What is a Vegan Diet?

Vegan (noun); a person who does not eat or use animal products.

Growing numbers of our new trainees now report as following a vegetarian or vegan diet. In 2016, The Telegraph reported that the UK has seen a 360% increase in veganism over the last decade. Here in Dubai, use #vegan as an Instagram search and you will reveal around 54 million (beautifully presented) pictures of meal and snack options. Dubai is fast becoming a vegan-friendly location, host to more restaurants and eateries to which we can confidently send our clients. The reason for veganism’s growing popularity is thought to be largely due to public awareness of animal welfare issues. The number of public figures who have adopted a vegan diet is also rapidly growing. This list includes celebrities such as Ariana Grande, and athletes such as Venus Williams (tennis) and David Haye (boxing).

There are 7 sub-categories of individual who choose to abstain from certain animal produce to various degrees. Veganism is considered the category that is most restrictive, in which the individual does not eat or drink any form of animal produce. In our experience, vegans are typically very committed to their health and nutrition but often find improving their body composition (losing fat and building muscle) challenging. In this article, we will explain how you can design (and dare we say it, improve) the vegan diet to maximise your results in the gym.

Note: This blog post seeks only to discuss human health and performance issues, not ethical or animal welfare issues.

What are the concerns with a vegan diet?

There are a number of potential health and fitness benefits to a well-structured vegan diet. You may note a performance benefit through an increase in anti-oxidant consumption, particularly vitamins C and E. An increase in antioxidants has been shown to aid your ability to manage inflammation, both systemically and post-exercise (although this has yet to be demonstrated in empirical research). A plant-based diet is also typically higher in carbohydrates, which may have performance benefit if regularly engaging in endurance exercise.

Obviously (we hope), eliminating any major food group(s) from your diet reduces your intake of certain nutrients. When eliminating all animal produce from your daily intake, you also remove a variety of essential nutrients for health. If you were to adopt a vegan diet without taking these in to consideration, your performance in the gym and body composition may well diminish. Nutrient deficiencies found in those adopting a vegan diet are of greater concern if little attention is paid to mitigate these losses.

Vegan meal example

A great IG account to follow for vegan-related discussion.

Areas of Focus

Maintaining energy intake (the calories you consume) for optimal function is often a struggle for vegans due to the typically low-energy density of plant-based foods. Lower energy intake is the reason why many see an initial reduction in body weight when adopting veganism. However, this can subsequently lead to a reduced immune system, impaired reproductive function and muscle loss. Ensuring your energy intake is optimal is a first, important step for our nutrition team.

Plant-based diets and the consumption of raw food (in particular) can lead to poor nutrient absorption. This is due to various compounds contained within plant-based foods that interfere with nutrient uptake in your gastrointestinal tract. Properly preparing and cooking food can be extremely valuable. We often also recommend that certain digestive support be used alongside a vegan diet to facilitate proper absorption.

Protein intake is so important for regular exercisers. Veganism’s most voiced criticism is the frequent lack of complete proteins (proteins containing all amino acids that are known to be essential to health). Complete proteins are found primary in animal produce. Furthermore, habitual exercisers rely on a few specific amino acids, called ‘branched-chain amino acids’, to aid in the development of strength and muscle tissue. Branched-chain amino acids are unfortunately scarce in a plant-based diet.

Optimising a vegan diet plan?

If you’re a vegan, our goal is certainly not to “convert you” to a diet containing animal produce. Our goal is to help optimise your intake to achieve your health, performance and body composition aspirations. We are certain the following guidance will really help!

Focus on consuming energy-dense foods. Most plant-based foods comprise of various fibres, sugar and starch. They typically lack significant energy to support optimal metabolism and performance during workouts. Try to ensure daily consumption of various healthy, energy-dense foods to support the demands of exercise and muscle growth/repair such as avocados, nuts, seeds and oils.

Plant-based foods often contain anti-nutrients and nutrient inhibitors such as polyphenols and phytates. Whilst there are so many beneficial nutrients to be found in vegan dishes, absorbing and assimilation them efficiently is a challenge for our digestive system. To reduce the level of anti-nutrients and inhibitors that can lead to deficiencies, you might consider the following:

  • Breads can be leavened.
  • Grains and nuts can be fermented or sprouted.
  • Frequent consumption of raw foods should be avoided where possible.

Note: The details of how to prepare these foods goes beyond the scope of this article. However, YouTube is an extremely valuable resource when preparing your own foods and often direct our clients to some really useful channels.

‘Protein’ comes from the Greek origin “proteos” meaning; of first importance, and should be treated as such. There are various high-protein, plant-based foods that we often recommend such as; pumpkin seeds, lentils, black beans, almonds and quinoa. However, these foods are only “high-protein” compared to other plant-based foods. Compared to animal produce, these foods are relatively low in protein by portion. Have you ever tried to consume 150g of protein each day using only black beans?! You would need well over 1kg of beans to achieve your target (and may lose favour with friends and family).

Our opinion is that supplementing your intake with protein shakes and amino acid is necessary to your health and essential to your performance in the gym. Although the quality of rice or pea protein is inferior to Whey, several companies now produce a good vegan post-workout shake. Using shakes and the consumption of branched-chain-amino-acids with each meal, you can easily take care of your protein requirements and ensure workouts are productive.

How to use this information

Being a relatively recent dietary choice, veganism has only a small body of research behind it’s long-term effects on human health and performance. There are certainly some benefits of a well-structured vegan diet ranging from increased fibre intake to perhaps introducing you to a greater variety of plant-based foods and nutrients.

However, as with all dietary choices that exclude major food groups, a vegan diet must be intelligently structured. You should seek to replace the broad range of nutrients that are subsequently limited with the exclusion of animal products. Habitual exercisers must ensure that caloric and protein needs are met. This, for the majority of us, means relying on a great-quality, daily supplementation protocol to ensure an optimal intake.

Thank you for reading.

If you have questions, we are happy to discuss on our Facebook page.