Millions of people around the world are tuning in to watch the Tokyo Olympic Games. Some of the Olympians who are the top of their game have credited their sporting success to adopting a vegan diet.
Novak Djokovic is one of the world’s most famous vegan athletes. The world number one tennis player has said he attributes a great deal of his success to his diet. He started by removing gluten and dairy from his diet in 2010 after developing allergies and struggling with respiratory problems, and eventually switched to a completely plant-based diet.
In an interview with journalist Graham Bensinger, Djokovic revealed that he eats a lot of fruit and salads, and grains such as quinoa, millet and wild rice. He also takes superfood supplements which give him “mental clarity.”
“I cut out red meat because I had to put a lot of energy and effort into the digestive process. That would take a lot of essential energy I needed for my focus, recovery and the next training session,” he said during the interview.
Other vegan athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics include Australian sprinter Morgan Mitchell, who says a vegan diet has made her feel less sluggish, and US basketball player Diana Taurasi who has credited her vegan diet for her career longevity.
Eating a vegan diet is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet, research shows.
Meat and dairy production is responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture’s carbon emissions, but provides just 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of protein levels worldwide, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Oxford.
Not eating meat and dairy could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent, the researchers concluded.
If everyone stopped eating meat and dairy, global farmland use could be reduced by 76 per cent, 3.1 billion hectares, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined, the study found.
Besides the environmental impacts, there are health benefits associated with a vegan diet.
Vegetarian and vegan diets are linked with a reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases including obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and overall cancer mortality, according to a 2016 study by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“More plant-based diets can provide a wide variety of nutrients and natural phytochemicals, plenty of fibre and tend to be low in saturated fat, salt and sugar,” according to Alex White, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.
Athletes have higher energy and protein dietary requirements than the general population. Current protein recommendations for the general adult population are 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day. Professional athletes should aim to consume 1.2-2.0g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, according to the British Nutrition Foundation.
“This can be achieved through a well-planned vegan diet,” White told The Independent. “There is no clear evidence to suggest that vegan diets impact performance differently to a mixed diet.”
To ensure they get enough protein, vegan athletes should consume a range of plant-based proteins which contain essential amino acids, such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, said White.
Certain important nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and vitamin B12 are found less abundantly or are less well absorbed in plant-based food compared to animal products, according to a report by the Gatorade Science Institute. Vegan athletes may choose to take supplements to ensure they absorb enough of these essential nutrients.
Athletes, especially young women, also need to make sure they consume enough iron. “One tip for vegans is that vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from plant-based sources, such as beans and pulses, so pairing these foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, peppers and leafy green veg, can help the body absorb more iron,” said White.
Vegans often have lower muscular stores of creatine, an organic compound which helps energy production during high intensity exercise or heavy lifting, than other athletes. They therefore may benefit from taking the supplement phosphocreatine, White said, adding that it should only be taken after consulting a sports nutritionist and for short-term, high-intensity exercise.
What world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic eats in a day:
Breakfast: Warm water with lemon and celery juice. Fruit smoothie with algae
Lunch: Fruit and grains such as quinoa or millet
Dinner: Sweet or normal potatoes, boiled or steamed
What Australian sprinter Morgan Mitchell eats in a day:
Breakfast: Vegan breakfast burrito with tofu, beans, mushrooms, vegan cheese and spinach.
Lunch: Vegan chicken salad or vegan grilled cheese sandwich
Dinner: Beyond meat burger or Buddha bowl made with tempeh
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