Bad Excuses: Vegans are Weak

The idea that vegans are weak is an important stereotype to smash, one that I like to think I’ve done again and again on here. While some have argued that veganism uniquely contributes to fitness (a claim I believe to be erroneous), many have emphasized that vegans are entirely capable of becoming just as strong as anyone else — and that’s been the real take home message.

But this left the door open for the retort that, sure, vegans can be just as strong as anyone else, but maybe it takes more effort. Perhaps vegans do tend to be weaker than others.

I was recently alerted to some evidence that vegans do not in fact tend to be weaker than others. A study (full text here) published just last month found that vegans and non-vegans were not significantly different when it comes to “physical activity levels, body mass index, percent body fat, lean body mass, and muscle strength.” Moreover, “vegans had a significantly higher estimated VO2 max […] and submaximal endurance time to exhaustion […] compared with omnivores.” This means vegans may have an advantage when it comes to oxygen use during intense exercise. As for “submaximal endurance time to exhaustion,” I’m not totally sure what that is, but seems to be related to endurance. Whatever it is, another point for veganism.

There are some caveats to this study. For one, the total number of participants was 56, with 28 vegans and 28 non-vegans. That’s not a huge sample, though the researchers did use a power analysis in deciding on sample size. But perhaps the largest caveat is that all of the participants were “healthy young lean physically active women.” One could argue that this would not hold up in a study of men for whatever reason, but that’s just conjecture. On the other hand, it could be the case that physical activity is the real equalizer. Maybe if you did this study again without selecting participants that are physically active, you’d see significant differences between vegans and non-vegans.

In any case, this study still gives us reason to believe that vegans and non-vegans are equal when it comes to measures of physical fitness — and vegans may outperform others on a couple metrics.

We knew that vegans could be strong. Some still believe it’s just not possible, or that one cannot reach peak performance on a vegan diet. We can be pretty sure that’s false. We didn’t know for sure that vegans are in fact just as strong as others — and now we have some evidence. To proclaim that veganism is unhealthy is to participate in a losing game of constant goalpost-moving.

Even if we learn that physically inactive vegans are weaker than physically inactive non-vegans, would anyone really care? I would certainly be taken aback by someone arguing against veganism on health grounds not because it’s more difficult to build muscle without animal products (it isn’t) but because a vegan couch potato isn’t as healthy as a non-vegan couch potato. That would be an odd hill to die on.

While I still wouldn’t go as far as The Game Changers and stake the claim that veganism is the diet for peak performance, as the research on health and veganism develops, the common myths and stereotypes about veganism and vegans are falling apart. Let’s embrace this trend.

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