Are vegan diets good for athletes?

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A new documentary on Netflix called The Game Changers is sparking all kinds of debate around the subject of veganism. Including numerous interviews with pro-athletes all of whom are vegans, the documentary is on the surface extremely convincing, with the main premise being that veganism isn’t only the most advantageous diet for long-term health, but for an athletic edge as well.

Recently however vegetarian and marathon runner Dr David C. Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University in North Carolina has come out to say that many of the premises in The Game Changers are absolutely wrong.

The documentary claims that no only are athletes experiencing better long term health, but are also recovering faster from injuries, experience higher metabolic recovery (the speed at which the body recovers after a workout) and report an immediate boost in their performance.

Nieman’s opinion on the matter is important as he studies high-level athletes and diet, and he says the circumstances under which a vegan diet may help are extremely limited.

“The only possible way a vegan diet may help some people is if they’re involved in a sport that takes more than an hour,” Nieman said, “And that’s only if they were on a low carb, high-fat diet and switched to a vegan diet, which would mean they’d be taking in more carbs. Those people would see improvement in endurance — not sports skill.”

Nieman is by no means against a vegan diet, however, and says that if it is treated properly and carefully managed there is no reason a vegan diet could not match the same performances as a diet that includes meat but is quick to stress that some of the claims made in The Game Changers are false.

According to Nieman, you’ve got to look at nutrition’s effect on three areas to get an overall sense of how diets affect athletes: long-term, acute, and post-workout recovery.

“Long-term health is important for athletes. Plant-based dietary choices are at the heart of all healthy eating patterns,” Nieman explained, whether your diet of choice be vegetarian, the Mediterranean diet, or DASH, for example.

He stops the documentary dead however when it comes to recovery saying, “It’s nonsense that plant protein will help you recover any differently from animal proteins.”

He does, however, suggest that people who have had a workout should consider bananas, pears, and blueberries as a post-workout snack as all have been shown to support your body’s recovery after exercise.