“I’m a vegetarian athlete, and I get my animal protein from whey protein from high elevation grass-fed cows and raw milk from wild mustangs.” “I became a vegan athlete after a bee family hit my windshield and I saw their souls depart from their tiny, winged bodies.” Maybe your automobile’s windshield struck the bees, as they were frantically attempting to elude a wing-seeking cloud of neonicotinoids.
For a long time, when people have asked me what I thought about vegan diets, I reflexively replied, “To be a healthy vegan you have to be smart.” A little less than 20 years ago, Lisa Turner, a good friend of mine and a prolific author on living la vida vegetarian, asked me about being a co-author on a book about veganism/vegetarianism and athletes. I said, “What about calling it “Vegan/Vegetarian Carnivores—Cruelty-Free Sports Nutrition”? I explained that a number of constituents present in contracting muscles, and produced in the human body, are present in notably lower concentrations in the muscles and blood of vegetarians and vegans. Unremarkably, these constituents are found only in animal products and their derivatives. I named creatine, L-carnitine, taurine, and carnosine (before the advent of the amino acid beta-alanine as a more efficient muscle carnosine-elevating agent). I now call these found-only/in-abundance-in-animal-foods-only bioactives zooactives (zoo- for animal).
Since then a number of clinical trials have assessed the impact of zooactives in vegetarian populations. A less-than-rigorously designed study from Bastyr University pointed to short-term creatine monohydrate supplementation enhancing the maximal cycling performance of vegetarians compared to their placebo counterparts. Canadian researchers have shown creatine monohydrate supplementation elicits a greater increase in muscle creatine content, muscle mass, and performance gains than their omnivorous, creatine monohydrate-supplemented colleagues. One 2011 British study even found creatine monohydrate supplementation enhances cognitive performance in vegetarians but not omnivores.
A recent study from the laboratory of another good friend and colleague, Professor Paul Greenhaff at the University of Nottingham, revealed that vegetarians have an impaired ability to transport carnitine from the blood into muscle when given intravenously alone or when accompanied by an insulin infusion. Carnitine is poorly absorbed orally and has been shown to NOT increase in muscle after prolonged oral supplementation or intravenous injection, unless accompanied by an abundance of insulin in the blood.
A non-exhaustive perusal of a few leading brands of products targeted at vegans/vegetarians aspiring to become elite athletes reveals the absence of creatine monohydrate, L-carnitine, taurine, and beta-alanine. Additionally, these products are fortified with vitamins manufactured via industrial chemical synthesis (as are virtually ALL dietary supplements), a less-than-sustainable halo manner. Proteins and protein plus amino acid combinations are chosen that lack ANY evidence of being (equally) effective in increasing muscle mass and strength (to animal protein sources). Is vegetarian sport nutrition yet another category succumbing to evangelism, that ignores or is ignorant of evidence? I say it is time that vegetarian sport nutrition companies beef up on science and sponsor some real clinical studies …That’s why I’m a vegan…that eats organic meats, wild fish, and organic honey.