealed that people who eat the most protein have the slowest rates of bone loss, and also the lowest fracture rate. One study found that consuming more protein actually increased calcium absorption from food!
So if you are eating meat regularly, and concerned about the acidic effect of it’s metabolism, ensure that you are also consuming rich fat sources such as fattier cuts of meat, avocados, coconut milk, coconut oil, or macadamia nuts. But there is not enough evidence to suggest that to balance pH you should remove meat entirely from your diet.
Many vegan and vegetarian diets include large amounts of juicing and blending, primarily due to the nutritional density and ease of digestion of a blended slurry of vegetables, fruits or nuts. Since these foods are easily digested and absorbed, they consume less energy to produce more energy, and this may allow for a healthier gastrointestinal state in the exercising athlete. Indeed, many athletes who switch to a plant-based diet feel an immediate surge in energy.
But Tim Monaco, director of client education at Bioletics medical testing, and former pro triathlete, says this initial increase in energy may be dangerous, “Athletes may feel great for a period – maybe days to years depending on how “good” a vegetarian they are. I attribute this period to a general improvement of diet – better overall food choices and nutrient density. Also there is the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, i.e. stress response from eating the “wrong” foods or macronutrient ratios. Like a lot of potential stressors this will get you jacked up, but ultimately will deplete hormonal resources.”
Bill Misner a Ph.D. nutritionist, alternative medicine practitioner, and top Master’s runner, including National Trail race course record holder in the age 70-up category, has been on a plant-based diet for the past 20 months, and says that it allows for accommodation of higher training work loads and more strength/speed workouts due to elevated recovery rate.
Dr. Misner explains his plant-based diet experience, “I undertook trial application for 90-days. During that 90-days, I experienced hunger cravings for the former animal protein-rich dairy byproducts which I had reason to use in order to impact athletic performance. I have been consuming only whole plant foods for 18-months and counting. My cholesterol is under 160 and my weight is around 128. In the past 18-months I have won 2 silver medals and 1 gold medal in USA National Championship races in my age group. On Sunday morning I will be on the starting line to race some of the best trail runners in all the USA National Half Marathon Championships in Bend, Oregon. Of course, my race is with runners in my age group. In my view, nutrition is a very important part of effecting energy metabolism peak performance.”
That morning, Dr. Misner ran over 25 minutes under the age-group National Half-Marathon Trail Championship record. It’s tough to argue with that kind of success (I interviewed Dr. Misner in this podcast interview if you want to hear more about his dietary approach)
The most cited disadvantage of a vegan or vegetarian diet is the potential for deficits, and Dr. Misner is quick to point out common mistakes found in athletes who make the switch, such as not eating a wide variety of colors in whole plant food, not eating enough calories when initiating a whole plant food lifestyle, not supplementing deficient nutrients such as Vitamin D, Vitamin B-12, Zinc, and not finding adequate sources of iodine, riboflavin, or omega-3 fatty acids.
Rich Roll affirms these mistakes, “It is very easy to continue to eat poorly, particularly as most foods found at the grocery store these days are highly processed. In other words, you can eat ice cream, Twinkies, Taco Bell, Domino's Pizza and McDonald's milk shakes all day long and call yourself a vegetarian. Vegans can gorge on fast food french fries, potato chips and processed “fake meat” products like veggie sausages, bacon & burgers, but these chemical-laden processed foods tend to be very low in nutritional content, not to mention very high in gluten, which causes inflammation and a variety of other health issues for certain people. For obvious reasons neither of these regimes would be healthy for anyone, let alone an endurance athlete.”
I asked a couple successful athletes who tried a vegan diet, then switched back to allowing animal based products in their diet. Kerry Sullivan, coach at Rock Star Triathlete Academy and top age grouper triathlete, tried vegan for several years before undergong medical tests to identify deficiencies, “Testing revealed I was low in iron, amino acids, and B-vitamins. I was missing a lot of vital nutrients. You can get lots of protein but not always all the amino acids you need, if you aren’t supplementing, no B12, and it can be hard to get iron. I got super anemic.”
Tim Monaco also experienced the manifestation of deficits, “Long term vegetarianism creates imbalance and depletion. This may manifest a lot of different ways. For me it was anemia, poor body composition, poor performance, poor recovery, and even though I changed my ways, I believe it contributed to long term hormonal depletion and adrenal fatigue.”
But the more successful endurance athletes can potentially balance these deficiencies. Ultra-man Richard Roll is well aware of these potential risks, “With respect to endurance athletics specifically, it does require a modicum of awareness to ensure that you are meeting your protein needs as well as nutrients that are more difficult to come by on a plant-based diet, such as Vitamin B12.”
Too Much Carbohydrate?
Most endurance events and lower intensity training protocols are relatively aerobic activities, and many such sessions (or longer races like an Ironman) do not necessarily utilize sugar and starch as primary fuels, but rather rely heavily on fatty acids. From a biological perspective, this makes sense, since carbohydrates can be rapidly depleted, and the body can only store a few thousand calories from carbohydrates, but tens of thousands of calories from fat, which is primarily burnt in the form of ketones.
If an athlete in aerobic sports is eating primarily pasta, bread, white rice, soy, processed meat substitutes, conventional, non-organic eggs and dairy, and drinking a high amount of fruit juice, not only could they be consuming excessive and unnecessary carbohydrate that they are not actually burning for their sport, but they may also be increasing risk for deficiencies in essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamin D, iron, B12 and minerals.
Nora Gedgaudos, a certified nutritional therapist and author of “Primal Body, Primal Mind”, explains it this way, “Fat, in the form of ketones and free fatty acids, is the preferred aerobic fuel for the heart and other muscles, and ketogenic adaptation provides a more steady release of even-burning and sustainable fuel. It can take a good 3 or 4 weeks to adapt to a ketone-based metabolism following which performance has been shown to be superior.”
Nora explains that you get good at burning fat by depending on fat in the absence of carbohydrates, not by constantly depending on and burning sugar for fuel, which you’re much more likely to do on a plant-based diet (I interviewed Nora in this podcast about reducing carbohydrate cravings).
Doing It Right
Obviously, based on the great success of plant-based diet athletes, it seems to be possible to do it right and avoid many of the deficiencies and risks cited earlier in this article. So what does “doing it right” actually look like?
Here are a couple examples from successful athletes.
Rich Roll's Sample Diet:
Pre-Workout Morning Smoothie: Kale, Beet, Chia seeds, Hemp seeds, Maca, Orange, Flax Seeds, Vega Whole Food Optimizer
Post-Workout: Coconut water, and cold quinoa w/ coconut or almond milk, berries & Udo's Oil & Hemp seeds
Lunch: Salad with mixed veggies & vinaigrette or brown rice, beans & greens, hemp seeds
Snacks: Vitamix with brown rice / pea / hemp protein, almond milk, cacao, almonds, walnuts.
Dinner: Lentils over brown rice w/ beet greens & avocado, arugala salad, sweet potatoes
Dessert: Coconut milk ice cream, Chia seed pudding
During workout: on bike – coconut water, vega sport, perpetum. On run – coconut water, Vega Sport, Heed.
Breakfast: Oatmeal, ground flax, psyllium
Lunch/post-workout: spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, sweet potatoes, and fruit (Bill eats a total of 200-300 grams whole plant foods a day)
Dinner: Kale, black beans, asparagus, more fruit (Bill allows approximately 3 hours of “grazing” to eat evening meal)
So while a plant-based diet may certainly be dangerous, it appears that you can pull it off successfully if you cover your basic nutrient needs, supplement wisely, and avoid the highly processed “health” foods that are commonly consumed on such a diet.
What do you think? Is it possible to be extremely active and eat a plant-based diet – without destroying your body.