What is a Vegan Diet?
The vegan diet is a diet that dtoes not allow the consumption of any food of animal origin. The common misconception that people make is mixing up vegetarian and vegan diets.
The one key distinction between vegetarians and vegans is that those on a vegetarian diet avoid meat but still eat other animal products, like eggs, dairy, and honey.
On the other hand, those on a vegan diet avoid everything and anything from animals, which sometimes goes as far as even including honey. The term ‘vegan’ was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, co-founder of “The Vegan Society”.
People on a vegan diet focus on eating everything that is plant based, like fruit and vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, and the like.
In today’s modern society, it is easy to find vegan alternatives to anything, from butter and milk to burgers and sausages. At the end of the day, it comes down to finding a substitute with the closest texture to an animal product you might want to use in cooking.
Most people who decide to go vegan do so for one of two main reasons: specific health conditions and/or concerns, or idealistic and political convictions.
Regardless of the reason for picking the lifestyle, vegans do make up less than 1% of the population in modern societies. However, any statistics on the subjects should be taken with a grain of salt, given how impossible it is to precisely figure out the exact percentage of people that eat meals in a certain way.
At the end of the day, 1% is about 79 million people (statistics on the vegan population, according to The Guardian). Out of those, a serious portion is athletes, and among those athletes, there is a number of people that are specifically BJJ athletes.
The question is whether a strict vegan diet is enough for people who, like BJJ athletes, indulge in physically and mentally exhausting training.
Training on a Vegan Diet
Can you train on a vegan diet? Certainly? Should you train on a vegan diet? Nope, ideally not. In fact, there is no real reason anyone should be on a vegan diet. Just in case people think this is an opinion, I will go on to prove it is a fact-based argument.
Humans are omnivores, which means they need to eat plant-based food and food of animal origin. Notice I used the word “need,” not “should,” or “can”. Our bodies are meant to run on both plant and animal products, and taking one way seriously diminishes health from various standpoints.
While omnivores (people, dogs, wolves, bears, etc.) can survive only on a plant-based diet, it does not mean they should live on one. It most certainly does not mean they will reach their full performance potential, particularly in high-endurance sports like BJJ.
Training breaks down muscle tissue. To repair said muscle tissue, you need to ingest carbohydrates and protein. Both are macronutrients found in plant and animal-based products.
This, however, is where most people stop researching – oh beans and legumes have proteins, so we’re good. Unfortunately, no, you are not.
While legumes, soybeans, and the likes do contain protein, they do not contain all the amino acids (building blocks of protein) the body requires. There are 20 amino acids out there that are called essential – a name that really does explain everything. There is not one plant out there that contains all the essential amino acids the body needs.
The same goes for micronutrients. Eat a vegan diet while training vigorously, and you will not just find it hard to recover due to the lack of amino acids, but you’ll also notice levels of vitamin B12 declining.
And for everyone out there who is going to claim that chia seeds and kale have all the B12 you need, let me remind you that you couldn’t possibly eat all the chia seeds you need to ingest the daily required dose of B12 in one day, let alone one meal.
There is a way around this – smart supplementation, but it is expensive and will require you to take lots of pills and powders on a daily basis to make up for something you could easily get from food.
The bottom line is that while you can train on a vegan diet, you probably shouldn’t. It is like putting gasoline in a fighter jet and trying to take it to its limits. This is particularly important for BJJ athletes.
Vegan Lifestyle for BJJ Athletes
While my stance on the subject of a vegan diet for BJ athletes, and all athletes for that matter, is no doubt clear at this point, I will play devil’s advocate and try to objectively look at the pros and cons of trying to get the most out of your body while not providing the best possible fuel in the process.
Pros of Being a Vegan Fighter
More carbohydrates, which means more sustained energy throughout the day, and quicker and easier digestion of food.
Cheaper. Plant-based food is cheaper compared to every food product of animal origin. If you are on a tight budget, a vegan diet might make sense.
Fewer calories. Most of the calories we ingest come from fat rather than protein or carbs, but following a vegan diet, especially a clean one, is bound to help you slim down a bit, although it won’t be due to the fewer calories, but most likely due to the lack of some key nutrients as well.
Cons of Veganism For Grapplers
Nutrient deficiency. Basically, everything I wrote in the previous chapter, and then some. Essential amino acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, Omega-3 fatty acids, and creatine are all missing from a vegan diet.
Diminished performance. As a BJJ athlete, you’re likely looking for optimal mat performance. Well, a vegan diet will cover your energy needs in terms of carbs but not your protein and micronutrient requirements, which are crucial to recovering and recuperating.
Health hazards. While a vegan diet might be a great choice for certain maladies and conditions, it is more likely to cause health issues in healthy people.
The lack of nutrients, combined with rigorous training, takes its toll on the hormonal, skeletal, muscle, and immune systems. While it is not certain that going vegan is going to make you sick, it might greatly exacerbate any hidden conditions you might already have.
I kept the last bit of entertaining information for last – I am a vegetarian. So, no, you do not have to eat meat in order to thrive as a BJJ athlete. Still, you do need food of animal origin (preferably) or a very precise and quite expensive supplementation protocol if you are dead set on being vegan, performing optimally on the mats, and staying healthy as you do.
Ogi is a black belt that does Jiu Jitsu full time and is very passionate about anything grappling-related.
He is also the head coach of Enso Jiu Jitsu in Macedonia and an aspiring Globetrotter.