Funny how I can change the title of this article to: ‘Do All High-Level Athletes Take Steroids’ and the answer is yes, a lot of them do.
The most common argument I see against the vegan diet for athletic performance is: “all vegan athletes take steroids”.
I see this pathetic argument all the time. It’s like if there’s a vegan athlete stronger than you, they are automatically on drugs. it’s a ridiculous argument.
To become an elite athlete it is necessary to use PEDs, this is just the reality of sports. Ilya Ilyin in his prime came close to clean and jerking 250kg. He removed meat from his diet in 2012. Do you think that would have been possible without gear? No, of course not. Do you think if he followed a meat-based diet he could’ve clean and jerked 250kg without gear? Definitely not, that performance is beyond human potential.
If someone wants to invalidate a vegan athlete’s accomplishments, their logic has to be consistent and they should invalidate all elite athletes accomplishments, because PEDs are necessary to be best.
When you present a narrow-minded non-vegan with 3 types of vegan athletes
1) A big and strong natural vegan
2) A big and strong enhanced vegan
3) A vegan that is weak and skinny
They come up with justifications all the time to avoid being open-minded.
You can see how pathetic and weak these arguments become and they provide zero evidence.
They avoid asking themselves the right questions such as “what nutrients are absent in a vegan diet that prevents people from gaining muscle mass and strength?” – this is a legitimate question. Or a question like, “is there any scientific research that shows that a vegan diet is less optimal for athletic performance?” If they can provide research then fair enough, it turns into a legitimate debate, but this is very rare to see.
So let’s answer these two questions:
What nutrients are absent in a vegan diet that prevents them from gaining muscle mass and strength?
The most common nutrient people cite that’s deficient in vegan diets is protein. 1.6g of protein per kg of body weight is a good target for bodybuilders and strength athletes.
Is it possible to hit that protein target on a vegan diet? Absolutely:
In the video above I show how it’s possible to get 240g of protein with only 3100 calories. I weigh 98kg, so this is far more than I need.
But what about the quality of the protein? Wouldn’t animal protein be more effective for muscle mass and strength? Also, is amino acid intake adequate on a vegan diet?
There are no ‘missing’ amino acids in the vegan diet. Every plant food has all essential amino acids:
All plant foods contain essential amino acids which are amino acids that can’t be synthesized in the body.
However, there are limiting amino acids in plant foods. For example, legumes are high in lysine and grains are high in methionine, so it’s important that a variety of plant foods are consumed to meet amino acid requirements.
There is only a small difference in protein digestibility in plant sources of protein vs animal-plant sources of protein. But the plant food sources studied were in bad conditions (raw and untreated) so the topic of protein digestibility in plant sources is debatable. At worst, you’ll just have to consume a small bit more protein as a vegan.
What about creatine? Vegan diets are certainly deficient in creatine, but vegans can just supplement with creatine monohydrate. Vegans do have lower levels of intramuscular creatine, but creatine supplementation is effective at raising levels.
And what about micronutrients that are hard to get on a vegan diet? Getting adequate amounts of micronutrients is possible on a vegan diet. Besides, it’s difficult to adequate amounts of micronutrients on any diet, meat-eaters tend to be deficient in vitamin C and folic acid, two very important nutrients. Any diet, vegan or not, needs to be planned and implemented correctly for optimal athletic performance.
So there doesn’t appear to be any nutrients absent on a vegan diet that can hinder performance, but a better question is:
is there any scientific research that shows that a vegan diet is less optimal for athletic performance?
There doesn’t appear to be. It has been hypothesised that a vegan diet offers benefits due to increased consumption of carbohydrates, phytonutrients and antioxidants. But there is little evidence showing that vegan diets can improve athletic performance when compared to a meat-based diet. There is also little evidence showing that vegan diets are worse for athletic performance.
There are some review papers suggesting vegan/vegetarian diets are suitable for athletes, many of them talk about specific nutrients that are difficult to achieve on a vegan diet, such as zinc and creatine. They also talk about the potential difficulty of achieving adequate protein and calories. They conclude, once a person appropriately plans a vegan diet it can be successful. But the problem is, there is a lack of research directly comparing a vegan diet to a meat-based diet.
Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers
Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets for Athletic Training and Performance
Vegetarian Diets: Nutritional Considerations for Athletes
There are some short term studies comparing vegetarian diets to a meat-based diets. A review examined seven randomised trials and one cross-sectional study and found no differences in aerobic and anaerobic performance as well as strength and power. The results are shown below:
Source: Vegetarian and Omnivorous Nutrition – Comparing Physical Performance
So in conclusion, there isn’t much evidence a vegan diet is beneficial or detrimental to performance. From the limited research, it appears to be equal to a meat-based diet.