Can a vegan diet work for cyclists?

The rise of the vegan athlete and the benefits of choosing a plant-based diet

More and more of us are questioning the long-held notion that a meal is not a meal unless it is based around a piece of meat. Awareness is also continuing to grow of the health, environmental and welfare issues that are consequences of chowing down on many of the animal food sources we take for granted.

As a result, increasing numbers of people are deciding that it's time to take meat off the menu.

An October 2014 report by analysts Mintel, for example, found that 12 percent of UK adults are now vegetarian or vegan with that figure rising to 20 percent among 16 to 24 year olds. Others are simply choosing to cut down on the amount of meat that they eat, adopting a semi-vegetarian or 'flexitarian' diet.

Changing eating habits

Many notable sports professionals, such as British boxer David Haye, German strongman Patrik Baboumian, ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll and MMA fighter Mac Danzig, have shunned the traditional strongman menu of steak, eggs and chicken to pursue a vegan approach to nutrition — and have proved that it can be done successfully.

Professional athletes, however, have the advantage of expert analysis of their every forkful, so their successes may not necessarily translate to us mere mortals.

While animal welfare issues and a massively reduced environmental footprint are reason enough for many amateur athletes to embrace vegan ways, can a plant-based regime realistically provide the nutrients we need to build and maintain an athletic body? And are there actual performance benefits to be had from ditching meat, eggs and dairy?

Veganism on the increase

As a leading expert in the field of vegetarian nutrition, vegan of 17 years and accomplished ultra endurance athlete, registered dietician Matt Ruscigno is ideally placed to discuss the issues surrounding an athletic diet based exclusively on plants. He also races marathons, Ironman triathlons and ultra cycling events. 

Vegan athlete Matt Ruscigno competing in the SoCal CX OC race in 2012
Vegan athlete Matt Ruscigno competing in the SoCal CX OC race in 2012

Ruscigno firmly believes that more athletes are becoming vegan. Back in 2016 he told us that “In the last five years I’ve seen a huge increase in athletic people becoming interested in veganism, either for performance reasons or other reasons.

“I say the bulk of my clients are ‘vegan-ish’ and ‘athlete-ish’. They maybe want to run a half-marathon, or a four-hour marathon. They are not competing at a high level, but they are competing more than they ever have before. They may not want to be strictly vegan, but they want to be mostly vegan, so they come to me to come to learn which foods to eat to ensure they are getting all their nutrients.”

Veganism may be on the rise, but so many food products are made from meat, dairy or honey, or list them among their ingredients (there was most likely milk powder in the last packet of crisps you ate). As a result, a plant-based diet can seem restrictive to the uninitiated, and many new vegans find themselves struggling to stay animal-free.

Having the food ready to prepare, or already prepared, definitely helps a lot

“In order to help a lot of people, I start with where they are at,” Ruscigno added. “I don’t impose my ideas or menu plans on them; I think that what’s most sustainable is to help people see what they are already doing and then help make it better. A lot of it is about having food readily accessible. One of the biggest mistakes people make is being unprepared for their day, week or post-workout meal. Having the food ready to prepare, or already prepared, definitely helps a lot. Cook four servings of veggies, grains, beans, or whatever you like to eat, then put them in baggies, freeze them and have them for the week.”

Another perceived barrier to going vegan is the cost. Organic veg and meat substitute products do not come cheap, but equally, nor do organic meat, cheese and eggs. Eating decent healthy food on a budget can be a challenge regardless of whether you are vegan.

“People tend to have one idea of what a vegan is, maybe from someone they met, and because of this they think that’s how everyone is and you could only be that, and of course, that is not true," Ruscigno explained.

"You can eat organic, local vegan food from a restaurant and literally spend hundreds of dollars a day, or you can eat what is available. You can eat rice and beans, and in-season produce for very little cost. You get your grains, your beans and your veggies and then you base your meals on them.”

Vegans and protein

The classic question asked by the vegan-curious is ‘where do you get your protein?’. Protein levels are something that many plant-based athletes keep an eye on, but Ruscigno has some advice around how much we should be getting.

You can get your protein from plants without even thinking about it

“For an athlete, unless you’re doing serious body building or strength training, you need about 1g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, so that’s 75g for someone who weighs 75kg, which is not that much,” he says. “If you’re eating around 2,000 calories in a day, that’s 15 percent of your calories from protein, which you can get from plants without even thinking about it. If you’re eating whole grains and beans, it’s easy.

“Anything beyond that and it is not going to be used as protein. Excess protein goes through a different process, where it is used as energy, or stored to be used as energy — otherwise known as body fat. Athletes or body builders who are consuming mega amounts of protein are using as it as energy because they are staying lean — it’s not turning to fat, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. You can do that but it’s not necessary.”

Hail seitan?

Look at the ingredients list of the majority of vegan meat replacement products and you’ll find that wheat gluten (also known as seitan) is the first ingredient on the list. It is certainly high in protein and has a chewy meat-like texture, but is it a good protein source?

“Wheat gluten is not the most the most digestible of proteins,” Ruscigno said. “I’ve worked with folks who use it as their main source of protein and I don’t think that’s a good idea at all."

He added: "Beans are one of the best and most widely available plant proteins — lentils, black beans, pinto, soy, whatever you like. All those are very high in protein, even whole grains, a lot of them are around 10 percent protein. If you need 15 percent and you’re getting 10 percent from your grains even before you’ve added your beans, it all adds up really quickly.”

Beans and pulses are an excellent source of plant protein
Beans and pulses are an excellent source of plant protein

Soya contains high levels of protein and all eight essential amino acids so is another widely used vegan protein source. However, certain reports have indicated that it may have an adverse effect on fertility and thyroid function. Should there be cause for concern?

“There’s a lot of soy-phobia, and I think it’s unfounded,” Ruscigno told us. “People have these misconceptions and associate veganism with soy, but if you don’t want to eat soy, just don’t eat soy! It’s simple enough to get your proteins and other nutrients from other foods. I work with people who don’t eat soy or gluten, which sounds an ultra-restrictive diet until you look around at world cuisine and see that lots of people eat diets without any soy and gluten, so it’s possible to do that and be vegan as well.”

Plant positives

A nutritious and inexpensive plant-based diet is certainly within reach of most us, albeit with a little forward planning and making more meals from scratch, but does a vegan diet actually have performance benefits? Many plant-based athletes feel they have more energy and recover faster.

“Based on everything we know about nutrition along with anecdotal evidence from [ultra runners] Rich Roll and Scott Jurek, we know that being vegan is at least as good as an omnivorous diet," said Ruscigno. "We can look at different components and ask: ‘Can you get the carbohydrates for fuel? Can you get the protein for muscle? Can you get all nutrients?’ And the answer to all of these is yes.

“I think there is benefit from eating whole foods and that comes from the phytochemicals and antioxidants that are in plant-based foods — everyone can benefit from those whether you’re strictly vegan or not," he continued.

One of the potential big benefits we see is weight loss, which can be good for the average person

“I refuse to get into arguments with people who say, ‘I want to see that it is absolutely better’. I tell them, ‘Well, it’s working for me and it’s working for a lot of other people, and here are all these other reasons to be vegan’. I don’t want to mislead people by saying if you go vegan you will be faster. I can’t say that and I don’t want to exaggerate claims, but we have seen people improve.

“One of the potential big benefits we see is weight loss, which can be good for the average person — although it may be concerning for athletes unless they are looking to lose weight, of course.”

So unless you go out of your way to survive on soya ice cream and chips, going vegan will undoubtedly mean eating more whole foods, which can only be a good thing for your health and athletic performance. And given the massive environmental and animal welfare impact this change in your diet will make (raising livestock is second only to industry in the league of worst global warming offenders, while various calculations put the number of animal lives saved per vegetarian at between 200 and 400 per year), you will deservedly be feeling pretty good about yourself too. 

As fruit and vegetables are less calorie-dense than meat, you get to eat loads more of them!
As fruit and vegetables are less calorie-dense than meat, you get to eat loads more of them!

Ruscigno says going vegan has changed his thinking about food. “It has forced me to be creative, it’s helped me to eat more of the healthy things. Growing up. a serving of broccoli is a few sprigs, but with veganism you realise how many vegetables and fruits you can eat. A snack might be three apples instead of one!  When you look at the nutrient profile of plant food you think ‘oh, there’s really not that much iron in there’, but when you eat four of five servings, you multiply those numbers four or five. I say to everyone I work with, you can eat a lot more fruit and vegetables.”

Eat right, live well

So we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from making the switch to a vegan diet. But what is Ruscigno’s advice for athletes looking to go plant-based? “Make sure you are eating enough. People who switch to vegan and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t have any energy’ — it's because they weren’t eating enough. When you replace calorifically dense foods with foods that have more volume and fewer calories, you feel like you’re eating the same but you’re not. But that means you get to eat more!

“When running or riding some people can survive on just bananas and dates, while others might want to use bars and gels. You can do either of those. Some people get too hung up on not eating anything processed, but when you’re going out on 15-mile runs, you might need to eat the odd bar or gel! It won’t do any harm, it’s what you do most often that matters and sometimes you just have to survive. Pretzels have been great for me on long rides. They’re not exactly a health food but they are easy carbs and protein, and I can easily get hold of them them in any store.

“Don’t get stuck in one type of veganism. Find a cookbook that speaks to you and your style of eating. If your cookbook says you need to go to specialty markets for your ingredients, get a different cookbook! Keep an eye on your protein, get your beans, whole grains and seeds in, and get a post-work meal in. Make a plan and see what best works for you.”

Four recommended vegan sports products

These energy and recovery products are both handy and tasty.

1. Clif Bar

A wide range of energy bars, gels and protein bars are made with real ingredients and packed with minerals and vitamins. Best of all they taste great too.

2. Pulsin

Pulsin’s pure protein powders come from sources such as soy, pea, hemp and rice. While they don’t taste that great on their own, they are ideal for adding to food or smoothies. Pulsin also makes a tasty range of protein and energy bars, though not all are suitable for vegans.

3. OTE

While OTE makes a whole range of sports products, its soya chocolate recovery drink is a must for vegan athletes to help repair and build muscle. Very high in protein and packed with nutrients, it mixes well and tastes great too.

 4. Vegan Tuck Box

Okay, not strictly a sports product, but this monthly package of hard-to-find vegan treats delivered to your door is fantastic for fuel or well-earned treats.

Five vegan athlete store cupboard essentials

Keep these in your kitchen to ensure you get all the protein and nutrients you need.

1. Quinoa

This seed has twice as much protein as rice or barley and contains all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is also an excellent source of minerals and B vitamins. Simple to cook, use it in place of rice or couscous, in salads, or as a porridge.

2. Nut butter

Raw nuts are good source of protein, useful fats and minerals such as selenium. While peanut butter made with whole nuts is widely available, there are all kinds of other delicious nut butters out there to try.

3. Flaxseed oil

An alternative to oily fish, flaxseeds contain alpha-linolenic acid which is an important omega-3 source with many benefits. Take flaxseed on its own, or add it to fresh juices and salads. Avoid heating as it will degrade the health benefits.

Store cupboard essentials for vegan cyclists and athletes
Store cupboard essentials for vegan cyclists and athletes

4. Tofu

Widely known as a good protein source, tofu also contains decent amounts of calcium and iron. While it tastes pretty bland in its raw state, it absorbs strong flavours very well and is available in many different varieties these days.

5. Virgin coconut oil

With a saturated fat level of around 90 percent you’d think coconut oil to be far from healthy. Most of these fats are medium chain triglycerides though, which are metabolised harmlessly. Try coconut oil as a spread or for frying or cooking.

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