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Game changing? Vegan athletes given greenlight as research supports plant-based diets

As the move toward plant-based diets continues to gather pace, interest in how athletes can thrive without consuming animal-derived foods is piqued. This is being bolstered by The Game Changers, a new documentary about the relationship between plant-based foods, protein and strength. Featuring big sporting names including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan and Lewis Hamilton, the movie has even convinced the CEO of UK bakery chain Greggs to switch out his meat pies for vegan offerings. In response to this shifting tide, Nutrients has released a special issue entitled “Vegetarian, Vegan Diets and Human Health.” takes a closer look at some key topics in this space.

“People need to be aware of the different quality profiles of different sources of protein, both in terms of taste and actual benefits. Whey protein scores highly because of its nutritional quality, rapid absorption and superior content of essential amino acids. It also has a pleasant taste which makes it acceptable to most consumers. Plant proteins, by contrast, tend to present taste challenges,” says Joe Katterfield, Sales Development Manager for Sports Nutrition and Health Foods at Arla Foods Ingredients.

However, he predicts that in the future, more hybrid products will become popular. These contain both plant and animal proteins. “The best of both worlds approach has huge potential,” he adds. However, new research highlights that whey protein may not be necessary for athletes to stay on form.

A well-planned, health-conscious lacto-ovo-vegetarian or vegan diet that includes supplements can meet an athlete’s requirements of vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron, according to a German study. Researchers from Leibniz University Hannover and Hannover Medical School recruited 81 healthy runners, of whom 28 were omnivorous (OMN), 26 were vegetarian (LOV) and 28 were vegan (VEG). They completed a questionnaire about their lifestyle and then gave blood samples following a period of fasting.

On average, all three groups had adequate levels of vitamin B12, with 19 percent of LOV, 16 percent of OMN and 7 percent of VEG showing an elevated B12 status. Supplementation was the key difference within the VEG group, with those who take supplements having significantly higher levels. Within non-supplement users, VEG had a tendency toward lower levels of B12.

Sourcing adequate vegan B12 has long been a concern, although earlier this month, the vitamin was discovered in Parabel USA’s water lentil crop, which is used to produce plant protein ingredients. Independent third-party testing showed 100 g of dry water lentils – also known as duckweed – contain approximately 750 percent of the US recommended daily value of the bioactive forms of B12.

Vitamin D biomarker status was also found to be highly dependent on supplementation, although LOV were in the lower reference range. Meanwhile, male OMN had significantly higher iron levels than LOV and VEG, but there was no difference between any of the female groups. Notably, female VEG had the highest mean ferritin levels.

.Plant-based protein
Honing in on dietary protein and amino acids in vegetarian diets, researchers from Université Paris-Saclay and Stanford University Medical School conducted a review addressing the adequacy in changes to protein patterns in people newly transitioning to vegetarian diets. They found that protein-rich foods, such as traditional legumes, nuts and seeds, are sufficient to achieve full protein adequacy in adults consuming vegetarian or vegan diets, while the question of any amino acid deficiency has been substantially overstated.

However, the researchers also flag that additional scientific evidence-based communication confirming the protein adequacy of vegetarian and vegan diets is warranted. They highlight the protein needs in older adults as being particularly complex, in contrast to children where there are no specific concerns regarding protein adequacy.

Earlier this month, the Chief Scientific Officer of Quorn noted that mycoprotein could offer a key vegan source of protein. “The notion that gladiators as elite fighting machines in Roman times chose a largely plant-based diet because it improved their performance is a fascinating insight and one that we hear echoed by contemporary sportspeople when they make the transition to vegan protein,” he said.

Recently it was also found that mycoprotein stimulates post-exercise muscle building to a greater extent than milk protein. Nonetheless, leaders in the dairy space have waived off fears about whey being edged out. “Dairy is the gold standard of proteins in the sports performance and nutrition area and that is not changing anytime soon,” said Mindy Leveille, Marketing Manager, Proteins at Kerry Taste & Nutrition.

Katterfield notes that although whey protein hydrolysate has been around for some time, it still has huge potential. Because it is hydrolyzed, or “pre-digested,” the peptides are smaller so they are more quickly absorbed, getting to the muscles faster, he explains.

While whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate were found in 22 and 20 percent of global food and beverage launches with a sports and recovery claim in 2018, the other top ingredients were leucine (23 percent), soy lecithin (23 percent) and isoleucine (22 percent), according to Innova Market Insights. This highlights how the space may be starting to embrace ingredients that are not necessarily animal-derived.

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