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Can a Vegan Diet Really Sustain Ambitious Exercisers?

New research shows how plant-based runners compare to their omnivore counterparts.

Last updated: April 6, 2021
Is a Vegan Diet Sustainable for Runners?

Most athletes are hyper-aware of what they put in their bodies. Not just because the wrong foods can lead to a mid-workout gastric "situation", but also because the right foods can fuel PBs and faster recovery. There are plenty of opinions on whether plants provide muscle-repairing protein and whether a meatless diet can power certain forms of exercise. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition indicated one important finding: A vegan diet has no negative effects on performance.

The German researchers recruited 76 male and female recreational runners. Each considered themselves either an omnivore (they eat food from plants and animals), lacto-ovo-vegetarian (they eat food from plants as well as eggs and dairy, but meat and fish are off limits), or vegan (nothing they eat comes from an animal source). The subjects performed a graded exercise test on a stationary bicycle to assess their maximum power output, a measure of how hard they can work for how long. After a 6-minute warm-up at 50 watts resistance, equivalent to about a one or two out of 10 in terms of effort, the resistance was increased by 16.7 watts per minute until the subject couldn't cycle any longer.

So which group performed better? All of the subjects reached exhaustion after about 20 minutes. In fact, the researchers determined that there were no differences in the max amount of effort omnivores, lacto-ovo-vegetarians and vegans could sustain.

"The exercise capacity of recreational runners is independent of diet if adequate energy and nutrient intake is guaranteed", says Josefine Nebl, a study author and postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Leibniz University, Hanover in Germany.

"In fact, the researchers determined that there were no differences in the max amount of effort omnivores, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, and vegans could sustain".

The subjects ate very different meals during the 24 hours before the test. Vegans, for example, recorded eating more carbs, fibre, magnesium, iron, folate and vitamin E and less fat and vitamin B12 compared to both the meat eaters and lacto-ovo-vegetarians. But as long as they were consuming the same total amount of quality calories, the lacto-ovo-vegetarians and vegans were just as properly fuelled for exercise as the meat-eaters were, says Nebl.

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