Is a vegan diet good for athletes?


Venus Williams (photo: sufw via Flickr)

June is Beef Steak Month, Dairy Month and Turkey Lovers Month.  What better time to discuss vegan athletes?  I had vegan diets on my mind, after hearing that tennis star Venus Williams made a surprisingly early exit from the French Open this week.  Last fall, she dropped out of the US Open, citing her recent diagnosis with Sjogren’s syndrome.  Since then, she reportedly adopted a raw vegan diet, which she believed will help her symptoms.  Some commentators questioned whether the vegan diet had impaired her fitness, causing this latest defeat.

Fans of the TV show House have probably heard all about Sjogren’s, since it kept turning up as a diagnosis of strange medical cases.  Dr. House usually prescribed drugs.  Should he have recommended a vegan diet instead?  Is there actual evidence that a vegan diet, or any diet, helps with Sjogren’s syndrome?  Sjogrens is an autoimmune disease, affecting primarily women.  Dry eyes and dry mouth are common symptoms.  Fatigue and joint pain are also possible, along with adverse effect on other organ systems.  Diet is not listed as a treatment, although certain modifications can help with dry mouth, such as choosing moist foods and avoiding dry, hard or crunchy foods.

Would a vegan diet help?  Advocates of veganism frequently claim the diet is anti-inflammatory, and therefore should help the immune system function better.  But it’s all speculative.  While plant foods contain nutrients that are important to the immune system, there’s no evidence that focusing on plant foods alone will cure an immune disease.  However, a properly planned vegan diet can be very healthy, so there isn’t necessarily a downside.

Apart from the Sjogren’s syndrome, was Ms. Williams’ play adversely affected by the vegan diet?  Not knowing exactly what she was eating, it’s impossible to say one way or the other.  Vegan athletes can do fine, but it’s important to know what you’re doing choosing foods.  It’s easy to eat a really unbalanced and junky vegan diet, which wouldn’t be good for anybody, athlete or couch potato.

Some people might assume athletes need high protein foods, like meat or dairy, but that’s not true.  There’s a physiological limit to how much muscle a person can build from day to day.  Loading up on high protein foods doesn’t change that.  Above a certain intake, excess protein is just turned to carbohydrate.  That’s right – carbs.  With good choices, athletes can get all the protein they need from a vegan diet.  The nutrients they really need to consider are vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and omega-3 fats, which are typically found in animal-source foods.  Vegans can take supplements, or find processed vegan foods with these nutrients added.  Most soy milks have added calcium and vitamin D, although the calcium is typically in carbonate form, which can cause digestive upset.

So vegan athlete?  No problem, with proper planning.  But vegan diet as a fix for immune disorders?  We don’t know.

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