Diet for Climbers (VEGAN and VEGETARIAN)

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Vegetarian food is becoming more standardized. Although climbing is a trend that has been going on for many years, the number of those who decide to adopt a vegan lifestyle, absent products that are not respectful of the animal kingdom, continues to increase. The main reasons are the search for better health or for ethical reasons. But a vegan diet does not ensure optimal nutrition. In this article, you will get some tips and advice to make a vegetarian diet for climbing, in the simplest and most correct way.

Vegans will be tired of the typical questions of the type: Where are you going to get the proteins? Or statements like that you will lack nutrients and you will get sick.

Few people question the typical Western diet, based on processed and low nutrient-density foods. However, they panic when you tell them that you have decided to become a vegetarian… Something is wrong.

Today, adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle is not that complicated. However, it should be clear that not all vegetarian diets are healthy, nor does it have to be the most suitable option for everyone.

IS A VEGETARIAN FOOD HEALTHIER?

Many people approach this eating pattern-seeking better health. As the meta-analysis by Benatar and Stewar (2018) indicates, vegetarians and vegans tend to have fewer diseases. However, it is not just due to the vegan diet itself. The main reason is that, by making the change in diet, they become more aware of what they eat.

They begin to be interested in nutrition, increasing the consumption of fruits, vegetables, seeds, whole grains, and other quality foods. At the same time, they eliminate or reduce ultra-processed foods and sugar. All this ends up having consequences in their daily life: they play sports and reduce bad habits.

However, if those same changes had been made with an omnivorous diet, the benefits would have been similar.

THE VEGAN DIET MAY NOT BE HEALTHY

The main thing about a healthy diet is that it consists of natural foods and not products. What is known as “real food”. Not only by eliminating products of animal origin but a healthy diet is also already assured.

The industry adapts quickly to social changes. In this case, you have seen the business opportunity, filling the supermarket shelves with thousands of ultra-processed products, full of additives and poor quality vegetable oils, but disguised with the “vegan” label.

This, together with the infoxication of the networks, can complicate a process that, a priori, should not be so difficult.

SHOULD I SUPPLEMENT VITAMIN B12?

Also known as cobalamin. Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells (erythropoiesis), the synthesis of DNA, and the maintenance of the nervous system. Its origin is bacterial and it is found in products of animal origin, except honey.

Grass-fed, free-range animals have no problem finding it. However, the current production systems have conditions of massive exploitation, without access to natural food. The solution is to choose to supplement the animals.

Vegans and strict vegetarians should supplement this vitamin (Bissoli et al., 2002; Pawlak et al., 2014). The fermented ones, the spirulina, and the algae contain inactive analogs, which can alter the analytics, confusing and leading to error. In fact, being analogous, they interfere with the absorption of real vitamin B12, so excess can be dangerous (Watanabe et al., 1999).

Semi-vegetarians such as ovolactovegetarians, flexitarians, or pescetarians have it easier to reach the recommended minimums. Although, if you do not consume enough animal products, it is advisable to supplement. The most supported form, as well as the cheapest, is cyanocobalamin.

The following table indicates the amount of food to cover the recommended daily amount (RDA) of B12 in ovolactovegetarians (based on data recommended by different institutions, such as the European Food Safety Authority EFSA):

FOODNECESSARY AMOUNT
Whole milk4-6 pots
Skimmed milk6-10 vases
Natural yogurt6-10 the 125g
Cooked Egg at 60g3-6 eggs
Burgos fresh cheese400g-650g
Manchego or cured cheese160g-250g

There are several myths around the Internet about vitamin B12, and there are vegans who refuse to take supplements. In the liver is the largest deposit, and a dietary deficiency can take more than 4 years to show evidence of deficiency.

However, if you get to that point, there is a possibility of irreversible symptoms. So, if you choose a vegan diet, B12 supplementation is a must.

IS PROTEIN LACKING IN A STRICT VEGETARIAN DIET?

As a general rule, it shouldn’t be difficult to cover protein in a vegan diet for the average population. However, the matter is complicated by increasing needs among athletes and climbers.

It should be clear that not dying from not reaching the right amount does not mean that it is optimal for you and your sports performance.

As a general rule, it is recommended to reach a somewhat higher amount compared to non-vegan diets. The reason is its worse digestibility and assimilation, together with the lower protein organization chart or score.

Some think that proteins only serve to build muscle, and do not reach the minimum healthy. Proteins form cell structures, participating in almost all vital processes. They also act as receptors and transporters of substances (article on proteins).

LIMITING AMINO ACIDS
LYSINE: It is the most lacking or limiting amino acid in the strict vegetarian diet. In addition to being a precursor to carnitine, it facilitates calcium absorption and iron fixation. The best vegan sources are legumes like soybeans.
METHIONINE: This amino acid is limiting in most legumes.
LEUCINE: It is important in protein synthesis. It is recommended to reach a minimum of 2.5 g of this amino acid daily. Foods like tofu, tempeh, lentils, or chickpeas show good amounts. Vanacore et al. (2018) blame their lack on the lower amount of muscle mass in vegans.

Due to this distribution, cereals and legumes are usually consumed on the same day (it does not have to be in the same meal). In this way, some contribute what others lack.

BEST ORGANIGRAMS OF PROTEINS IN SUITABLE FOODS IN VEGAN NUTRITION

Some foods, however, show a complete organization chart of all amino acids: soybeans, beans, chickpeas, amaranth, buckwheat, cashews, pistachios, or hemp seeds.

Lopez et al. (2006) analyzed the amino acid content (score) in relation to its protein digestibility (PDCAAS). The result is reflected in this useful table:

You should keep in mind that the nutritional tables of foods do not distinguish between complete or incomplete proteins. Therefore, having a worse organization chart, you should tend to go overboard so as not to fall short. It helps to try a mobile app for a while to become aware of what amounts you are usually in.

For athletes, it can be difficult to reach the optimal amount of protein. Especially for climbers traveling by van. For them, plant-based protein supplements are a convenient alternative.

Although there are many types, pea protein is the most common. However, it is more interesting to acquire one that combines different types to achieve a better organizational chart (like this one). Useful to take to the sector and take during or after climbing. This way you will optimize muscle recovery and protein resynthesis.

THE SOURCE OF THE PROTEIN IS IMPORTANT

Some studies have compared protein synthesis after the consumption of whey, milk, soy, meat, and eggs. With equivalent amounts of protein, the anabolic response of plant sources was lower (Wilkinson et al, 2007; Yang et al, 2012; Phillips, 2012).

According to Phillips (2012), although meat and soybeans have the same protein digestibility, the response to protein synthesis was much higher in the former.

One reason could be the lower presence of leucine in the organization chart. Therefore, van Vliet et al. (2015), recommend supplementing diets that only feed on plants with amino acids.

Controlling protein sources and their amount can make the difference between meeting your needs or just eating.

OMEGA 3 IN A VEGAN DIET

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:

EPA and DHA, are what the body can use. They are mostly found in oily fish and some other foods of animal origin.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Type of omega 3 present in plant foods (chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds…). The body cannot use it directly and must convert it to EPA and DHA.

Vegans obtain EPA and DHA through ALA. However, the conversion is inefficient. According to Brenna (2002), 5% or less. Although Welch et al. (2010) found that it appears to be somewhat higher in vegans.

What many people don’t know is that the source of EPA and DHA in the underwater world comes from seaweed. There are different supplements on the market based on microalgae cultures (such as this one), very suitable if you do not consume products of animal origin.

Vegetarians can also benefit from eating shellfish, such as mussels and oysters. As they do not need to move, they lack a nervous system and do not feel. Nor do they have a brain that causes pain. Therefore, they are considered suitable for vegans. They are a source of omega 3 and vitamin B12. They also provide other complicated nutrients for vegans, such as iron, zinc, and iodine (with regard to the latter, a good idea is to consume iodized salt).

The recommended amount of omega 3 is affected by the omega 3/omega 6 ratio. The reason is that the same enzymes are used for their conversion. Since vegetarians usually consume a large amount of omega-6 through nuts, it will be important to take care of this aspect. Also, avoid seed oils and be careful with nut butter.

This deficiency is not exclusive to vegans. The majority of people who consume foods of animal origin also do not reach the recommended amounts. You have more information in the article on omega-3 fatty acids.

IS IT A LACK OF IRON IN A STRICT VEGETARIAN DIET?

Studies indicate that it is not an issue you should worry about. The incidences of iron deficiency anemia are not higher in vegans than in omnivores.

The iron present in vegetables (non-heme) has worse assimilation. However, the abundant presence of vitamin C improves its absorption. In addition, over time the body ends up optimizing the use of smaller iron stores.

However, Gibson-Smith et al. (2020) have found lower iron levels in vegan female climbers.

CALCIUM IN A VEGAN DIET

Vegans show lower calcium intake than lacto-ovo-vegetarians and omnivores. However, its absorption and retention are superior. In general, your bone health is usually adequate.

Dairy has always been recommended for strong bones. However, there are also many other factors, often underestimated: vitamin D and sun exposure, physical exercise, sufficient protein intake; and avoiding processed foods, alcohol, and tobacco. Vitamin D2 (dietary) is also present in some fermented products.

It should be noted that mushrooms and fungi are the only foods of non-animal origin that have vitamin D among their nutrients. So they can not be missing from your usual diet. Although nothing better than safe exposure to the sun.

Vitamin K2 also supports healthy bones. Vegan sources are natto (fermented soybeans) and sauerkraut (fermented cabbage).

RECOMMENDED SPORTS SUPPLEMENTS FOR VEGAN CLIMBERS

Some supplements can help you improve your climbing performance:

CREATINE: Present in foods of animal origin, creatine monohydrate must be the sports supplement with the most scientific support. But, in addition to improving explosive movements and recovery from training, it also shows benefits at a neurological level. Several studies recommend creatine supplementation for vegans (Benton and Donohoe, 201; Van Bavel et al, 2019). You can read more about its benefits in this article on creatine for climbers. Buy a vegan one with the Creapure quality seal.
BETA-ALANINE: Supplement of interest for climbers. It is a precursor of carnosine, whose levels in vegans are lower. Beta-Alanine works as an intramuscular buffer, delaying fatigue. There are vegan options. More information is in the article about beta-alanine for climbers.
AMINO ACIDS: A way to ensure a complete organization chart. If you decide to buy, look at the leucine content. One option is to acquire this amino acid (leucine) independently, or in the form of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) to promote better protein resynthesis.
PROTEINS: Supplementing with protein can make life easier during rock trips in the van and the work of meeting the necessary minimums. They are comfortable to transport and consume. It is best to take one that combines different fonts to get a better organizational chart (like this one).
CAFFEINE: A pleasant ergogenic aid to consume (if you like coffee, tea, or mate), as well as simple. Read this article about the scientific evidence for caffeine for climbers and their performance.
BEET JUICE: Beet provides nitrates, which improve sports performance. Taking it in the form of juice is a comfortable way to ingest the relevant amount. More information is in the article on nitrates and beet juice for climbing.

HOW MANY VEGETARIANS AND VEGANS ARE THERE?

Although it is on the rise, the adherence rate of the vegetarian diet seems to be similar to all those shown by diets that are too restrictive. I have tried to compare data and I have not found it. If anyone knows of any recent and rigorous studies, I will be happy to update this part.

I have read references with very varied data. A 2014 study showed a dropout rate of 84% to one from 2018 which indicated a dropout rate of 58%. Both were made in Great Britain. Apparently, another Epic-Oxford study shows that 73% of those surveyed in 1990 are still vegan today. However, I haven’t been able to find it.

The only current statistical analysis that I have read and in national territory indicates that in the USA, the data of the “veggie” adult population is divided into (Lantern, 2021):

1.4% vegetarians.
0.8% vegan.

Although women are the majority, the number of men has grown.

Vegans appear to show greater adherence than vegetarians do. In other words, those people who adopt a vegan lifestyle in all facets of their lives maintain it longer than those who only carry out nutritional patterns. Surely, the ethical motives of the former will be linked to greater conviction.

SEMIVEGETARIANOS: OVOLACTOVEGETARIANOS, PESCETARIANOS Y FLEXITARIANOS

However, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Directly practicing a vegan diet can be tricky. But there are other options, all of them potentially healthy and sustainable for the planet.

This is the case for semi-vegetarians. Some examples are:

Ovoclatovegetarians, add eggs and dairy to the diet.
Pescetarians. Those who practice a vegetarian diet with fish.
Flexitarians are on the rise (10.8% in the USA). They are people who normally do not eat meat. However, they will not be deprived on occasion; especially for social reasons.

Added to these trends are social movements such as “Meatless Monday”. The networks are giving voice to this type of current, helping to achieve great goals through individual actions.

HOW MANY VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN CLIMBERS ARE THERE

Peoples et al. (2018) carried out a study on the different dietary practices and consumption of supplements among Anglo-Saxon climbers. 775 climbers participated in a survey and were divided into 3 groups: elite, advanced, and intermediate.

Some points to note:

The omnivorous diet was the most common without much difference between levels (elite 60%; advanced 56%; intermediate 61%).
The presence of the vegan diet was: elite 7% advanced 6%, intermediate 4%.
Protein consumption, especially focused on recovery, was higher in higher-level climbers (elite 68%, advanced 69%, and intermediate 55%).
Most gave importance to nutrition, especially hydration, and pre-and post-training intake.
Caffeine is the most used ergogenic aid, especially by elite climbers (elite 51%, advanced 40%, intermediate 33%).

Gibson-Smith et al. (2020), in a later study, with 40 participants, point out that 12.5% ​​of the climbers reported being vegan and 15% vegetarian.

Protein intake in vegan climbers was significantly lower than omnivores.
The amount of iron in vegan climbers was the lowest, and caution was advised.
POPULAR VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN CLIMBERS

Getting to know some of the world’s elite figures will help you see what it is possible to combine performance and health with a vegetarian diet:

ALEX HONNOLD

The popular American climber has been following a Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for a number of years. Alex Honnold is known for his big-wall free solo ascents, as well as for holding multiple speed records climbing Yosemite.

Honnold leads a simple life. Before getting married he was in his van, in which she didn’t even have a fridge. He claims to have a preference for mac & cheese for dinner.

In his case, the reason for adopting this eating pattern is ecological awareness. Another example of this is the Honnold Foundation, which carries out social aid tasks worldwide.

“When I’m pushing my limits or pushing my limits in training, a planned diet is just the extra I need,” says Honnold.

She often supports her diet with the consumption of vegan protein powders. This ensures that your requirements are met. In fact, he is an investor in and co-owner of Momentous, a sports supplement company that, with Honnold’s advice, is developing plant-based proteins.

CARMONA OF URCO

Spanish climber who has been a world champion in para climbing competitions. Urko Carmona has been a strict vegetarian since he was born. In his case, for a cultural reason. And really, every time I have been lucky enough to be invited to a dinner in his van, it has been a real pleasure. When he cooks, he fills the entire parking lot with exotic aromas.

Urko, in addition to being a great climber, is a great truck cook. In his van-pantry, there is one of the largest collections of spices in the entire national territory.

STEPH DAVIS

Stephanie Davis is an American climber. She also bases jumps with a parachute and wingsuit. She was the first woman to climb “Freerider” freestyle, the mythical route that Alex Honnold did alone. That same ascent made her the second woman, after Lynn Hill, to free climb El Capitan.

She was also the first climber to ascend, together with her late ex-husband Dean Potter, the “Egger Tower”. She soloed the north face of Castleton Tower, jumping from the top with her parachute. It has up to 8a chained on big walls.

His adventurous facet also leads him to be part of different mountaineering expeditions. An example of passion for life.

Steph Davis states that in 2003 she began a vegan diet, absent refined and processed sugar. The results were so good that she still maintains it today.

BETHLEHEM VILLALON

The Chilean climber, with up to 8b/+ chained in sport climbing, is a strict vegetarian. Her reasons are ethical and her love for animals.

Currently, Belén Villalón lives in her caravan. In this video, recorded in Rodellar, he talks about his experiences traveling and climbing the peninsula.

HEATHER WEIDNER

American climber who loves yoga and vegetarian cuisine. In fact, she has been on this type of meatless diet for more than 20 years. In her case, she practices the ovalacto vegetarian option. She counts in her notebook with hard routes, up to 8c.

MANI THE MONKEY

Vegan Austrian climber. He has a youtube channel where he posts videos on training and vegan sports nutrition. The truth is that I did not know him before, but the references that come to me are quite positive.

ALEX MEGOS

The very strong German climber became vegan in 2021. In his case, he has done so because he believes it is the best for the planet.

Since then it is common to see him eating carrots in the sectors with a shirt that says “Carrots for Power” (Carrots for power).

PLANT-BASED DIET

Some time ago, I wrote an article looking for the healthiest food. In it, he based the diet on three parameters:

Evolutionary adaptation to food. This part rejects most of the ultra-processed.
Its nutritional density, highlights vegetables.
The adherence. If a diet is too restrictive and complicated, you will end up abandoning it.

I believe that any healthy diet will be made up mostly of vegetables. I tried the vegetarian diet for a while, and it didn’t work for me. However, I eat so many vegetables that I am often asked if I am vegan. I also do vegan days a couple of times a month. The objective is the rotation of amino acids together with a hormetic dose of gluten, which I practically do not usually consume.

Most of the studies that give superiority to the vegan option compare it with a Western diet based on processed foods. But there are not those who compare both diets using quality products.

In fact, Vanacore et al. (2018) point out that a restrictive vegan diet cannot prevent the onset of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, nor protect against oxidative damage.

Also, most vegetarians are health-conscious people. Therefore, they play sports and avoid bad habits. It would be necessary to take care that the omnivorous participants had the same daily practices.

That a vegetarian diet can be better than a typical Western diet is obvious. But there are many more healthy and less complicated options. In fact, Lacto-ovo vegetarians and pescetarians have lower risks of coronary heart disease than strict vegetarians (Key et al., 1999).

The latest Cochrane review still finds no evidence of better protection against cardiovascular disease from a vegan diet (Rees et al., 2021).

Regarding sports performance, most studies equate that achieved by omnivores and vegetarians in endurance sports. However, I haven’t found anything serious about strength.

Nutrition is a very personal subject. One diet cannot be recommended for everyone, all the time. Chrononutrition adapted to the environment, your biorhythm, and/or the time of planning will help you improve your metabolic flexibility and your health.

In the United States, the consumption of processed meat was associated with increased mortality (Wang et al., 2016). Today, with the Internet, it’s easy to get grass-fed, free-range meat. If meat consumption is reduced, other more ethical and sustainable livestock farming would be possible.

FINAL WORDS

Adopting a vegan lifestyle requires conviction. Eating a strict vegetarian diet for an organism that developed by feeding on animals and their derivatives poses a certain challenge. I affirm my admiration and respect for all those who decide to take this path for their ethical and moral ideals.

The only difference between a vegetarian and omnivorous diet should be where the protein comes from. The number of vegetables should be equivalent in both cases. The problem with many people is that it is “all or nothing.”

Adopting this type of diet frees the imagination in the kitchen to create colorful dishes, with endless spices at your fingertips.

On the Internet there are certain infographics that compare the protein content of vegetables with products of animal origin, placing them above. It makes no sense to say that 100g of broccoli has more protein than 100g of meat. Meat, in addition to providing a quantity 10 times higher, is higher quality protein.

If you want to go deeper, I recommend Lucia Martinez’s book “Vegetarians with Science”. Lucia is the creator of the blog “Tell me what you eat”, a nutritionist, and a disseminator for years.

I believe that so many vegans in the world should not be wrong. Surely, they have found a good food option for them. But that it works for them does not mean its universal validity. Start by testing and paying attention to the signals that your body sends you.

The situation of climbers is not that of the average sedentary population. If you want to demand performance from your body both in training sessions at the climbing wall and on long days on the rock, you must be well nourished. Keep in mind that an improvement in the most superficial aspects, such as weight, can hide a lack of nutrients (proteins, B12, omega 3, and certain vitamins…) that end up in some chronic discomfort. But the same goes for a vegetarian as for any other climber who consumes animal products.

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