There is a common stereotype that successful athletes only subsist on rare meats and raw eggs. But there’s an ever-growing list of vegans who are questioning everything we thought we knew about optimal sports nutrition.
One of them is Noah Hannibal, an Australian bodybuilder who holds two national bench press records. He also competed in Mr America on an all-vegan team called plant constructiontake home a gold medal in sports.
Hannibal has been a vegan since 1991 and claims he has never eaten meat in his life. He transitioned from vegetarianism after learning about the dairy and egg industry at the age of 15.
He decided to do strength training in the mid-’90s after a bodybuilder he knew mocked vegans for being “weak.” Hannibal challenged him to an arm wrestle and practiced for six months before “banging his hand on the table.”
Hannibal spoke with them Plant Based News (PBN) about his career, breaking down stereotypes and the challenges he had to face in the process.
Overcoming misconceptions about veganism
A well-planned plant-based diet has been shown in numerous studies to be optimal for human health. But there remains a common misconception that vegans are weak and generally less fit than meat eaters.
“When I first started powerlifting, a national coach told me to go get a steak and come back as soon as I had it,” he says PBN. “And then I just started lifting and competing and doing it well.”
This misconception is largely due to the fact that many people mistakenly believe that protein only comes from meat. And this despite the fact that protein deficiency is extremely rare in veganism. Numerous medical professionals have found that fiber deficiency is the real problem in meat eaters.
According to herbalist Michael Greger, it is very unlikely for the average vegan is protein deficient if they eat enough calories in a day.
Of course, athletes in general need more than the average vegan. But that’s easy to maintain with a plant-based diet, says Hannibal. The bodybuilder aims to consume 200g per day, which he consumes through foods like tofu, seitan, tempeh, and protein shakes.
Veganism has proven to be not only acceptable, but optimal nutrition for athletes.
According to a 2021 study by the University of BerkeleyA plant-based diet may “help athletes improve performance by reducing weight, creating leaner physiques, and improving endurance.”
A separate to learn investigated whether a plant-based diet is detrimental to endurance and muscle strength. It found that vegans and meat eaters had comparable levels of physical activity, body mass index, body fat percentage, lean body mass, and muscle strength. However, vegans were also found to have significantly higher estimated VO2 max (the amount of oxygen the body can use during exercise) and submaximal endurance time to exhaustion.
Hannibal won his two bench press records at national drug-approved federations in Australia and America.
One of the reasons he competes in drug-tested competitions is that vegan athletes have often been accused by competitors of using steroids. Some people just can’t believe anyone is able to compete at this level while adopting a plant-based diet.
Because of this, Hannibal, along with a number of other vegan athletes, has been accused of using fake weights or Photoshopped images.
“There’s always an excuse when people see a strong vegan,” he says PBN. “But nobody can argue with the national records. They’re just a good thing to show that you can be strong on a vegan diet.”
The future of vegan sport
Hannibal competed with 20 other vegan athletes on the world’s largest vegan team at Mr. America in Atlantic City in October. The team picked up a total of 18 medals: eight first places, five second places and five third places. The team fought against mostly non-vegan athletes in bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebell sports, and CrossFit.
Hannibal believes the misconceptions surrounding veganism and strength are changing and that “more and more” people are opening up to the idea.
Vegan exercise, he says, is a “good form of activism” because it “opens the mind and breaks down prejudices that you can’t gain strength as a vegan.”