The Low Impact Athlete

Vegan Tri Guys holding Apple

It’s not an easy time for anyone at the moment.  In fact, it’s a downright uneasy time for many.  But at Presca we think it’s really important to keep thinking about our health and wellbeing, as well as the state of the planet.  So that when the lockdown is lifted and we start getting back into the swing of our “normal” lives again we are in good condition.  A few weeks back we wrote the blog below, and whilst it might not be the top of everyone’s agenda right now we hope it is useful and provides something to take your mind off the worst of things:

In recent months, we have seen an interesting rise in the concept of a “Low Impact Athlete” – professionals and amateur athletes who are training and competing with a focus on reducing their environmental impact, which is right up our street!

There are many ways in which athletes can reduce their impact through the individual choices they make about the food they eat, sportswear and other kit purchases, and the ways in which they travel to events etc.   This blog focuses on nutrition.  The other choices will be covered in separate blogs.

Wading into the plant-based versus meat-based diet isn’t going to win us any friends, but given that agriculture is responsible for 15-20% of global emissions it’s an important debate to have.  Many studies show that eliminating or reducing our meat intake can cut carbon emissions but it’s definitely not as simple as plants-good-meat-bad and much depends on production methods, transport miles etc. 

At Presca, we have ambassadors such as Vegan Tri Guys who aim to inspire a healthy, eco-lifestyle with the message #eatmoreplantsridemoremiles.  This debate has also been brought to the fore recently by films such as the somewhat sensationalist Cowspiracy or the slightly more “British” Apocalypse Cow which both show that our ever-increasing demand for meat-based products is causing significant environmental harm - whether through destruction of pristine forest to farm cows or grow feedstocks, through to the methane they generate (which accounts for about 40% of total agricultural global warming emissions), or the eutrophication of rivers due to the high nitrogen input from animal faeces and other fertilisers.  

With regards to dairy, we’re all now painfully aware of the amount of methane cows and other ruminants (sheep, goats, etc) make as they fart and burp their way through life.  Methane is 21 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 so add to that the energy input of feeding that animal (often with imported feed) and the environmental impact is pretty severe.  A back-of-a-milk-carton calculation shows that (for UK dairy) every pint of milk you drink is equivalent to driving 5 miles in an “average” car and that even acknowledging that the UK dairy industry already has one of the lowest GHG emissions per unit of milk in the world.

Going full vegan/veggie isn’t in itself a golden bullet.  Many choices that we make in our day to day shopping habits (habits is the right word for sure, and they can be difficult to break) can have significant environmental impacts.  Just a couple are listed below.

  • Avocados aren’t good.  I love avocados so this kills me.  But reduce your avocado consumption or the world gets it!
  • Almonds are another of my favourites. High in good fats, high in protein, but MASSIVE in water consumption.  The vast majority of commercially-sold almonds in the world come from California.  It’s a water-stressed area and the farming of almonds (along with other fruits and nuts) is pumping huge quantities of water out from the underlying aquifer. They’re bad for the bees Almonds, I like them so much but have pretty much cut them right out of the diet.  
  • Soya has image problems linked to the exploitation of the Amazon.  Not all soya is grown in the Amazon, however, and increasingly it’s coming from Europe (Alpro source most of their soybeans from France apparently). A huge amount of soya (75% according to Chatham house) is grown for animal consumption for the meat and dairy industry.  So if that demand was reduced then there would be more available for human consumption.
  • Palm oil is quite literally everywhere in the majority of supermarket products ranging from food through to cosmetics.   It’s one of the most efficient types of oil to grow, hence its popularity and low cost, but has been responsible for huge amount of deforestation.  Try to buy products that are certified as containing “sustainable” palm oil according to the Charter of the Palm Oil Innovation Group
  • Eating soft fruit with air miles is a big contributor to emissions.  It’s 20 times more carbon-intensive to fly fruit in compared to shipping it.  As a rule of thumb, anything with a thick skin can be shipped, whereas the soft fruit have to be flown as their shelf life is so short.  So pretty much any soft fruit in winter will have to fly in from some distance away. Go for dried or frozen varieties that can be shipped instead, or even better eat seasonal and local (I know that can be a struggle in midwinter.)

For me, it's about finding a balance that means I can eat well and reduce my impact where possible.  There are often really delicious and nutritious alternatives so it’s about finding what works for you.

We have been fortunate to speak to TJ Waterfall from Meat Free Fitness on this subject and to take the opportunity to ask him some questions from a health perspective.  TJ provides science-based information on a plant-based diet for health and fitness so he knows what he is talking about!

- Where would I get my protein from if I ditch the meat?

Fantastic plant-based sources of protein include pulses like beans, lentils and chickpeas, which typically contain around 15-20g per cup, and other high protein foods like tofu, tempeh, and seitan which contain around 20-25g protein per serving. People also often underestimate the amount of protein contained in grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and even fruit, which quickly add up to provide significant amounts of additional protein. Then for those really looking increase their intake, there's some great vegan protein shakes and bars available nowadays too.

- Would ditching or reducing meat impact on my training?

As long as you're getting plenty of balance and variation in your diet, it's easy to get everything you need to make progress with your training, including protein, on a plant-based diet. In fact, a plant-based diet can significantly improve recovery time, because of the high levels of phytonutrients and antioxidants in plants, which, on average, contain 64 times the antioxidant properties of animal foods. This helps to reduce exercise-based inflammation and resulting muscle soreness, so for competitive athletes, the quicker recovery from consuming a plant-based diet can get them back training harder, sooner. Taken over the course of a whole season or year, these cumulative effects can be significant. 

- Will I still be able to build muscle on a plant-based diet?

Absolutely. This is backed by the science, as well as countless real-life examples of athletes on a plant-based diet surpassing their competition in a whole range of disciplines, from ultra-distance triathletes to boxers and weightlifters. A healthy vegan diet will also contain all the amino acids, the building blocks of protein, necessary for muscle growth. For example, beans are high in the amino acid lysine but low in methionine, while grains are a great source of methionine. So a diet consisting of pulses, legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds will provide plenty of each amino acid to support muscle growth. 

- Would I need to supplement a plant-based diet with anything else?  

For anyone on a plant-based diet, it's really important to get a reliable source of vitamin B12, as it's the only vitamin that can't reliably be found in plant foods. It's also recommended that everyone in the UK consider a vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter, and this advice goes for vegans too. For some, a long-chain omega-3 supplement derived from algae can be useful, but it's possible to get everything else through a balanced and varied vegan diet. 

We’ll leave you with the Hollywood take on going vegan in the sensationalist but good fun Game Changers. Favourite quote, from a strong man competitor “Qn: How do you get as strong as an ox without eating meat?  Answer: have you ever seen an Ox eating meat?”

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