A rising number of high-profile sporting figures are extolling the virtues of a plant-based diet – from six-time F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton to 14-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic. Jane Wolfe finds that the ‘meat drives strength’ myth is being well and truly busted
This month, the Fit for Life Stage at new vegan lifestyle event Plant Powered Expo saw a number of high-achievers in the sporting world – including athletes, fitness coaches and sports champions – share the secrets of their successes, all achieved through a plant-based diet.
Speakers at the event included vegan nutritionist and bodybuilder Paul Kerton, aka Hench Herbivore, British distance runner Fiona Oakes, and ‘vegan badass’ Patrik Baboumian, record-breaking strong man and PETA poster boy, who’s one of the subjects of the recent Netflix film The Game Changers.
This ground-breaking documentary follows elite special forces trainer and winner of The Ultimate Fighter, James Wilks, on a journey around the world looking at sporting figures being powered by vegan nutrition, including boxer Bryant Jennings, record-holding ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, cyclist and Olympic Silver medallist Dotsie Bausch and Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan.
Researching the fastest way to recover after injury, Wilks came across a study which found that Roman gladiators (nicknamed ‘hordearii’ or ‘barley eaters’ due to being mainly vegetarian) had high bone mineral density, indicating a good quality diet. “The gladiators were highly prized fighters who got the most advanced training and medical care in the Roman Empire,” says Wilks. “To think that the original professional fighters ate mainly plants went against everything I’d been taught about nutrition.”
The protein question
“I think one of the biggest myths in sports nutrition is that we have to have animal protein, particularly meat, to get big and strong and perform at a high level,” Dr James Lumus says in the film. The former physician for the St. Louis Rams/Cardinals and medical director at the Barnard Medical Center in Washington, DC, adds: “That’s clearly not true. All that protein you get when you eat a steak or a hamburger – where did it come from? It came from the plants that the cow ate.”
“The gladiators were highly prized fighters who got the most advanced training and medical care in the Roman Empire. To think that the original professional fighters ate mainly plants went against everything I’d been taught about nutrition.”
Adds Wilks, countering the common argument that plant-based protein is inferior to animal-based: “When it comes to gaining strength and muscle mass, research comparing plant and animal protein has shown that as long as the proper amount of amino acids are consumed, the source is irrelevant.”
The film also highlights research indicating that animal-based diets can disrupt blood flow, thus impeding performance, whereas plants do the reverse, enhancing endothelial function and facilitating blood flow. And when it comes to recovery, a plant-based diet contains more antioxidants so can reduce markers of inflammation and speed-up healing.
Lumus sets forth that rather than coming from protein, energy for exercise is derived mainly from carbohydrates in the form of glycogen stored in the muscles. “When we sacrifice those carbohydrate calories for protein calories in our diet what ends up happening is you’ll end up developing chronic carbohydrate or glycogen depletion and what does that lead to? Chronic fatigue and loss of stamina,” he asserts.
Vegan sports nutrition is well established in the natural health sector, but when a film like The Game Changers comes out with executive producers not only including Hollywood heavy-hitter James Cameron, but also sporting icons such as Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic – who both own plant-based eateries – you know it’s becoming serious business.
Which can only be good news for vegans, as unfortunately there are still often negative kneejerk reactions from some quarters at the mere mention of the word. But if stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan (also exec producers on the film) are applauding the benefits, the rise in ‘veganphobia’ may well start abating.
Powered by plants
Lisa Gawthorne (pictured below), MD of vegan food distributor Bravura Foods and Team GB athlete (pictured), has been vegan since 2003, and believes this has enhanced her performance. “The vegan foods I consume are so full of helpful and healthy phytonutrients that constantly deliver the energy needed for my hectic business and sports-orientated lifestyle. Over the years as I have learned more about the best foods in my diet for performance gains, I have seen my 10K come down from 50 minutes to 38.53 and my 5k down from 24 minutes to 18.39. I am here to show people that you can achieve great things in fitness and sport on a vegan diet.”
Gawthorne finds plant-based foods good for recovery as long as you eat a clean diet with lots of wholefoods and minimum processed foods. “It’s great for sleep as the digestive system isn’t having to handle the difficult task of breaking down animal proteins in the stomach overnight. It’s fantastic for energy too – if you follow a balanced vegan food plan, you will probably notice this first as it becomes very obvious. Again, if the digestive system is only breaking down plant-based foods, it frees energy to be used elsewhere.”
So what assumptions does Gawthorne think people make about a vegan diet in terms of sporting performance? “If you’d asked me this a year ago, I would say there were a lot of doubters that may have thought a vegan diet was not substantial enough for an athlete to follow. But so much more research has been done and so many world class athletes have now publicly stated they are following a vegan diet, those misconceptions of the past are definitely starting to diminish, and people are now really understanding the benefits associated with a vegan diet in sports.”
Over the years as I have learned more about the best foods in my diet for performance gains, I have seen my 10K come down from 50 minutes to 38.53 and my 5k down from 24 minutes to 18.39. I am here to show people that you can achieve great things in fitness and sport on a vegan diet
“You only have to consider the latest stories around Lewis Hamilton, The Williams sisters, Novak Djokovic, Patrik Baboumian, etc, who have chosen the vegan path, to see how widespread it’s becoming in the elite world of sports. It spans so many areas – from cycling, to tennis, to Olympic runners, to record-breaking weightlifting – it’s truly inspirational. Even Arnie is trying to go vegan!”
Meat-free and muscular
Bodybuilder Kerton became vegan eight years ago, after he saw data regarding lifestyle and longevity. “I learned that 70-80% of deaths in the West are directly attributable to the food we eat. Animal products and processed foods of all kinds promote disease, while whole plant foods such as legumes, wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices prevent disease,” he explains.
Since switching, Kerton has noticed improvements in his energy levels and recovery times, and says that following a vegan diet has also cured the tendonitis that previously plagued his training and would regularly set him back.
“Veganism is seeing a huge uptake in the elite sporting world, and there are vegan world record-holders and world champions, with more joining their ranks all the time.
“From my perspective as both a personal trainer and nutritionist, I would like to say that amazing physiques have been built using many different dietary patterns. However, one way of eating, the wholefoods plant-based diet, is clinically proven to prevent 14 of the 15 leading causes of death (the other being accidents), treat most and reverse five, including killer number one, coronary heart disease. That said, why would you want to choose anything less?”
A marathon effort
Runner Oakes has been vegan since she was six. After multiple surgeries for a serious disability, Oakes was told she would never be able to walk properly. She now holds four marathon world records, including the fastest female to run a marathon on each continent, and four marathon course records. “I honestly believe it is solely down to my veganism that I have been able to achieve so much,” she says. “If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for anyone who wants it, and I am always keen and committed to helping them achieve their goals too, entirely plant-based!”
Her diet has not just helped with her performance, but is ‘the essence’ of her performance, she explains. “I run to promote veganism in a positive and proactive way. In 2001/2 I was looking for an event to showcase vegan strength and endurance, and at that time the sport doing all this and more – especially for women – was the marathon. I thought if I could complete a marathon it would be a perfect illustration of how strong and healthy you can be on a vegan diet. Almost two decades and four world records later, I’m still doing it.”
“A plant-based diet has all the nutrients required to meet any athlete’s goals, right up to elite standard, and I am definitive proof of that,” maintains Oakes. “Not only in a short-term capacity but on a very long-term basis too. My muscle mass and endurance has been built entirely on plants and sustained on them also. People tend to assume that you won’t be able to get enough protein on a vegan diet, and this is one of the biggest myths out there and always has been. It is actually the reason I set up the Vegan Runners club back in 2004. I was keen to show the world that although I was vegan I was on the elite starts of the world’s major marathons. I think another problem is that people feel you won’t be able to get enough vitamins and minerals for recovery by just eating plant-based, but I am always keen to stress I don’t supplement with anything at all. I eat a basic wholegrain, seasonal, colourful plate.”
My muscle mass and endurance has been built entirely on plants and sustained on them also. People tend to assume that you won’t be able to get enough protein on a vegan diet, and this is one of the biggest myths out there and always has been
“Up until a couple of years ago there wasn’t a great deal of interest in the possibility of achieving on a vegan diet as there wasn’t considered a great need to do so,” adds Oakes. “I think the biggest factor affecting the great surge in popularity of veganism has been its potential to address the negative impact of the climate crisis we are facing. It’s only relatively recently that research and documented proof is coming forward. As more athletes adopt this lifestyle choice it will promote itself, but in the meantime information sharing and discussing experiences is very important.”
A high-five from Hench Herbivore
Paul Kerton (aka Hench Herbivore) shares his top five performance-boosting plant foods:
- “Beetroot is full of nitrates, which, once transformed into nitric oxide by the body, are powerful vaso-dilators, allowing oxygen and nutrients to be delivered to working muscles more easily and increasing stamina. According to data, 140ml of juice, two to three hours pre-workout is optimal for endurance athletes. I do five workouts per week, so aim for 200ml of what I am convinced is the healthiest pre-workout in the world!
- Quinoa is nutritionally dense and chock-full of slow-burning complex carbohydrates and B vitamins, which help metabolize carbs into energy. It has much more of the minerals copper, iron and magnesium relative to brown rice, with the added benefit that it also has a whopping 14g of high quality, muscle building protein per 100g
- Lentils are the most protein-dense of all the whole plant foods (a 240g can contains a massive 21.6g). They have high levels of the important muscle-building branch chain amino acids (valine, leucine and isoleucine). A recent study found them to be the most antioxidant-rich of all the legumes too. This is because of their high surface-area-to-mass ratio. My former training partner, 2014 Mr Universe Barny du Plessis, ate them daily.
- Berries are the ultimate antioxidant powerhouses. Not only do antioxidants protect against cancer and slow the ageing process, they also help massively with recovery from exercise. Blackberries top the chart as the most antioxidant-rich UK berry, but amla powder, made from the Indian gooseberry, is the single highest antioxidant food, with somewhere between one and two hundred times the power of the oft-lauded blueberry.
- Flaxseeds have extremely high levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3s (important for recovery) and ridiculously high amounts of lignan pre-cursors (100 times more than any other food). One caveat is that ingestion should be limited to 1tbsp per day, so I advise adding 1-2tbsp of chia seeds to make up any shortfall in omega-3. Both chia and flaxseeds must be ground, or the body won’t absorb the omega-3.”
Main image credit: Claire O’Hare Photography
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