Changing the narrative: Preconceptions about veganism and sports

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Veganism and sports have not always been easy bedfellows. Recently, there have been many changes in consumer habits and in the collective awareness about environmental care. Not only in industries such as food and fashion, but also in businesses like sports, which attracts millions of fans every year.

veganism in the sports industry

New trends in sport are marked by two goals: to grow deeper relationships with fans (consumers) and to ensure a transformation of consciousness in favour of the environment.  

This regards athletes as main faces but, even above them, the brands and institutions that move contracts and organize tournaments.

They are all working together to adapt to the positive changes that a vegan mentality is bringing to the industry: better performance, increased competition level, a growing consumer base and so on. Veganism and sports are beginning to get along.

Let’s review then, how is the vegan movement impacting the sports world?

Why Are More Athletes Choosing A Plant-Based Diet?

“In general, a healthy diet means one high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils. If your plate is dominated by unprocessed plant-based foods and bursting with color, you’re on the right track. In addition to lowering inflammation, a more natural, less processed diet can have noticeable effects on your physical and emotional health”.

— Harvard Medical School

Sports culture, especially for athletes, is undergoing an interesting transformation thanks to shifts in vegan diets. This has been criticized over time, claiming that there is no scientific evidence that veganism improves athletic performance.

However, recent studies show that a plant-based diet can effectively meet the protein and vitamin needs of top athletes. 

Plant-Based Nutrition and Health

There are unrefined plant sources and supplements that, in combination with a specialised training and nutritional plan, have been shown to improve health, performance and recovery time in many cases, thanks to their specific properties.

veganism in the sports industry

In 2019, Nutrients journal published a report comparing a plant-based diet with an omnivorous one. They tested the quality of each using the DIAAS (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score) method. It was found that athletes following an herbal/vitamin B12 supplement diet developed a higher nutrient adequacy, although the “omnivorous participants had significantly higher lean body mass (+14%)”. 

This meant that athletes with a meat-free diet would need to consume 10g of extra protein to achieve an average dietary reference intake level, and up to 22g to achieve a higher end of the suggested range. It wouldn’t be easy, but veganism and sports could work together, when approached with a scientific attitude.

Nutrients on a Plant-Based Diet

Now, when it comes to supplying nutrients such as calcium, vitamins (especially B12) or iron, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests eating soy and other plant sources. For example, edamame is a typical dish in Asia that is made with immature boiled soybeans, and provides the recommended 27.6% of daily calcium and iron. 

veganism in the sports industry

For vitamins, there are both supplements and fortified foods that many players have had to choose from to meet their needs. It should be noted that high performance athletes require particular benefits for their bodies, both before and after training/matches. Though it’s not just veganism and sports that need a meticulous approach to vitamin acquisition, there is more pressure within this niche sphere.

According to the Harvard Medical School, plant-based diets with their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, help speed physical recovery, reducing pain in muscles and joints, which in turn prevents many injuries and affects the longevity of the sports career.

For specialists like Dr. James Loomis, an internist at Barnard Medical Center in Washington D.C. who also participated in the The Game Changers documentary, a vegan diet is a logical choice for athletes, ensuring that “it leads to quicker recovery from workouts and better injury prevention. The food pyramid is misleading and that’s stayed with us from a young age”.

Veganism Against Risk and Diseases

A recent study detailed that a dairy-free plant diet is able to reduce cardiovascular risks, such as atherosclerosis and myocardial damage, in endurance athletes. The research further explains:

“Plant-based diets may offer performance advantages. Because plants are typically high in carbohydrates, they foster effective glycogen storage. By reducing blood viscosity and improving arterial flexibility and endothelial function, they may be expected to improve vascular flow and tissue oxygenation. Diets emphasizing plant foods have also been shown to reduce indicators of inflammation. These features of plant-based diets may present safety and performance advantages for endurance athletes.”

veganism in the sports industry

Although many congenital cases do exist, which condition the athlete’s risky work to some limited functions, long-term health care is one of the main motivations of the stars. And natural consumption habits, which even protect the environment, seem to be a great option. 

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) experts are promoting vegan diets for sportspeople, as these boost cardiovascular health by directly reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. They also emphasize that “it’s important to include a reliable source of vitamin B12 in your diet. You can easily meet your vitamin B12 needs with a daily supplement or fortified foods, such as vitamin B12-fortified breakfast cereals, plant milks, and nutritional yeast. Those who eat a plant-based diet lower their risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other health conditions”.

These studies aim to answer questions about the habits that players wishign to combine veganism and sports should follow to prevent the risk of chronic diseases that result from their high-intensity physical lifestyles.

New Trends in The Sports Industry

The release of The Game Changers (2018) documentary, directed by Louie Psihoyos, produced by James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other personalities, showed a point of view supported by testimonies of well-known athletes in several fields, in favor of the vegan movement, fitting it to the new industry trends.

It is not hard to see why sport is adding to a booming market: estimates say that by 2026 the global vegan food business will be $24.3 billion worth, brands, federations and teams who care about health habits are betting on this niche. 

Consumer education ranges from online shopping behavior to a choice to watch specific sporting events because they promote a good cause. Here we must add the variety of plant-based options for non-professional athletes, getting more and more people interested in this lifestyle.

According to The Vegan Society, between 2014 and 2019 the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled to over 600,000. As a result, organizations such as Vegan Runners UK have become collectively stronger, because now more than ever before, people are aware of habits that can improve their lives and save the environment.

The impact on the sports business model is remarkable: currently brands and entities are focused on building loyalty ties with fans, based on strategies as cause marketing, where athletes or well-known personalities of the sector use their image to reach the masses and create awareness on sensitive issues. From environmental care to mental illness, for example. 

Basketball stars like Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have invested in brands that are leading the way in vegan food business, namely Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, and the list of vegan/vegetarian basketball players who are brand ambassadors is long.

It’s no wonder the NBA is one of the fastest growing franchises, whether it’s for business or for the game. It’s so that The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective published an article explaining basketball’s evolution amidst trends that force professionals to shape their lifestyles, even renaming it “skinny-ball”.

Alejandro Meola
Alejandro Meola
Alejandro is a freelance journalist and writer with a degree in investigative development. He is experienced writing for digital media, magazines and radio, covering multiple sources and areas over the last five years.