By Derek Benz B.S., CPT
Most people can’t believe an athlete can be a vegan and be successful. What they don’t realize is veganism might give them an advantage.
There are numerous outstanding athletes out there in the world of sports, and one that has always particularly intrigued me is bodybuilding. Bodybuilding sets a higher standard, pushing the human body to its limits with challenging work. Personally, I’ve switched from training with soccer and basketball to become a collegiate distance runner and finally to bodybuilding. It was a bit of a shock! However, there is also the fact that no one minds looking more aesthetically pleasing.
This is my connection to the rest of the general population; most people wouldn’t mind losing some body fat. I have discovered body building not only affects my body shape, but also diet, holistic living, and personal research. As I’ve read many peer reviewed journals along my journey and personally experienced a vegan diet, I am confident enough to encourage it to other people, specifically bodybuilders. However, even those of us looking to drop a couple pounds would benefit greatly from a more plant-based diet. I have found my experience in bodybuilding helps me as a personal trainer to figure out how to help others in more effective ways.
A large part of success in bodybuilding, or any fat loss program for that matter, is the foods one chooses to consume. There are diets everywhere claiming rapid weight loss and miracle cures without a lot of work. Unfortunately, the evidence behind weight loss fads is usually weak, if not non-existent. The risk is that a lot of these diets can be very restrictive and even hazardous to our health. There is also the concern that if these diets do help you lose weight, the weight will come back unless you stay on these plans for the rest of your life. There is a long term way of eating intelligently that is not and does not feel restrictive and is effective for general health and body composition control: veganism.
Why Vegan Rocks!
Nutrient Density is a term used to describe the amount of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals) present in a food per calorie. For example, food with a high amount of nutrients and low amount of calories would be of high nutrient density and food with few nutrients and plenty of calories would rate low on the chart. There is also a diet called the Nutritarian Diet, aimed at maximizing nutrient density in the diet.
Obviously plant foods, especially vegetables, rate very high on this chart. Kale and collard greens rate as 1000 and everything else is measured compared to those foods. The ratings are derived from the equation (nutrient content/calorie content). With this equation, the highest rating for an animal product is salmon with a score of 39/1000. This is strong evidence to support the nutrient adequacy of plant-based diets.
Another aspect crucial to general health and weight loss programs is fiber. Fiber is an indigestible portion of food that gives your digestive system a workout and feeds you gut bacteria. It’s particularly helpful for a weight loss program because it is very satiating, you feel less hungry. On average, people eat about 200 kcal less per day when they switch to a vegan diet. While this can be explained a variety of different ways, the fiber comes through as a large part of the difference. Fiber exists only in the plant world; there is no animal product in the world that contains a gram of fiber. When one switches to a vegan diet, the fiber intake increases because plants that contain fiber are replacing the animal products that do not. The daily recommendation for fiber for healthy adults is 38 grams for men and 25 grams for females.
The image above shows the results of a study done on 7th Day Adventists. This is a religious group that preaches eliminating tobacco, alcohol, and animal products from the diet. This is a simple correlation study—however with a large sample size the information becomes a bit more reliable. This research has compelling results that I hope merit further studies looking into the vegan diet and health. I have faith the results will be nothing but positive! BMI is a simple measure of bodyweight over height. The lower the number, the fewer pounds per inch someone has. The healthy range for BMI is 18.5 to 24.5. The only group that falls into that range is the vegans. The chart on the right shows the rates of diabetes in those same groups.
While some factors of eating plans may make differences, the largest difference in successful eating plans versus unsuccessful ones is a sum of factors rather than one single factor. Healthy living is a product of sleep, stress relief, high nutrient intake, water, physical activity, and a healthy mental attitude. While this may not be a complete list, the holistic effect of lifestyle choices cannot be ignored.
Additionally, there are benefits specific to certain conditions or parts of the body. Even a brief search on Google Scholar shows multiple studies showing evidence that a vegan diet can help symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. There appears to be an anti-inflammatory effect of a plant-based eating plan. This could also have effects on healthy individuals.
From the practical side of my experience, I have always trained intensely with heavy weights and large training volumes. Things I have noticed between myself and my omnivore friends is this training style seemed to affect me less than my omnivore friends. While there are many factors, I have been uninjured for years training at a very high volume and going heavy on my main lifts every week. I also participate in weekly high intensity cardio and some low intensity cardio. These are all activities that have caused injuries both minor and major with others, meanwhile I remain injury free with not so much as a muscle tweak.
While all research is great, how is the theory in practice? Similar to any diet, vegan diets can be both extravagant and frugal. The frugal side is made up of more beans, sunflower seeds, whole grains, onions, carrots, broccoli, bananas, and raisins to name a few. The extravagant side involves buying all organic produce, going out to eat, and basing your diet on exotic and more expensive varieties of fruits and vegetables. In my experience, the vegan way of eating is quite cheap if planned correctly. Oftentimes meat is the most expensive item on an omnivore’s plate and also easily replaced with a cheaper vegan option such as tofu, beans, or seeds.
Related to spending, the amount of food one consumes also matters greatly. People who switch from an omnivore diet to a vegan one often complain of negative symptoms and fatigue. They typically attribute this to protein deficiency which is extremely rare for a vegan; if you know a vegan diagnosed with kwashiorkor, the medical term for protein deficiency, then I will eat my hat!
The real problem not being addressed is an inability to eat enough calories. This is a common mistake because plant foods are often lower in calories and higher in fiber. This naturally will encourage lower caloric intake, so those feelings of fatigue can often be cured by eating another meal in a day. And with healthy eating a priority, if you are eating a whole food, plant-based diet, it is difficult to gain weight. Give it a try and see if you can easily gain five pounds the vegan way. Then try gaining five pounds eating a processed food and animal product heavy diet, I’m sure it’ll be a piece of cake.
When I look at the evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals, there are hundreds of studies looking at the connection between diet and disease, some possibly more misleading than others. Seeing through the fog can be difficult at times with hundreds of conflicting reports. I’ve illustrated a few reasons veganism is a viable option as a dietary pattern, with little to no side effects. I realize some are simple correlation studies, but there will be more to follow on the clinical side and these studies should show promising enough results to encourage more research! More research will offer further knowledge that may help clear the fog. Though scientific research is always evolving, veganism has been a positive diet throughout history and continues to be so.