Some of the world’s best athletes are vegetarian.
There are many reasons why someone might want to eat a plant–based diet, whether for allergy concerns, health reasons or more variety. But nagging doubts often come up. Are plant proteins adequate for athletes and body builders? Are they really the preferred protein source of the human body? Are they better than animal based protein or are they just consumed for environmental reasons?
To answer these questions, why not ask the experts: triathletes, professional dancers, bodybuilders and extreme sport racers? Here are the answers from some of the most competitive athletes in their respective fields.
Over the past 3 years, Tim VanOrden has transformed himself from a sedentary couch potato, suffering from severe depression and chronic fatigue into one of the world’s fittest 40 year athletes. He did this by adopting a simple raw vegan diet.
Looking to expand the limits of human possibility, Tim has re-written the record books in some of the world’s most grueling sports. In September of 2008 Tim shocked the world of skyscraper racing by defending his title at the 75 story US Bank Tower Stair Climb in Los Angeles. Not only did he best the two most dominant stair climbers in US history, but he smashed the course record in the process.
Tim is opening the eyes of athletes around the world to the possibility that a simple, raw, plant based diet can provide performance and health beyond that which has been previously experienced. In the winter of 2009, The Food Network will for the very first time venture into the world of raw foods, airing a prime time show that follows Tim and his adventures with the Running Raw Project.
“The most common question that I get as a raw vegan athlete is, ‘Where do you get your protein?’ At first I would become defensive or annoyed when I would hear this query on a daily basis, but I’ve learned to use it as an entry point and eye opener. Not only are protein requirements grossly exaggerated in America, but the sources of these proteins are also quite skewed.
Proteins come in many forms, some better known than others. My favorite of the lesser known proteins are present in all fresh fruits and vegetables: the enzymes. That’s right, those wonderful enzymes that get so much attention in the world of raw foods for their digestive properties are also made of complex chains of amino acids; also known as proteins. It is crucial to eat fruits and veggies in an uncooked state to keep the enzymes and proteins intact and bioavailable.
Due to the abundance of proteins/amino acids in fresh fruits and veggies, I don’t feel that it’s necessary to consume concentrated forms of plant protein…but if I were to recommend a plant based protein source to someone I would definitely go with hemp seeds in their whole, natural form–not broken down or refined into a powder. The added benefit of hemp seeds are the high quality essential fatty acids and soluble fibers that accompany the proteins, making hemp a very powerful food.”
In addition to being rich in complete protein, hemp is also a great source of essential fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and chlorophyll. Hemp protein is a quality source of the amino acids arginine, histidine, methionine and cysteine and also contains all the branched-chain amino acids crucial for repair and growth of lean body mass. Almost two-thirds of hemp protein is comprised of edestin, a protein found only in hemp and the form of protein most similar to that of the human body.
Hemp protein is easily digested and assimilated, making it one of the finest sources of protein in the plant kingdom. As a crop, hemp is nitrogen fixing, making it beneficial to the soils in which it is grown in and is naturally pest resistant, requiring no pesticides in its production.
“The greater the percentage of raw food in the diet, the greater the health benefits” is the personal motto of Koya Webb, fitness model, personal trainer, triathlete and body builder. Koya’s sculpted physique won first place in the Ultimate Fitness Events “Fitness Model” and “Bikini Model” competitions and has modeled for Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Muscle and Fitness, Her Sports, Royal Caribbean and Triathlete magazine, to name a few. As a living-foodist (one who eats 60 percent or more uncooked veggies, nuts, seeds, and super foods) Koya believes eating all natural “fruits of the earth” can help heal cancer, diabetes and other diseases plaguing our society today.
As a certified personal trainer, Koya is improving her clients’ lifestyles by providing exercise prescriptions, healthy diets, fitness training, professional advice and aerobics classes through her company, Lifestyle Revelations. Koya holds a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science and uses this knowledge to give people the science behind living a healthy lifestyle. She is a published author and shares her personal raw recipe preferences in the book, Koya’s Kuisine.
She has tested her wits on Fear Factor and recently American Gladiator to prove that a strong mind and spirit are as essential as a strong body. After a strained Achilles halted her training for the Olympics in the 400 hurdles, Koya began cycling and swimming everyday to speed her recovery, and since has competed in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. This Track and Field and High Jump Champion knows how to get the best out of her sport and her lifestyle.
“I absolutely love almonds! I soak them for six hours and can make every meal of day “protein packed” with these nutritious sources of balanced fat and protein. I make pina coladas, broccoli casserole, and apple pie to name a few.”
Almonds* are phytochemical powerhouses–containing massive amounts of this natural compound, effectively lowering cholesterol with the same effect as the drugs called statins. Patients eating nuts five times a week have a 50reduction in risk of h percent eart attack and as the best whole food source of vitamin E, in the form of tocopherol, almonds may even help prevent cancer. Almonds’ high calcium and magnesium contents are good for strong bones, with 18 grams of protein per 3 oz serving–the same as fish fillet or steak, but without the detrimental fats.
* Note: in September of 2007, without public notification, the FDA required that all almonds sold in the United States, Canada and Mexico be pasteurized. With no truth in labeling, almonds may still be labeled “raw,” but are not unless purchased by small farmers at private market stands. For more info and to sign the counter petition www.gopetition.com
Yellow Pea Powder
In the spring of 2005 this natural body builder became a champion bodybuilder–all on a strict vegan diet. Robert Cheeke, an activist/athlete raised on an Oregon farm, went vegan when he was 15 years old and transitioned to being completely vegan only two months later. Winning titles in Portland, OR and competing at the Natural Bodybuilding World Championships held in California, Robert maintains his intense mass building workout regime on a 100 percent animal-free diet.
In 2006, Robert was selected as one of VegNews Magazine’s “15 Most Influential Vegan Athletes,” and is considered one of the most recognized vegan athletes in the world. Robert’s cruelty-free training philosophy and accomplishments have been featured in more than 20 international magazines, 200 websites and in television commercials for VegSeattle and PETA.
Co-founder of C-VEG, a Corvallis, Oregon based vegan group, board member of OrganicAthlete and Northwest VEG, Robert’s animal advocacy expands beyond personal convictions and deep into the global community’s roots. Robert is the President of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, is co-organizer of Portland VegFest, and is currently on an 18 month speaking tour presenting about topics including “Thriving On A Plant Based Diet” and “Careers in Environmental and Animal Activism.”
“In North America, we are taught from a young age to believe that the only good sources of protein come from animals. It is proven by scores of scientific studies that plant-based sources of protein are easier for the human body to assimilate and plant-based foods do not come with many of the negative health implications associated with a diet rich in animal protein such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
As a vegan bodybuilder, I compete in a sport dominated by meat eaters, most of whom scoff at the idea that one could get sufficient protein from plants to be competitive. I do not consume any animal products whatsoever, not even dairy or eggs. Instead, I get as much protein as possible from whole foods, often supplementing with plant-based protein powders to help me meet my target of 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight for building muscle mass.
Great commonly available plant-based protein powders include yellow pea, brown rice and soy. Though soy protein has been a staple in my diet for years, I have recently reduced my consumption of it because I am concerned about developing food sensitivities and allergies. Too much of a good thing can be detrimental to overall health and my feeling is that soy is becoming overly pervasive in vegan and vegetarian diets. There are so many good alternatives such as yellow pea, that I feel I don’t need to rely on just soy protein powder anymore.
A high protein diet can be taxing on the liver and kidneys so it is important to drink a lot of water (I personally drink over a gallon a day) to help the body’s organs process the large amounts of protein. As a vegan bodybuilder, I want to show others that it is possible to gain significant muscle and strength on a vegan diet and believe that a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health, and the well-being of our environment.”
Yellow pea protein is the ideal pre-workout fuel. Higher in the amino acid arginine than whey, casein, egg and soy proteins, yellow pea powder dilates blood vessels and delivers more blood, nutrients and anabolic hormones to the muscles. Yellow pea protein is hypoallergenic as opposed to the 90 percent of protein still sourced from soy and milk-derived caseinates. And with 25 grams of protein per 35 grams, yellow pea protein powder is the perfect source of cholesterol-free and gluten-free protein for vegan athletes.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Brendan Brazier is one of only a few professional athletes in the world whose diet is 100 percent plant-based. He’s a professional Ironman triathlete, bestselling author on performance nutrition, and the creator of an award-winning line of whole food nutritional products called Vega. He is also a two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion.
Brendan’s professional athletic career began in 1998. Over the course of only a few years, his performance quickly climbed, improving each year in Ironman triathlon racing. At Ironman Canada, in 1999 he finished 21st, the following year he placed 14th, then 11th, followed up by an eighth place finish in 2002 in Ironman Utah. In 2003 and 2006 Brendan won the National 50km Ultra Marathon Championships. Other results include 3rd place at the National Long-Course Triathlon Championships and both third and second in consecutive years in the Royal Victoria Marathon.
Brendan is the author of the Canadian best selling book, Thrive and in 2005 launched his 100 percent raw whole food energy bar, Vega. In 2006, Brendan also invited to address US Congress on Capitol Hill, where he spoke of the significant social and economic benefits that could be achieved by improving personal health through better diet. In 2007 Brendan returned to Capitol Hill to lobby against the Farm Bill and was named one of the most 25 Fascinating Vegetarians by VegNews magazine.
“It’s advantageous to maintain a neutral pH. Eating too many acid-forming foods will promote inflammation, reduce immune function and cause calcium to be pulled from the bones in order to keep the blood in its neutral state of 7.35. This, of course, leads to lower bone density and, in many cases, osteoporosis.
One of the big advantages of properly balanced whole food (plant-based protein over animal protein) is its slightly neutral pH. In contrast, highly processed foods are acid forming, as are animal based foods. The most alkaline forming foods are those with chlorophyll, the green pigment in many plants–leafy greens for example.
I eat a big salad each day that’s full of dark leafy greens, since they comprise of about 45 percent protein. If the salad is big enough, that’s a lot of protein and the quality is high since it’s in amino acid form, which means the body doesn’t need to convert it from protein into amino acids, therefore its digestion conserves energy. And conserving energy is as good as getting more.”
The one food that is most highly associated with longevity is leafy greens. Because of their high magnesium content and low glycemic index, green leafy vegetables are valuable for persons with type 2 diabetes. Major sources of iron and calcium, green leafies are also packed with quercetin, a bioflavonoid found with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. Green leafy vegetables are dense with easily-assimilated amino acids as well as other life-extending nutrients.
Professional dance is of most challenging sports requiring athletes to perform at expert levels of flexibility, strength, coordination and emotional fitness in order to entertain their audiences. Having been vegetarian since age seven Tonya Kay has built her glorious professional dance career entirely on a vegetarian diet.
A vegan since age 17, Tonya Kay has pushed her physical body to the limits on tour in STOMP for three years and has broken bones performing aerial work with Off-Broadway’s aerial stunt show De La Guarda. She has performed in concert dance companies in NYC and Los Angeles, and recently played two sold out shows at Madison Square Garden as part of Panic At the Disco’s Rock-n-roll tour.
Six years ago, Tonya Kay transitioned from cooked vegan to raw vegan and is thankful for the improved energy and recovery time now that she’s dancing in Hollywood’s film and television industry. Excessively long shoot days are common and last year Tonya Kay danced in a 30 hour shoot in Tokyo for pop artist Namie Amuro’s “New Look” video.
Look for Tonya Kay performing a solo whip artistry dance piece in Showtime’s “Live Nude Comedy” series with Andy Dick. Upcoming television appearances also include knife throwing stunt features on the History Channel’s “More Extreme Marksman” and TBS’s “Ellen Degeneres Really Big Show.” Past industry dance and stunt features include NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” Death Angel’s “Dethroned” music video and the Progressive Auto Insurance “Gremlins” campaign.
Active in the environmental and health communities when not on stage, Tonya Kay recently published the first ever conclusive Raw Nutritional Analysis, wherein her diet is analyzed for one month to reveal exactly “where do raw vegan athletes get their protein from?” And their calcium, and their iron and so on.
“I’ve heard it all from athletes regarding the cruelty-free diet–‘But I need protein,’ ‘I won’t have enough energy,’ ‘I tried that but I felt weak.’ Those excuses are just that: excuses. Excuses are self-imposed limits preventing you from taking a risk, trying something new and potentially being your greatest yet.
If you are someone with excuses, forgive yourself. Most of these excuses are subconscious and filled with well-intent. Seriously, if you actually thought you were depriving yourself of “nature’s building blocks,” for goodness sake, it would be irresponsible of you to eat that “deficient” diet. Unfortunately, our well-intent is misguided by heavy marketing. Corporately-pushed consumerism compels our purchase with a mere High Protein label or fancy Low Carb wrapper –(omit spaces around em dash) forget that most consumers don’t know what the word “carb” is short for, let alone even know what one does in the body.
As a professional dancer training 10 to 25 hours per week, the foods I find most beneficial to my performance are the water-rich, and amino acid-rich fruits. My body builds muscle amazingly quickly as a raw vegan athlete, based on activity and a clean diet, which is why I eat more ripe avocados than any other food under the Southern California sun. Comprised of 74 percent water by weight, the avocado digests like a fruit, rather than a fat, keeping me sweating clean all day. And with it’s full spectrum of all 18 amino acids including those elusive essential amino acids, I know that the delight I receive from eating one is not intellectual, but instinctual–is there any doubt humans were born to eat this food–and a lot of it!”
Avocados may just be the perfect food. Providing all of the 18 amino acids, avocados are bursting with nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E, H and B complex. Avocados are exceptional sources of vitamin K, potassium and essential fatty acids and users report softer skin, lustrous hair and hormonal balance.
Athletes who experiment with plant-based protein, consistently report a substantial increase in energy and a dramatic decrease in recovery time. This fact might surprise some skeptics, however its scientific basis is completely supported. Plant-based proteins are easily absorbed by the body, and when eaten raw, they maintain all their original living enzymes and nutritional value. They are rich in disease fighting fiber, minerals, vitamins, chlorophyll and healthy fats and their production has astounding positive environmental impacts.
Plant-based proteins are the healthiest naturally available sources of fuel for the human body. And the world’s top vegan athletes agree. To quote Tonya Kay, “If you want average results, do what average people do. But if you want extraordinary results…”
Learn more about the vegan athletes featured in this article:
Joanna Steven is a nutritional science enthusiast and co-author of the first ever Raw Nutritional Analysis ever published – a conclusive scientific study of the raw vegan diet’s nutritional analysis. Find out more at www.kayosmarket.com.
Editor: Seychelles Pitton
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