Elite Vegan Athletes and Physical Strength

» August 12th, 2015

Yesterday a reporter asked me why so many athletes who went vegan found themselves feeling weak and sick. It’s a narrative that, as a runner, I hear a lot. My first–and I think the most sensible–reaction is to explain that many vegans simply do it wrong. They replace calories once obtained from animal products with processed junk food rather than nutrient dense plants. And they feel like shit.

I tell them about my vegan friend Yetik, with whom I’m currently training for a 50-mile race that we’re doing at the end of September. At 80+ miles a week in hot/humid conditions, our physical and nutritional needs are especially intense. I’m adding a lot of legumes, peanut butter, root veggies, and quinoa to my diet–and feeling great. Yetik, though, was flagging for several weeks. But when I suggested adding some more B-12 and quinoa, and he did, he had a noticeable rebound and is feeling strong. Fact is, he’s a running demon.

But still, there are cases in which athletes eat a smart vegan diet and still feel like something is missing, that some level of energy has been lost. And it is also very likely true that a piece of lean meat or a bowl of yogurt would ameliorate the situation for that runner, even if the affect was more placebo than real. In these situations, I find myself less able to offer advice that will be realistically accepted.

Going vegan is a wonderfully pragmatic way to respond to the myriad ecological and ethical problems endemic to the American way of eating. Do it. But it’s also a radically counter-cultural thing to do. Those who make the transition, and see the benefits, as I have, are far more likely to embrace and stick with veganism than those who are asked to not only make a socially-ostracizing counter-cultural shift but, at the same time, suffer a physical consequence, however seemingly minor, as a result.

This scenario raises many interesting questions. To what extent is an individual obligated to sacrifice a personal sense of physical health in order to stick to the moral ideals of veganism? Is there a point at which an individual’s sense of physical well being becomes so compromised that the morality of eating meat changes, whereby eating a piece of lean salmon once a week becomes more justifiable than it would be for a non-compromised person?

I have no answers, but I’m in an inquisitive mood as I contemplate a return to daily blogging here at the Pitchfork. Looking forward to your thoughts.


33 Responses to Elite Vegan Athletes and Physical Strength

  1. Seth Tibbott says:

    Have you spoken to David Carter, aka “The 300 pound Vegan”? He is a pro football lineman for the Chicago Bears. I met him at the 2014 Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles. Great guy, seems to be doing fine on his vegan diet.

    • James says:

      No, I haven’t. But I have read about him. But here’s something to consider: just because a vegan diet works for one person does not mean it will work in the same way for another. I mean, it works for me, but not for a lot of athletes I know. So, for most people, it will not be enough to say, “works for David Carter, so why not you?” See what I mean?

  2. Mary Finelli says:

    Consuming human blood or flesh might make some people perform or feel better. Would that justify harming someone else to get it?

  3. James says:

    In theory, your point stands. But I’m not sure the comparison works in reality, if for no other reason than the fact that humans are not raised, slaughtered, packaged and available at Whole Foods. So, even if an athlete could benefit from eating another human, the choice would be hindered by the lack of an available product, thereby undermining the reality of the choice. With non-human meat, it’s a matter of pulling out the wallet and firing up the grill.

    • Mary Finelli says:

      There are athletes who obtain and use performance-enhancing drugs, despite their being illegal. Where there’s a want there’s a way.

      Athletes are no different than anyone else in that they should take personal responsibility for their health and not cause others to suffer for it. It’s up to them to do the right thing, regardless of the legality, and not harmfully exploit others for personal gain. If they can’t be top in their sport without harming others they should find another avenue in which to try to excel. As the saying so rightly goes: There’s no excuse for animal abuse.

  4. Lisa Nicole Szucs says:


    So glad you are blogging again on a daily basis!

    I am in my 17th year of quiet, comfortable, ethical veganism. What started as a concern for animals has branched out to better health for me, which gives me more energy to pursue my (equally quiet) activism on behalf of animals.

    After so many years and so many positives to being vegan, it’s truly difficult to see a downside. Being compassionate to animals turns out to be compassionate to the human body and its psyche. I just have so much good energy from a plant-based diet and a (relatively) guilt-free conscience.

    Where’s the harm in that?

    • James says:

      I agree with you about a downside, but trust me—people all the time go vegan and feel poorly. We cannot just dismiss that feeling, right?

  5. emily says:

    James, i want to thank you for asking some of the tough questions. i think that this is a topic of utmost importance that we should be discussing openly and often if we want to ever see real and lasting change. I used to be absolutely positively certain i would never (intentionally) eat another animal product again in my life. I was also appalled, horrified and mystified when i would hear of an ex-vegan. i just couldnt fathom going back on my ethics. Then i started having strange symptoms, i wont go into detail here, but it was very distressing to say the least. i just couldnt imagine it was my diet. I had been doing it all “right” for 3 years. Nutrition was a hobby and a passion, i was logging all my food info into a nutrition analysis database and ghe numbers always looked good. i was taking b12. i had completed T. Colin Campbell’s Plant Based Nutrition course. But something was not right. After a lot of reseach, i decided to ask my doc for some specific blood tests and discovered my Ferritin (sensitive biomarker for iron) was nearly bottomed out. i started taking iron and within a few days i started feeling better. its been a long and bumpy road trying to get and keep those numbers up. my body seemed to reject the iron pills for a time snd after a lot of research and soul searching i settled on eating farm raised oysters twice a week. i guess that makes me technically no longer vegan. but it has made me much less dismissive of others who may be struggling. many people thrive on a 100% vegan diet, but there are definitely others like me. it makes me very sad to see people go back to full-on omnivore, when it is pissible that if someone had talked to them about their own struggles and compromises, they may have had the support to stick closer to their convictions.i may only be 98% vegan, but my heart is 100% with the cause and my goal is to get back there eventually. i know this will likely irritate some vegans, but it is what is workinv for me right now. and interestingly, an unexpected side effect is that nonvegans seem to be able to hear what i say a little

    • James says:

      Thank you so much for this Emily. I think there is a strong moral case to be made for eating oysters.
      See this wonderful piece: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2010/04/consider_the_oyster.html

      • emily says:

        yes. this article gave me the courage to try oysters. i certainly hope they do not suffer.

        • Mary Finelli says:

          It had long been claimed that dogs couldn’t feel pain, at least not like we do, and their shrieks of distress while they were cut up alive could be guiltlessly ignored. More recently it was -and, tragically, still is all too commonly- said that fish aren’t sentient. That is finally beginning to be debunked.

          We are continually learning new abilities of animals that were previously denied. Oysters, unlike plants, have a nervous system and other animalian structures. They are animals, and it is quite possible that they, too, are sentient. There is no need to consume them and no justification for doing so. They deserve the benefit of any doubt one may have.

          Oysters are also small animals. Many are killed/consumed to satiate those who dine on them. If indeed they are sentient that is a great deal of individual suffering.

          Oysters are filter feeders. They clean their surrounding water and in doing so accumulate heavy metals and other toxins, bacteria and viruses in their flesh. These concentrated pathogens are ingested by human consumers, so they are not a healthful food.

          Additionally, because other animals eat oysters they are scapegoated by the shellfish industry, which is used as an excuse to kill them, such as the killing contests for the gentle cownose rays of the Chesapeake Bay: http://fishfeel.org/cownoserays.php (please sign the petition and urge others to do the same). By eating oysters and increasing the demand for them, it fuels the persecution of the animals who genuinely do need to eat them and reduces their food supply.

          Oysters have enough problems with ocean acidification and other environmental problems. They don’t need human predators on top of everything else.

          Eating oysters, and/or urging others to do so, is very irresponsible, especially for people who identify as animal advocates.

          • Emily says:

            I in NO way am “urging others to consume oysters”. And I also believe you missed the fact that i am not buying wild caught oysters, only farmed. With all do respect, I feel like you completely dismissed my experience. Imagine if everyone who cared about other animals and the environment decided to consume between 95 and 100 percent of calories from plants. Would that not be a HUGE improvement? The issues are not black and white, and neither are the solutions. I only hope you can find compassion towards your fellow humans who are trying to do their very best. You never know when you may be in need of the same.

          • James says:

            So, are plants next?

  6. emily says:

    …bit more patiently when they learn i am not “perfect”. i’m sorry to have gone on so long, but this is the first time ive attempted to speak publicly about this and i wanted to be as clear as i could.

  7. emily says:

    please forgive the typos, as i am commenting from my phone. please feel free to edit!

  8. Annie Leymarie says:

    I’ve been on a plant-based diet for many years, with one exception: I have had phases of eating some eggs. One reason is that I wanted to encourage people to shift from keeping meat-eating pets (essentially cats and dogs) to other pets, and I thought that hens kept free to roam in large gardens, ideally with at least one rooster, who would be loved and not killed at old age but could provide some eggs, could make good companions. I thought that the more people could observe hens the less likely they would be to buy battery chicken and/or eggs. And hens don’t contribute much to climate change, unlike dogs and cats who are fed meat from ruminants who do contribute a lot. And at times I have felt that these eggs were really adding useful food to my diet. At other times – e.g. now – I have felt unable to eat eggs as they were just like any other animal food, quite disgusting and ‘wrong’. At some point, I would love a discussion about pets among vegans…

  9. Karen Orr says:

    I was surprised by the reporter’s question about athletes feeling weak on a vegan diet because it seems I’m always reading vegan athlete success stories. Vegan athletes of various sorts: 300 Pound Vegan David Carter, so in the news lately. But also former NBA great John Salley, lifters, bodybuilders, martial artists, runners (Rich Roll, Scott Jurick) and so on.

    If you haven’t seen Parkour Free Running World Champion Tim Shieff in action, I think you’ll enjoy it.

    • James says:

      This is true–we do hear about the success stories. But that media bias. Who wants to write articles about the failures? Nobody– so we don’t hear them. But on the ground, I do hear them, as did this seasoned reporter (NY Times). As a couple of responses here show, it’s a serious issue, one that I’m struggling to address.

  10. emily says:

    one more side note that may be of significance. i have been a runner for many, many years but had never attempted any long distance races. in the year before i started having problems, I was inspired to train for and run a half and then a full marathon. This may have contributed to my iron issues, and in response to Mary’s comment above, i did choose to give up running for over a year while trying to sort my health issues out.

  11. Tina says:

    Here is something about the man who just broke the speed record for completing the Appalachian Trail. He has been vegan since the late 90s.


  12. James says:

    Scott Jurek is amazing. But the point of this post was not to even remotely question the fact that vegan athletes can do amazing things, but to inquire about those whose performance suffers as a purported result of transitioning to a vegan diet, and to explore how we might frame their experience.

  13. Karen Harris says:

    I think that there needs to be a distinction between “feeling like something is missing” or feeling a vague sense of loss of energy due to a vegan diet, and being truly medically compromised. I think that if one had a physical exam that showed a true deficiency because of a vegan diet, that one could, with very little guilt,t eat what was crucial to regaining health. In that instance, eating animals might be likened to taken medicine. We all do that, don’t we? And we all know that every single drug has been tested on and has caused animal suffering.
    By the way, I have missed your blogs very much.
    Hope you decide to write more often!

  14. Karen Orr says:

    ‘The Cove’ director Louis Psihoyos has a movie on plant based athletes coming out in 2016.

    “The Game Changers”

    “Well, the next film I’m doing is on elite athletes whose diets are plant based. The world’s strongest guy is a vegan. The world’s fastest guy, Carl Lewis, was the first to break 10 seconds, and he did it when he was a vegan. The nine-time world-champion arm-wrestler is a vegan. We’re trying to dispel the myth that you need protein from animals to become a real man. It’s being executive produced by James Cameron, so it’s going to be a great film. I’m probably more excited about this one than anything I’ve done so far because I feel like it will change things perceptibly.”

    Louis Psihoyos

  15. Mary Finelli says:

    If you will reread what I wrote, you’ll see I said: “Eating oysters, and/OR urging others to do so, is very irresponsible”

    Yes, that would be an improvement, but unless they absolutely needed to consume any animal products -as a matter of survivial- they would still be contributing to needless animal exploitation/suffering.

    I have plenty of compassion toward people who are trying to do their very best. Harming animals because you’ve overexerted yourself is not doing your very best. Have some compassion for them. There are ways to boost your iron levels without resorting to consuming other animals. See, for example: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/iron

    • Emily says:

      I read both these articles long ago, along with just about every vegan nutrition book out there. I also tried to correct the situation for a whole year before trying oysters. Nutrition is complex and we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of its mysteries. My hope in posting this was that it may help someone avoid what happened to me, or at the very least to not feel alone. You have no idea who I am, how much compassion I have for animals, or how difficult the decision was for me. By ignoring others’ struggles and berating them for their honesty, I believe we risk damaging our cause. But to each her own, I guess. Ps. No where in my research did I come across a warning that running a marathon as a vegan may be “over exerting myself”, setting myself up for chronic iron deficiency, anxiety, depression, etc. .. Only glowing stories of success and triumph. It was a wonderful experience, but I would have given it up in a heart beat if I knew (of course I don’t really know for certain!) it would set me up for a cascade of health issues (that, yes, I know may have occurred even if I weren’t vegan.) which by the way, I do still consider myself to be. I wish you peace.

  16. Mary Finelli says:

    “So, are plants next?”

    We need to consume plants in order to survive. We should, of course, respect them, and try to not cause any more harm to them than is necessary. Unlike animals, there is no significant indication that plants experience pain or conscious distress. We kill far fewer plants by consuming them rather than by consuming animal products.

    • Isabella La Rocca says:

      Thank you Mary Finelli. We are surrounded by messages that insist that using and consuming animals is necessary and justifiable. Do vegans need to add to that deafening babel?

    • James says:

      “We kill far fewer plants by consuming them rather than by consuming animal products.”

      I’m honestly not sure this is true, especially if insects are morally relevant animals.

  17. Mary Finelli says:

    Insects are also killed to grow crops fed to animals. Plus all the insect habitat destruction for farmed animal facilities, feedlots, slaughterplants, etc.

  18. Athena says:

    Dr. Michael Klaper gave a phenomenal lecture about how truly genuine people want to go vegan, go vegan, eat enough calories, but still feel miserable. He said that research supports those peoples’ plight in that their stomachs have actually lost the ability to synthesize many nutrients from plants. In that sense, give the person some cheese or some chicken and they feel so much better because it is like coming off a hard drug and then being given the drug again. He says it is truly physiological; however, it is not something that is incurable–all people can get “off meat” and become healthy, athletic (if they desire) plant eaters.

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