All the major dietetic societies have published papers stating that a vegan diet is nutritionally adequate for all stages of human health.
In a recent Sun Sport news article, sports dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker stated she does not think a vegan diet – from a strictly scientific stance – is a good idea for elite athletes.
The article explores the growing movement for professional football players such as Jermain Defoe, Sergio Aguero, Hector Bellerin, Chris Smalling and Lionel Messi to either train on a vegan diet or live entirely on a vegan diet. Indeed other elite athletes such as Lewis Hamilton, the Williams sisters, Novak Djokovic and NFL quarterback Tom Brady are proponents of plant-based eating to improve their sporting achievements.
And, yet, despite the growing evidence that athletes are thriving on this diet, and the large body of peer-reviewed science supporting plant-based eating, Dr Schenker claims:
There are limited sources of protein in a vegan diet.
We talk about high and low quality protein. Most vegetable sources are low quality protein.
The body needs essential amino acids, you have to get them from your diet.
What you find is that animal sources of protein contain large amounts. Vegan sources contain some of these sources, but not all of them.
The only vegan source that is comparable to getting animal protein is soy. That’s fine, but soy isn’t for everyone and you can be limited with what you do with it – and there’s only so much tofu you can eat.
These views are in stark contrast to the major dietetic associations, including the British Dietetic Association (BDA) of which Dr Schenker is a member.
The BDA, founded in 1936, is the professional association and trade union for dietitians in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is the nation’s largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals with over 9,000 members.
Working with the Vegan Society, the BDA has stated that a balanced vegan diet can be enjoyed by children and adults, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding, if the nutritional intake is well-planned.
The BDA also advocates for a reduction of red and processed meat in the UK diet, to be replaced by appropriate plant-based proteins such as beans and pulses. Not only would such a reduction be better for the environment, it would also be better for the health of the nation.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics which represents over 100,000 credentialed practitioners – the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals states:
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements.
Heather Russell, a dietitian at The Vegan Society, provided the necessary balance in the Sun Sport article pointing out that it’s possible for vegan athletes to get every nutrient they would need:
Athletic individuals need high quality fuel, and it’s possible for them to thrive without eating animal products. It’s also particularly important for athletic people to ensure that their daily diet contains plenty of iron-rich foods and really rich sources of calcium. Good sources of plant protein tend to be iron-rich, but kale, raisins and fortified breakfast cereal also provide iron.
Veganuary recommends the following further reading for anyone interested in the health and nutritional aspects of a vegan diet:
PS This year’s Veganuary participants said they felt great!