Veganism and Athleticism, Potentially Unhealthy

Physical fitness has been a part of my life since I took a powerlifting class in high school. When I made the decision to switch from vegetarianism to veganism a few months ago, I was energized and excited to incorporate my food ethics into my lifestyle. When I renounced veganism two weeks ago, I felt the opposite. I had been denying the extent to which my ethical choice was at odds with my interest in fitness.

Eliminating animal products from one’s diet not only helps to reduce animal cruelty and environmental damage—it also makes getting the nutritional benefits these animal products provide more difficult. By definition, going vegan reduces one’s options for protein and healthy fats, both of which are crucial for muscle growth and repair. While there are quality plant-based sources of these macronutrients, they are less accessible on a college campus. Additionally, losing red meat as a source of iron can contribute to fatigue, which is detrimental to exercise.

In spite of these potential obstacles, there are many vegan fitness enthusiasts and professional athletes. Venus Williams went vegan after being diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, and her sister, Serena Williams, also became vegan to show her support. Former NFL defensive lineman David Carter adopted the diet late in his career, and maintained his 300-pound mass until retirement. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Tyrann Mathieu is “90 percent vegan,” and plays at a high level. Obviously the potential health problems that can result from the diet can be overcome.

I was aware of veganism’s potential effects on nutrition, and that highly-active people have been able to successfully maintain a vegan lifestyle. I figured that if people who exercise for a living can go vegan, someone like myself—who exercises as a hobby—would also be able to. I made every effort to get enough macronutrients and calories to sustain my level of physical activity, yet I still experienced adverse effects. I suffered from low energy levels—taking three-to-four hour naps in the afternoon despite getting eight hours of sleep a night—and I lost strength and muscle mass while gaining weight. I chalked this up to the stress of my Capstone and to senioritis. However, veganism’s impact on my immune system was the factor that spurred my decision to change my diet—my ethical decision had left me so physically unhealthy that I could not effectively fight off illness.

My experience with veganism was different from those of many others who put greater physical demands on their bodies, and this difference arises from circumstance. Veganism comes from a place of privilege—one must be in a position to be financially well-off enough to consider others’ wellbeing before their own, and must have the resources—in this case, time and money—to purchase and cook nutritious vegan meals. As an overcommitted and cash-strapped Lawrence student, I cannot devote the same level of resources that a professional football or tennis player can to a diet. I had to choose my wellbeing over my ethical inclinations.

This piece is not meant to deter people from veganism, but to share my experience and perspective on the subject. It is important to acknowledge the ways that ethics affect a person as a whole, and to acknowledge the sacrifices people who feel strong moral obligations for a cause choose to make. With choices relating to food ethics—in my case, veganism—the effects were not solely mental or spiritual, but physical as well.