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Vegan Diet In Football: Should You Believe The Hype?
Given the recent rise in discussion surrounding veganism and football, our football nutrition expert Shaun has put together the following guidelines for players who are on the fence about making the switch.
To kick things off, certainly, athletes can still improve their performance on a vegan diet.
However, the more important point is that it's not the most optimal choice for ensuring elite performance.
To be blunt, players looking to really get every advantage possible over their competition should steer clear.
I have worked with people transitioning to a vegan diet and seen improvements, however, these improvements are only relative to a previous substandard diet.
The general consensus from sport nutritionists is that when trying to transition an athlete who is already doing things correctly, towards a vegan diet, there will be either:
- A reduction in performance and/or training adaptations
- Reduced progression in performance and/or training adaptation
Current opinions why this might be occurring:
- Vegan diet is very deficient in vitamin B12, vitamin K2, EPA/DHA (omega 3's) and vitamin A. If the body can convert other nutrients into these, the conversion rate is extremely poor (<10%). Supplementation is essential, and may not always cure the problem.
- Accounting for the fatty acid profile of plant foods, the vegan diet is by nature a more inflammatory diet than a non-vegan diet (not a typical western diet though of course) due to the lack of bioavailable omega 3's and high amount of omega 6 (and the almost unavoidable consumption of carbohydrates at every meal).
- Plant-based protein sources are inferior to animal-based protein sources in terms of bioavailability and stimulating protein synthesis. Vegans require higher protein intakes to compensate, however this is difficult when the food is already less protein-dense.
There are a few examples of top athletes who rave about the positive affect a vegan diet has had not only on their performance, but also how they feel day to day. But what is never mentioned in the media is the high amount of top athletes in football, tennis, rugby, and boxing who have had to revert back to their prior diet due to health issues and/or performance issues.
Ofcourse the ethical and environmental arguments for a vegan diet are completely justified, although thay will likely always continue to be debated.
From a health and performance standpoint, the reality is that there would only be cons to removing high-quality animal products from a wholefoods diet, not to mention that ensuring your vegan diet is meeting all of your nutritional requirements can be a challenge in itself - you may feel like the only way to make it work would be to have your own personal chef making every meal for you.
This is where the documentaries and few apparent health "experts" on veganism have unfortunately misled the public by focusing on a scientific evidence base that is consistently scrutinized by the vast majority of people studying human biology.
Some people are uncomfortable with eating animal products and that is not a significant issue if the individual structures their diet in a way to get around the issues stated above - it is just the idea that it is superior for health and performance that needs to be disregarded.
Regarding vitamins, everyone is going to have vastly different needs for individual vitamins and minerals. This is one of the problems with just focusing on "Recommended Daily Amounts".
The need for these nutrients will not change because of a different eating habit. The need will be different depending on someone's family origin, for example. After all, our current physiological needs are a result of adaptations from our evolutionary behaviours.
I hope this gives you an unbiased insight into how a vegan diet relates to football performance. The improvements which players have claimed to experience thanks to a vegan diet are almost certainly true, however more often than not it's when comparing a previous sub-optimal diet to a vegan diet. i.e with a vegan diet, you are removing the temptation and possibility of eating many foods which may have previously created issues for you (such as dairy), and replacing them with fresh, nutritious foods. But if you had done the same thing whilst still sticking to a healthy non-vegan based diet, you would likely have experienced exactly the same benefits.
The issue with a non-vegan based diet there's always that temptation to occasionally revert back to poor food choices or mistakenly consume something which causes you issues, with a vegan diet having strict rules this possibility is almost completely eradicated. So it almost comes down to your mindset surrounding food consumption, with a vegan diet often making the psychological side of your healthy nutritional choices simpler.
For example, with a vegan diet you are almost forced to consume a wider variety of vegetables and protein sources simply to meet your nutritional needs, could you have added this into your current diet and reaped the same rewards? It's definitely harder when you have more free will, veganism makes daily decisions like these much easier.
Always take what you read, see and hear in the media with a pinch of salt and do your own research based on science before making a choice. Even with this article, absorb the guidelines and then come to your own conclusions. Just because a famous player or celebrity is supporting a new movement or idea doesn't mean it's always going to be a good fit for you, your goals and your lifestyle too.