Vegan diets are typically followed for one of three reasons: digestive issues, health beliefs or moral values. Some people simply don’t tolerate animal products well, either because of allergies or sensitivities, or a deficiency in certain digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid. Others simply believe that as most animal products are acid forming, the more alkalising properties of a plant based diet are healthier. The majority of vegans, however, will follow a plant based diet because they disagree with the killing of animals for food or the treatment of animals raised for food.
Hardly anyone, however, embarks upon becoming a vegan because they feel it will enhance athletic performance. This is not to say that performance improvements cannot be found on a vegan diet, rather that this is rarely the initial motivator.
The best analogy of why this is was provided at a seminar I attended many years ago. The presenter, when asked about vegan and vegetarian diets, made the observation that if he wanted to paint a room a particular shade of green, he had two choices. Either he could simply buy the paint in the colour he wanted, or buy yellow and blue paint and mix them together until he achieved the colour he wanted. What he was referring to is the fact that most plant based proteins are incomplete, meaning that they lack one or more of the essential amino acids required to form a complete protein, which is a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of humans or other animals.
Whist humans certainly have a need for all nine of the essential amino acids, research has consistently shown over the years that these do not all have to be consumed at the same time and in the same meal. Frances Moore Lappé was one of the pioneers of the food combining movement after she published the book Diet for a Small Planet. The book explained how essential amino acids might be obtained from complementary sources in vegetarian nutrition and went on to become a bestseller.
For a time, the American National Research Council and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) both cautioned vegetarians to combine their protein sources.
In 1981, Lappé relaxed her position on protein combining when she wrote:
"In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein ... was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.
With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on fruit or on some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein."
Whilst I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment of Lappé’s statement, there are some caveats worth noting:
- Survival is very different to leading an optimal life
- Most of the research she references is not applicable to active individuals
- Protein requirements themselves are potentially complex and also higher for active individuals
- Plenty of people have a high calorie vegan diet, largely dependent on potatoes, rice, bread and pasta as the cornerstone of their food intake
When determining the food requirements necessary to support a training regime, there are three main considerations:
- The energy requirements
- The nutrient requirements
- The recovery requirements
The energy requirements are a combination of both calories and fuel sources. Fat is more efficient for longer, lower intensity activity. Carbohydrates are more efficient for higher intensity, shorter duration activities. Both of these can easily be met on a vegan diet.
The nutrient requirements relate more to health and are primarily a combination of vitamins and minerals. Both are readily available from vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruits and grains. Whilst grain based products provide both vitamins and minerals, these are often added as part of the manufacturing process and therefore potentially less nourishing, being from synthetic sources.
The recovery requirements relate primarily to protein, with this being the primary nutrient necessary for tissue repair. The scientific literature is clear, but insubstantial, on vegan protein intake. Whilst we know that the body can accommodate the staggered intake of incomplete proteins, we have yet to fully understand how efficiently it does that in times of stress, such as intense training. For that reason, whilst potentially unnecessary, it certainly will not do any harm to combine proteins at each meal when following a vegan diet.
Combining proteins typically means including foods from each of the following groups in the same meal:
Azuki bean (Adzuki beans, Aduki beans)
Quantities and pedantic measuring are probably unnecessary, however, making sure each meal has an appropriate serving of at least one food from each group may be prudent. The following provide examples of how you might achieve this:
Breakfast: Oats, pistachio nuts, apple and blueberries, with almond milk
Lunch: Quinoa salad with spinach, sunflower seeds, walnuts, rocket, spring onions and lemon and Dijon mustard dressing
Dinner: Lentils with shredded red cabbage, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, onions, Aduki beans, peas and chopped tomatoes
Obviously, herbs and spices such as garlic, chilli, lemongrass, pepper and salt, are all vegan friendly and should be used liberally to ensure the food tastes amazing.