We need more research on the diet, say scientists
Katharina Wirnitzer was in the midst of training for the Bike Transalp race, one of the world’s toughest endurance events, when she began investigating whether a vegan diet was suitable for athletes.
The year was 2003 and veganism was a long way from the current boom, which has established it as one of the most in-vogue dietary trends. But Wirnitzer, a sports scientist at the University of Innsbruck, had become intrigued by the resurgence of ancient theories linking plant-based diets with improved athletic performance.
“The first athletes on strict plant-based diets were gladiators,” she says. “Roman scripts report that all fighters adhered to gladiatoriam saginam, which was based on plant foods, including large amounts of legumes, pulses and grains, and contained little or no animal protein.”
Now, almost two millennia later, Wirnitzer is one of a handful of researchers trying to get to the bottom of whether veganism couldenhance an athlete’s chances of sporting success. Over the past decade, she has led the NURMI study, the broadest initiative so far investigating the effects of a vegan diet in high-performance, ultra-endurance sports.
NURMI is particularly timely because veganism’s association with various health benefits – from weight loss to decreased risk of inflammatory disease – has seen the diet soar in popularity in recent years, both amongst the general public and elite sportsmen. The most recent survey by the Vegan Society estimates that there are around 600,000 vegans in the UK – a fourfold increase over the past five years – while high-profile athletes from Lewis Hamilton to Jermain Defoe have begun experimenting with veganism.
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