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The 2019 Netflix documentary The Game Changers took the sports world by storm, with hordes of bodybuilders, runners and athletes going vegan to improve their health and performance.

Vegan athletes featured in the film include: the US National Football League’s Derrick Morgan; two-time Australian sprint champion, Morgan Mitchell; American record-holding weightlifter, Kendrick Farris; world-record-holding strongman, Patrik Baboumian; eight-time US national cycling champion, Dotsie Bausch; Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Nate Diaz; boxing heavyweight, Bryant Jennings; and Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time. 

Then there’s Rich Roll, the ultra-endurance athlete who Men’s Health magazine described as the ‘fittest vegan on Earth’. No one is asking them where they get their protein.

You don’t build muscle by eating muscle

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t build muscle by eating muscle (meat). Muscles develop by being used and the best diet to fuel this is a wholegrain, vegan one. 

It provides complex carbohydrates, plant protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, while avoiding undesirable saturated animal fats, animal protein and cholesterol; all linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers. A vegan diet not only provides the best fuel for physical activity, it can also reduce recovery time.

Compared with meat-eaters, vegans get considerably more antioxidants in their diets, which help neutralize free radicals, harmful molecules that can reduce athletic performance, cause muscle fatigue and impair recovery. An increasing number of professional athletes are switching to veganism to gain these advantages and improve their performance.

The Game Changers has inspired many people to adopt plant-based diets 

Fruit and veg – essential

Fruit and vegetables are a perfect source of healthy carbohydrates, both simple and complex. They are also a great source of antioxidants, minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium, and vitamins C, K and most from the B group. Wholegrains also provide healthy carbohydrates and protein (unlike refined grains), minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. 

Pulses (peas, beans and lentils) provide healthy plant protein, complex carbohydrates, B group vitamins, minerals including iron and calcium, and antioxidants. Nuts and seeds are excellent for protein, ‘good’ unsaturated fats (apart from coconut), fibre, antioxidants, minerals (including zinc and selenium), vitamin E and B group vitamins.

On top of all this goodness, make sure you have a reliable source of vitamins B12 and D and omega-3 fats. For omega-3s, make walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds or hempseeds part of your regular diet or take an algal supplement.

Snack wisely

For main meals, combine different wholefoods to get a wide range of nutrients. Avoid processed foods – an occasional treat is fine but your body responds much better to wholefoods. To avoid being caught out, plan ahead; make a smoothie to-go, carry some dried fruit, nuts and seeds or your favourite energy bar with you or simply make a wrap with hummus or nut butter, beans and veggies – that’s what Scott Jurek does!

As a rule of thumb, eat only small amounts of food before you exercise and leave bigger meals for after. Your body needs energy to fuel your performance but too much food cannot be digested fast enough and can make you feel sluggish. 

Try eating a piece of fruit or an energy bar if you’re doing intensive training. You’ll notice that tennis players frequently take a bite from a banana between games. If you’re going to the gym for a regular workout, going for a run up to 10k, cycling one hour or doing a yoga class, there’s no need for pre-workout food.

Carbs

As carbohydrates are digested, they release glucose into your bloodstream. Glucose is the main fuel that every single cell in your body needs. Different foods release it at different speeds, this is called the glycaemic index (GI). 

Foods that release glucose fast have a high GI and are a source of fast energy – dates, refined cereals and potatoes. Foods that release it slowly have a low GI and are good for sustained energy release over longer periods of time – most fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds. Then there’s a whole range of foods with a medium GI – wholegrain foods, brown rice and oats.

Starch is a complex carbohydrate and a natural part of many plant foods that release their energy gradually. For long-lasting fuel, eat starchy sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, beans, lentils, chickpeas, brown rice, oats, and quinoa.

Chick peas provide long-lasting fuel (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Protein

The average person needs around 0.8g of protein daily per kilogram of bodyweight. If you’re a serious athlete or want to build muscles, you’ll need to increase your protein intake – professional athletes eat 1-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight. For someone weighing 73 kilograms, this means 73-146 grams of protein a day. 

A tofu steak with quinoa and broccoli supplies around 50 grams, a handful of mixed nuts provides seven grams, two slices of wholemeal bread with peanut butter will provide around 15 grams and a bowl of muesli with fruit and added seeds could pack over 15 grams. Unless you’re an athlete, bodybuilder or do physically demanding work on a daily basis, you probably won’t need protein powders.

During training sessions or endurance races that last longer than 60-90 minutes, you may need to replenish your energy. Dates, bananas and raisins are great for this, providing fast energy when you are running low. Alternatively, buy ready-made energy bars or make your own with a food processor – blitz and blend your favourite ingredients and make handy energy bites for a fraction of the price or shop-bought options.

Don’t forget to hydrate

Don’t forget – water is essential for every process in your body so drink up. It’s crucial that you drink enough, especially when you’re physically active. Being dehydrated hinders your performance and recovery. When training, it’s best to rely on plain water. Post-workout, smoothies are the go-to choice for so many people as they provide nutrients and hydration!

Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a newbie trying the Couch to 5k, going vegan can help you reach the potential you are striving for.

This article was first published by Viva!

Dr. Justine Butler of Viva!

Dr. Butler graduated from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology and a BSc First Class (hons) in Biochemistry from UWE before joining Viva! in 2005. She currently researches, writes and campaigns for Viva!Health.