GOING VEGAN MYTH VS REALITY
CYCLING WEEKLY|November 18, 2021
Veganism divides opinion among cyclists, with fiery views on both sides. Sports nutritionist Anita Bean pours some cooling impartiality on the overheated debate
Anita Bean

EATING A vegan diet has become increasingly popular over recent years. Within the cycling community, there are passionate proponents as well as diehard sceptics. Mention the ‘V’ word on social media and you’ll provoke a lively – if not inflammatory – debate about the merits and harms of a plant-only diet. Naysayers will be quick to cite a story of a rider who became unwell on a vegan diet before switching back to eating animal products. On the other side, vegans will extol the ethical, environmental, health and performance benefits. How to take a balanced view?

Admittedly, it’s hard not to be biased by your own food preferences. To declare my own position: I am a vegetarian and I recently published a vegan cookbook. This feature is not designed to persuade you for or against; my objective is to help cyclists thinking about going vegan to weigh up the pros and cons. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Bath found that the three biggest perceived drawbacks putting people off going vegan are taste, price and convenience. In this feature, we dissect six common myths about going vegan and speak to pro riders who’ve made the switch.

‘A vegan diet does not provide all the nutrients that cyclists need’

This is perhaps the most common concern among cyclists considering a vegan diet. Many plant-based foods are lower in protein, or lacking complete proteins. But this isn’t an insurmountable problem. “With proper planning, cyclists on a vegan diet can easily get enough protein,” explains registered dietitian Azmina Govindji, author of Vegan Savvy. “The key is to include a wide variety of different sources throughout the day.”

Plant proteins include legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and peanuts), soya products (tofu, tempeh, soya milk alternative), grains (pasta, rice, oats and bulgur wheat), quinoa, nuts and seeds. Recent studies have dispelled the theory that plant proteins are inferior to animal proteins for muscle building. A review of nine studies published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Metabolism showed that soya protein supplementation produced similar gains in strength and muscle mass when compared against whey protein.

“Like any diet it’s as unhealthy as you make it,” says 25-year-old pro rider James Shaw, who has been vegan for two years and is stepping up to the WorldTour next year, having signed for EF EducationNippo.

“Yes, if you eat Skittles and drink Coca-Cola all day, you will be on an unhealthy vegan diet. But if you adopt a healthy vegan approach of eating plenty of colours of fruit and veg and getting a balance of all different foods, it generally will be as good as anything else.”

The only micronutrient that you can’t get from plant foods is vitamin B12, but most plant milk alternatives have B12 added to them, as do yeast extract and nutritional yeast flakes. Alternatively, taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms will safeguard against deficiency.

Additionally, you may need to obtain iodine from a supplement, as it is found in only very few plant foods (i.e. seaweed).

‘Going vegan will transform my cycling performance’

A growing number of vegan pro cyclists provide compelling anecdotal evidence that you can compete at the highest level without eating animal products. Retired pro Adam Hansen believes that going plant-based benefited his performance. “I felt great and had an amazing recovery. I did 20 Grand Tours in a row without ever being sick or ill. These are three-weeklong races, three times a year competing against the best athletes in the world.”

However, not everyone notices a transformative improvement in their performance. “I can’t point to any specific performance benefits that I experienced,” admits 21-year-old cyclo-cross star Cameron Mason (Trinity Racing). “My diet changed gradually over the course of my teenage years when I was also growing and developing. I can say it did not have any negative effects on my bike riding or life.”

The truth is that no studies have yet examined whether a vegan diet improves performance – it would be very diffiult to separate out the variables. There is no evidence that going vegan puts you at a performance disadvantage, but scientists don’t know with certainty whether a vegan diet is, from a sporting perspective, better than a non-vegan one. In a joint position paper, the American College of Sports Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Dietitians of Canada state there is good evidence that well-planned vegan diets support parameters that influence performance.

‘Preparing vegan meals is too time-consuming’

Who wants to waste time endlessly chopping vegetables and making complicated recipes? “It does take time and effort to start with,” admits Shaw. “However, like most things it gets easier with experience, and if you dedicate a bit of time to start with, it will become second nature. Personally, I’ve found the best way to combat the issue just through being organised.” He admits that this may be easier for him as a pro rider. “Amateurs who work a nine-to-five may not have as much time, but for me it’s my profession to go as fast as possible and to make the time and efforts to meet the targets.”

To cut down on prep-time, get into the habit of thinking ahead, making a shopping list to get everything delivered in one big order and learning a few easy vegan recipes which you can adapt according to what’s in your fridge. For example, try my Oven-Roasted Ratatouille with Flageolet Beans (see p.51). Batch cooking gives you the gift of time in the kitchen – double the quantity of whatever you’re cooking and save half for another day. You could also cook a whole week’s worth of food on a Sunday.

‘Eating a vegan diet is more expensive’

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