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Montreal, May 8th - Physical appearance and athletic strength have traditionally been associated with a diet that emphasizes meat and animal products. In the late 19th century, Louis Cyr consumed 10 pounds of red meat a day to become “the strongest man who ever lived”. Usain Bolt, the fastest runner on the planet, ate a hundred chicken nuggets a day leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he won two gold medals. Even the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa drank shakes of raw eggs and trained by punching slabs of beef.

"This image of the athlete, bodybuilder or carnivore warrior is deeply rooted in our culture," said Antony Karelis, a professor in the Department of Physical Activity Sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). By contrast, vegans are generally perceived to be physically weaker with a poorer performance.”

In order to deconstruct this myth, Karelis and his team – postdoctoral fellow Mauricio Garzon (M.Sc. Kinanthropology, 2010, UQAM), doctoral candidate Guy Hajj Boutros (M.Sc. Kinanthropology, 2018, UQAM), and undergraduate student in kinesiology Marie-Anne Landry Duval – compared the physical performance of 28 vegan women to that of 28 omnivore women. The two groups had similar characteristics in terms of body mass index, weight, fat percentage, and physical activity levels. The study was published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The results showed that vegans had greater cardiorespiratory fitness levels (VO2 max) and sub-maximal endurance than omnivores. "They performed better, in both maximal and prolonged endurance exercises," said the professor. In addition, the researchers did not note any significant difference in muscle strength between both groups may be in lower (leg press) or upper body strength (chest press).

This study is the first to specifically target the relationship between a long-term vegan diet (≥2 years) with , VO2 max, submaximal endurance and muscle strength in vegans only, noted Karelis. “Previous research had been carried out on a heterogeneous population, which was a mixture of vegans, lacto-vegetarians and ovo-lacto-vegetarians. These studies also demonstrated that people who did not eat meat had no disadvantage in terms of physical performance.”

Glycogen and antioxidants

According to Karelis, these findings, which are contrary to popular beliefs, may be explained by the composition of foods. “Vegans generally eat more carbohydrates than omnivores, which could increase muscle glycogen levels, and in turn, increase endurance . Natural antioxidants, found in greater quantities in the vegan diet and a lower inflammation profile may also explain the results.”

Changing attitudes

The myth of the meat eating s athlete has been called into question for several years. Ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, race car driver champion Lewis Hamilton, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger are all vegan. "The documentary The Game Changers (2018) also touts the benefits of a vegan diet for athletes,” noted Karelis.

The professor is aware that this preliminary study on the association between a vegan diet and physical performance was limited to a specific population. "We targeted young women because they are the ones who most commonly adopt a vegan diet. We would like to extend the study to men or women over 35 years of age. But there is no reason to believe that the results would be different for those groups.”

According to Karelis, the current pandemic could bring about a change of attitudes in the population. "A vegan diet benefits our health, the environment and the protection of animals," he said. "If it also benefits physical performance, there is no reason not to encourage a vegan lifestyle.”

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