“Unhealthy”, “drained”, “scrawny”, “undernourished”; these are all words that sometimes might be used to describe vegans. Would it surprise you to know that “Strongest Man of Germany” is vegan? Or that a woman prepared to tackle an 80km ultramarathon is primarily vegan? Just like other stereotypes we face in today’s society, the concept that vegan diets turn you into a lifeless twig couldn’t be more wrong. Veganism and athleticism can in fact coincide.
Most athletes will tell you they eat balanced diets. They follow Canada’s food guide to get the proper amounts of grains, dairy, meat, vegetables and fruits in order to perform at their best. For vegans two of these food groups are automatically disqualified. This is why some may find it hard to believe that vegans can be athletes let alone even be healthy.
Toronto-based fitness specialist and endurance athlete Courtney Norton is one of many athletes that defy this stereotype. She was brought up primarily vegan, and has been an athlete from a young age. She began endurance running and competitive swimming at the age of eight. Today, her athletic talents have led her to compete in triathlons and she is even preparing for an 80 km ultramarathon toward the end of October. Norton blames lack of knowledge for the negative stigma around being vegan.
“It’s actually just [being] uneducated. I think the more people can be educated about other [protein] options the easier it is for people to see that you don’t have to consume any animal products to get adequate nutrition,” she says.
Protein is essential for athletes to feed their muscles. Meat is the go-to protein source for most athletes. Chicken, ground beef and other meats may be the easiest protein options, but they are most certainly not the only ones. Norton packs protein into her diet by consuming hemp protein, beans, soy products and tofu.
“I’m a living example at the fact that you don’t have to eat meat,” she says.
Norton says she knows plenty of vegans and vegetarians who are endurance athletes and so living on a vegan diet isn’t usually criticised. However, other fields of athletics aren’t so forgiving.
“When it comes to more explosive stuff like weight lifting there’s a huge stigma around the fact that you need to have meat, or else you’re never going to have quality muscle,” she says.
Patrik Baboumian also defies the vegan stereotype. He is only 5’7” but 271lbs of pure muscle. Given the title of 2011’s “Strongest Man of Germany” he astonishes many when they find out he is the “Herbivore Strongman”.
When you imagine a typical meal for a body builder you think high protein high carbs and high calorie. You might picture meat on top of a giant mound of rice. Perhaps some dark green leafy veggies on the side washed down with a glass of milk. Is this adequate? Yes. Is this the only option? No and it’s clearly not an option for devoted vegans like Baboumian. He says gets his protein from sources like soy-milk, soy-protein-powder, tofu, nuts and beans. He says he gets his calories in the liquid form of shakes and smoothies because when living off of a plant-based diet it is hard to get the amount of calories needed.
Essential amino acids are building blocks of protein and something that the body can’t make and therefore must be eaten. Kyle Byron who is a Toronto nutritionist explains the importance of amino acids and protein for body builders.
“[Without protein] it’s like trying to put an addition on your house without buying more brick. It can’t be done,” he says. “Conventional wisdom says you need to do this through animal sources, but that’s not true. It can be from plant sources it’s just a lot harder to do, but it can be done and it’s proven by [Baboumian] and a lot of other athletes.”
Byron says no matter where body builders get their amino acids they are still going to be contributing to the essentials needed for muscle building.
“Once it’s digested, your intestinal track doesn’t know if it came from chicken or if it came from beans it just knows that ‘hey these are amino acids, I’m going to ship these off to the muscles,’” he says.
Not only is protein important for athletes but so are vitamins and minerals which are micronutrients. Again, for typical athletes meat is a popular choice because it provides the body with protein as well as micronutrients like iron. Just like protein can be found outside of animal products, so can micronutrients.
Supplements are commonly used among athletes whether they are vegan or not. Ben Halsall is a personal trainer in the Greater Toronto Area who knows just how important supplements are if meat isn’t an option.
“Typically when people aren’t consuming meat they’re deficient in a lot of micronutrients because they’re not getting the vitamins and minerals they need through diet and nutrition. Therefore they’re going to have to supplement pretty aggressively with vitamins and minerals, and if they’re not paying attention to that it could negatively affect progress,” he says.
Runner, swimmer, diver, biker, weight-lifter you can do it all – and be vegan! The nutrients athletes need can be found through plenty of sources which are not animal products. Being a dedicated vegan and a dedicated athlete can easily go hand-in-hand. Don’t let the stereotypes fool you, vegans can be powerhouses too with the right knowledge on how to feed the body.