One of the joys of cycling and an active lifestyle is a seemingly unstoppable appetite that allows you to eat pretty much at will. However, some athletes deliberately choose a vegetarian or even a vegan lifestyle, whether by choice or for performance. But can you be a strong athlete with a vegan diet, and what are some considerations?
In 2011, American cyclist David Zabriskie raced the Tour de France, as a vegan. Brendan Brazier, professional triathlete and creator of The Thrive Diet and the ever so popular VEGA product line, swears by veganism for optimal performance and recovery. Fiona Oakes is a vegan and an accomplished elite-marathon runner with top level finishes at prestigious marathons, and holds a world record. Catra Corbett is a vegan and a prolific ultra-marathon competitor who regularly tackles courses of 100 miles or more and has a national record for extreme distance running. And still people say, "you can't be an elite athlete as a vegan." I beg to differ.
The label "vegan" essentially means you are choosing a food chain with no animals in it. Not cows or their milk, not chickens or their eggs, and not bees and their honey. Vegans do not eat foods that are processed using animal products. This would include many "natural flavors" (such as vanilla, raspberry and strawberry which are derived from a gland taken out of a beaver), white sugar (which although from a sugar cane plant, is often filtered through bone char in the factory) and many wines (which use "fining agents" or "clarifiers" to filter the wine, which are often derived from animals) as well as products with gelatin in them, for example.
Even with exclusions like this, veganism is not about deprivation. It's certainly a choice. Yes, society is used to anchoring a meal based on the piece of protein on your plate. As a vegan, you just need to be creative and choose from fresh vegetables and fruits. The flavor profiles of your meals will certainly awaken your palate to an entirely new plethora of flavors.
In the past few decades we have come to understand that what we eat has more far reaching effects on our health than what we previously thought. Times are changing and as people start to feel the health benefits of being vegan, as well as the social responsibility to reduce cruelty to animals, veganism is becoming more of a lifestyle choice both in society and within the athletic community.
Although there is strong evidence to support that a vegetarian diet will reduce heart disease (The Framingham Study is the longest heart health study in history. It started in 1948 and continues today), I don't necessarily believe that all vegans are "healthy." Unfortunately with more production of processed foods than ever, there is also potential to have a pretty unhealthy vegan diet. Simply said, the less that has been done to your food, the better.