Opinion piece: Vegan and Vegetarian Diets for Climbers

Where do I even start?

I am casually browsing Instagram, and I see Alex Honnold’s post about how people should consider their diet and Game Changers and Cowspiracy were “sound” movies. There may have been a loud groan and a forehead slap on my end when I read that.

Alex Honnold doling out diet advice. Oh, dear.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Alex Honnold. I believe he’s a guy that truly cares, and truly wants to get it right, and truly help the world. I believe he’s also intellectually honest. He just fell into the trap that many athletes and celebrities before him have fallen into: giving advice beyond his scope of expertise.

Alex is an amazing climber. No one would dispute that. But he lacks extensive nutrition knowledge and training. He is not qualified to give diet advice. No amount of consuming lay nutrition content will do that for a person. He clearly doesn’t have the training to weed out what is legitimate nutrition science. He’s likely on Mt. Stupid right now in this Dunning-Kruger effect curve graphic–in between Ignorance and the Valley of Despair.

Go to mysportscience.com to learn from Asker Jeukendrup, one of the world’s top sports nutrition researchers, about this fascinating phenomenon.

Image from mysportscience.com

Again, I have great respect for Alex Honnold. I feel a strong responsibility to provide the climbing community with the very best nutrition information, so when I see someone of such great influence getting in wrong, I feel compelled to set the scientific record straight.

He is unwittingly encouraging people to become vegan or vegetarian when it’s not necessary for improved health or performance (and it’s impact on the environment isn’t as clear-cut as Honnold makes it seem).

The nutrition world has become a charged mess of emotions, guilt, shame, and zealots (not saying Honnold is one of those, just to be clear). The dietitians, researchers, and nutrition professionals that stand for science and offer measured, nuanced interpretations and recommendations often get drowned out by loud voices that call for extreme diets. These people use fear mongering, gaslighting, and false promises of weight loss, health, energy, and whatever else you’re looking for neatly packaged into a 21-day challenge, supplement, or diet rules.

Veganism sees to be the latest in a long line of extreme views on diet. One can be vegan and be balanced and healthy. Vegans are vegans for a number of reasons–environmental concerns, ethical or moral considerations, or health. If you’re vegan or vegetarian for these reasons, go for it. Props to you, and I honor your decision.

The problem lies when the vegan propaganda machine churns out tales of superior health and performance compared to omnivore diets. (Note: vegan and vegetarian diets are no healthier than omnivore diets. Both can be healthful and have neutral or reduced risk for chronic disease). They use powerful and convincing images, documentaries, books and articles about how “plant-based” is better than any other diet (a problematic term in and of itself with no formal definition).

They twist the facts (Meat causes cancer! Dairy is inflammatory! Eggs cause heart disease!) and latch onto anything that may throw shade on animal products. This is problematic because not only does it misrepresent science, it doesn’t really give those wanting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle all the true support and facts they need. (Aside from those adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet for moral or ethical reasons–in this case, the nutrition science and health impact is less relevant because their decision to go vegan or vegetarian is based in morals, not health).

The nutrition science world is usually nuanced and rarely extreme in its recommendations. Yet I see popular diets like veganism (and the carnivore diet on the other end) embracing extreme. It leaves people confused, stressed, and possibly malnourished. It may also lead to eating disorders in some people.

I cannot tell you how many people have asked me about Game Changers, the new documentary promoting a “plant-based” diet for athletic performance. Here’s my opinion in a nutshell: No. Just no. Not even. Do not use this documentary based in pseudoscience and disinformation (yup, you read that right–not misinformation, this is a whole new level of disinformation) to persuade you to go vegan.

Critique on this documentary is not something I want to tackle, but others have done so and I highly recommend you go check it out.

Dr. Layne Norton review of Game Changers

Tim Rees review of Game Changers

Nerd Getting Fit review of Game Changers

Asker Jeukendrup review of Game Changers

I am not anti-vegan or anti-vegetarian. In fact, a variety of diet approaches, including these, can be implemented to achieve better health and performance. It only becomes an issue if the person becomes vegan because of questionable information they heard, read, or watched.

So where do we go with all of this? If you want to (or are already) vegan or vegetarian, be sure to check with a dietitian to make sure you are eating well to fuel your climbing and support health without any nutrient deficiencies. I could say the same for omnivores, although there is reduced risk for nutrient deficiencies with more variety of foods in the diet. For more about nutrients to consider when implementing a vegan or vegetarian diet, check out our other blog post.

If you are considering veganism or vegetarianism, be sure you understand why you are doing it. If it is because of anecdotes or questionable documentaries, reconsider.

If you have a history of nutrient deficiencies, eating disorders, or anything else that would contraindicate a vegan or vegetarian diet, tread carefully.

Also it’s important to acknowledge that choosing to become vegan or vegetarian is only possible if you have privilege. The privilege of accessing food, choosing not to eat certain foods, choosing to eat a certain way, and having the time to research and prepare foods differently than usual. Following a vegan or vegetarian diet takes additional time, mental energy, and emotional energy.

The privilege of buying select foods rather than buying pre-chosen foods on your food stamps or WIC benefits. The privilege of eating what you want rather than what the food bank gives you. The privilege of seeing a doctor and dietitian to make sure you’re not deficient. These things are not available to many people.

The people pushing their style of eating on you, whether it be vegan, keto, low carb, paleo, or anything else, are coming from a place of privilege that it’s important to acknowledge. They may be able to eat a special diet, but do you want to? Do you need to? Is it practical, or even possible, for you to eat that way?

And with that we also have to acknowledge the interesting phenomenon of your diet becoming your identity. If what you eat is wrapped up in your value as a person, it’s time to reassess why this is and if it’s still serving you well. Is being a vegan important to you because it sounds cool? It signals that you are woke? Or you that you care about your health? And that you are disciplined? Do you feel superior to others who do not eat this way? This can lead to greater mental and emotional stress, as well as eating disorders and orthorexia. Eating disorders can be masked by veganism and vegetarianism.

Some of my clients have switched to veganism only to find that they lost muscle mass, have more digestive issues, and feel weaker. They switch back and feel much better. Some of my clients have gone vegan or vegetarian and feel great.

Please know that you can be an amazing, strong climber by following a vegan diet, omnivore diet, or vegetarian diet. One is not superior than the other for sports performance and health. And please, before making any drastic dietary changes, evaluate why you are doing it and if the information driving your decision is valid and science-backed. Protect your mental, emotional, and physical health.

Stay safe and sane, my friends.

~Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD

Want more nutrition information? Get the book Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send.

~This is opinion only and not dietary advice. Always check with your healthcare professional before undergoing any diet or lifestyle change.

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