The Game Changers documentary on Netflix has ignited a debate about the pros and cons of plant-based eating for athletes.
Mike Vulanich is a professional triathlete and recently became a vegan, so he's in a perfect position to tell us about his own experience. Mike gave up meat, fish, eggs and dairy as part of a New Year's resolution before it became a way of life, and he's got 5 top tips for vegan athletes (or anyone thinking of going plant-based)...
Every January my wife, Dani, does a 'reset' after the holiday season. Usually it’s the Whole30 diet, but in 2018 she decided she was going to eat vegan for the month.
My sweet tooth isn’t as strong as Dani’s, so I usually don’t join her, but this time I was interested in giving plant-based eating a try.
After all, I was almost vegan already. Lactose is not my friend so that was out. I seldom ate meat or fish out of environmental concerns, which really left eggs. 'A month without eggs - easy enough!', I thought.
And so we stumbled through January by eating vegan.
Eggs are used way more often than I expected. On the first of February, when Dani (happily) resumed her traditional diet, I decided I was going to keep going with it.
But that wasn’t the only big life decision I made. I also began taking steps to race professionally as a triathlete, and my first pro camp with my coach Julie Dibens and crew was set to begin just a couple weeks later.
I was going to have my hands full, not only figuring out how to get more out of my body than ever before, but doing so with a new approach to the fuel I gave it.
A year-and-a-half later, I’m racing professionally, I’m still vegan and I’ve learned some stuff along the way that might be helpful to anyone who’s considering plant-based sport.
There’s being a vegan, then there’s being a vegan athlete
I was an amateur at Julie’s pro camp and unfortunately I ate like it.
Our first key run, fast mile repeats, was at 7.00am on a Tuesday morning. To prepare on Monday night, I made this yummy stew that I’d read on a vegan recipe website. It was packed with lentils and all sorts of fibrous wonderful foods. It took a while to make and I ate late.
This is a professional blog, so let’s just say that nature stopped me from completing that run...
Many of the vegan recipes out there don’t take into account the demanding physical nature of sport. It’s important to eat nutrient-dense foods as a vegan, but sometimes such foods can wreak havoc on your stomach during intense effort.
Since then I’ve tried to find recipes that vary in complexity and plan according to my training schedule. For instance, I’ve found that homemade smoothies in the morning before sessions or races are perfect for me. You’re going to fumble once or twice like I did, but then you learn and can be totally dialled in with no surprises before your next competition.
Racing pro was delayed until 2019 after an injury. I wasn’t able to train as much, so my eating habits changed. Despite what you may have guessed, I actually lost weight (I know, I know, annoying, I’ll see myself out). But in general I’m just inclined to eat less and, coupled with the muscle loss, I was as light as I was in high school.
A tough-love conversation with my coach highlighted the fact that I’d struggled to keep weight on for the past year. It was time to take eating enough seriously. Except eating enough is actually pretty tough as a vegan. Actually, let me rephrase that…
It’s getting easier to eat as a vegan, with 'fake' versions of what we used to enjoy as meat-eaters. I’m not demonizing these foods at face value and I love a good fake meat burger every now and then, but eating highly processed foods out of ease can be a slippery slope.
The better way, in my opinion, is to eat as many whole foods as possible, get the calories you need and the right balance of carbs, protein and healthy fats. To achieve this, one of my go-to meals is a big bowl of white rice, black beans, tons of roasted veggies and avocado, topped with arugula and drizzled with tahini sauce.
“But where do you get your protein?”
I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but I think we’ve become a little too obsessed with protein. Yes, it’s how we rebuild muscle. But go down the aisle of any grocery store and count how many packages scream about the protein (though the pretzels on my last flight claimed 4 grams!).
As a vegan, you can get enough protein from plants. The important factor is ensuring you get complete protein, which means the right amino acid profile to build muscle.
Unfortunately, many single plant foods don’t give you that full profile. That’s one of the biggest benefits of eating animal products, which by definition must have these muscle-building amino acids.
Single sources of complete proteins in plants are soy, quinoa, hemp, chia and spirulina. But combining certain foods works too.
For example, rice has protein. Beans have protein. Individually neither have all the amino acids to rebuild muscle. Put them together and, voila, complete protein. Another is hummus and pita.
I also use a vegan protein mix after workouts and as you’d guess, it's made from multiple plant protein sources.
Ask the experts
While plant-based living is becoming more mainstream, it’s easy to wonder if we’re 'doing it right'. I’ve invested in two areas to help ensure I approach being a vegan athlete in a healthy way.
I get bloodwork every six months to ensure my key levels are healthy. With my doctor, I have chosen to take trusted sources of Vitamin B Complex and Iron supplements - two nutrients that many vegans struggle to maintain.
I also enlisted the help of a nutritionist, Kylee Van Horn at Fly Nutrition. After looking at my food log, she let me know I was doing pretty darn well as a vegan!
But we still found some areas for improvement in nutrition for training and racing. I would recommend logging your food for a week to ensure your calories and macros are in line.
Have a reason (or don’t)
I find it’s easier to stick with things if I believe in my reason for doing them. In my case, I was troubled by learning how detrimental to our environment animal production is. I believe in it enough to say no to those 'regular' burgers I sometimes miss.
You might try plant-based for the same reason, health benefits or maybe your wife ropes you into it. In any case, having a reason makes it easier to stick with something that’s not easy.
Or don’t. Eating is a personal choice and you don’t have to have a reason to give it a shot. Maybe it will last a month. Maybe it will last much longer.
If you do decide to give it a shot, I hope you find as much enjoyment as I have in discovering new recipes, eating and feeling cleaner, and the 'back to basics' approach of whole foods.