Vegan Fitness: A Healthy Choice for Body and Planet
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by Marlaina Donato
Tennis champion Venus Williams and New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady are among the athletes that opt for healthy, plant-dominant diets to reach their personal best, a trend that belies some misconceptions about what it means to be vegan. “Going vegan implies a larger, lifestyle choice based on personal ethics, but athletes report that they just feel better,” says Brenda Carey, editor-in-chief of Vegan Health and Fitness Magazine. “They’re also surprised at how well they put on muscle after making this dietary change.”
A balanced vegan diet can provide everything an active body needs for muscle mass, stamina and recovery while lowering the risk of heart disease. A 2018 meta-analysis of 40 studies published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One concludes that a plant-powered diet fosters a healthier cardio-metabolic profile. According to Dutch researchers, amping up nutrition from plants may also lower the risk of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. Devotees report unexpected perks.
“I recover faster. I also have more natural energy without the need for caffeine and reduced inflammation, as confirmed in blood tests,” says Matt Tullman, managing partner of the community-building website No Meat Athlete and CEO of vegan supplement maker Complement, in Boulder, Colorado.
Bolstering the diet with foods like quinoa, chia seeds, nut butters and vegan energy powders, as well as combining foods for a more complete protein profile, is important. For example, pairing whole-grain rice with beans makes a complete protein, says Stefanie Moir, international vegan fitness coach and founder of Vegan Aesthetics, in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Eating a wide variety of foods across the plant kingdom ensures that you reach your fitness goals,” says Moir, who trains six days a week and opts for a breakfast of oats with nut butter and chia seeds. “If you want a ‘superfood’ component, you can add cacao powder for antioxidants and a great chocolate taste.”
Tullman acknowledges that there are some exceptions to protein requirements—especially for the elderly, individuals with certain chronic diseases and pregnant women—but he notes that daily protein needs are less than we’ve been conditioned to believe. “If you track your macronutrients through a day, you’ll find that you’re getting adequate protein.”
Professional bodybuilder Torre Washington, in Tamarac, Florida, keeps it simple. “We’re all unique individuals, so it’s up to each person to test things without fear of lack.” The National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified coach loves antioxidant-rich blueberries, filling apples and potassium-packed bananas, and tends to choose calorically lower, nutritionally dense foods during periods that he’s competing.
Carey suggests vegan meal delivery services as an option and vegan-friendly restaurants in a pinch, but attests to an easy system of meal prep for consistency. “Some people like to meal prep one day a week—cooking brown rice, quinoa and chopping veggies. This way, you can just throw it together when it’s time to eat,” she says. “You can also eat more simply and throw a bunch of yummy fruits or veggies into the blender for smoothies or soups.”
For added fortification, some experts recommend supplementing with vegan sources of vitamin B12, especially for active women in their child-bearing years and older individuals, because B12 absorption is compromised as we age. Adding a vegan source of vitamin D is also a wise choice if exposure to natural sunlight is not adequate.
The Big Picture
For the vegan athlete, workout gear that doesn’t contain wool or leather is the way to go. “Making conscious choices expands beyond your plate, and a lot of brands have vegan-friendly shoes,” says Moir.
“The difference between ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ has to do with ethical motivations and treatment of animals,” says Tullman. “Natural fibers such as cotton and synthetic fabrics like polyester are fine.”
The path of vegan fitness can not only offer health benefits, but also a personal connection to the Earth. “It’s given me an opportunity to share my journey with others and to allow them to reach their own specific goals,” says Washington. “Mentally, it’s given me more depth of thought and spiritually connected me with the ‘YOUniverse’ as a whole.”
Marlaina Donato is the author of several books and a composer.