What are the pros and cons of following a vegan diet as a runner?

Sports dietitian Renee McGregor on the key things vegan or plant-based diet runners should bear in mind.

a delicious vegan spread

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We’ve all heard about the benefits of eating more plant-based foods, both for our health and the health of the planet. The EAT-Lancet Commission (2019), a collaboration of 37 leading scientists, whose aim was to develop global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, reported that, ‘Food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on Earth.’

Over the past decade, the number of people choosing to eat less meat and fewer animal products has risen significantly. As of 2021, 12% of the adult UK population is following a vegetarian (7%) or pescatarian (5%) diet, and 3% are vegan. These are established nutritional approaches, but plant-based eating is becoming a go-to approach owing to its popularity on social media and links with ‘wellness’.

How does plant-based eating differ from being vegetarian or vegan?

The Vegan Society defines veganism as follows: ‘Veganism is a philosophy and a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose, and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefits of animals, humans and the environment.’ 

Being vegetarian, on the other hand, involves eating a diet that excludes meat, fish and animal ingredients such as gelatine, but includes eggs, dairy and honey. With plant-based eating, you avoid consumption of animals and animal products for health or environmental reasons, but unlike veganism and vegetarianism, it’s not a dedicated practice – you might still occasionally consume animal and animal products. Similarly, you may choose to wear leather or use personal care products that contain animal-derived ingredients.

Are there any performance benefits associated with following a vegan diet as a runner?

While there is little data on the impact of plant-based eating on athletic performance, available studies demonstrate that it is unaffected among those who choose vegetarianism.

Information on vegan diets is scant. From my experience working with runners, I see no reason why performance cannot be maintained whether you are plant-based, vegetarian or vegan, as long as you make appropriate choices to support your training and recovery.

Are there any drawbacks to following a vegan diet as a runner?

That said, one potential issue to consider is volume, both dietary and training. Plant-based and vegan diets tend to be fibre-dense, with fruit and veg displacing carbs, protein and essential fats. When training volume and energy needs are high, some may find it challenging to consume enough energy through a plant-based approach, as it is less energy-dense. This can result in negative consequences to health and performance if not addressed.

While many people worry about protein intake, especially in vegan diets, as long as you are consuming a mix of grains and legumes each day, you should be able to meet your requirements. Older athletes, who have higher protein requirements, may benefit from supplementing with pea or soya protein powders.

Some micronutrients can be more difficult to obtain from diets that avoid animal and animal products. Vegetarian runners should keep an eye on their levels of iron and omega-3 fatty acids, as these are difficult to obtain when not consuming meat or fish. Vegan and plant-based runners also need to consider their vitamin B12, iodine and calcium levels.

Final word

Plant-based diets have become big business and foods that are plant-based are seen by some to be inherently healthy and morally good. It is important to remember that heavily packaged or processed plant-based foods may still have a negative impact on your health and the environment.

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