How might Lewis Hamilton’s vegan diet affect his pursuit of Formula One greatness?
Citing an increased awareness of his carbon footprint among his reasons, Lewis Hamilton announced his intentions to go vegan in September – and now he’s Formula One world champion, again.
Of course, the two are not necessarily related, but might veganism have a part to play in Hamilton’s future in the sport? And if so, what obstacles does the four-time world champion have to overcome?
What challenges will Hamilton face?
Nutritionist Rob Hobson explained some of the challenges that switching to a vegan diet entails.
“There’s no real alternative to fish, and there’s no really good alternative way of getting omega 3 in your diet either,” he said. “You can get it from some plant food but it’s converted really badly in the body.”
He also said: “You need to make sure you’re getting plenty of high-fat foods in your diet, good fats, so avocados and oils as well. Otherwise you’re just existing on whole grains and vegetables which is not going to give you any calories.”
That said, Hobson was keen to point out that, with a Formula One team supporting Hamilton especially, it’s more than achievable to make the switch successfully.
“It’s about getting the balance right,” he said. “As long as you get the balance right, I think you can make it work for anything.”
What benefits might Hamilton experience?
Nigel Mitchell is a performance nutritionist at the English Institute of Sport, a team behind many of Great Britain’s most successful sports, who has worked in Formula One with McLaren. He mentioned one aspect of Hamilton’s preparations that might benefit from a vegan diet.
“One of the things that probably is a benefit is that it’s much easier to keep your weight down if you’re following a plant-based diet,” he said.
“I’ve worked in Formula One and a lot of the drivers are really trying to minimise their weight so they’re faster in the car.
“You’re cutting out so many calories from your dairy, from your eggs, from your meat, although obviously it depends on how much you were eating before.”
F1 also demands intense concentration, but not everybody agrees whether or not Hamilton would see a change in that department.
“In terms of sports performance there may be improvements in cognitive function as a result of consuming more antioxidants from foods such as berries, and omega-3 from foods such as walnuts and chia seeds,” said Debbie Smith, a lecturer in applied sport and exercise nutrition at Leeds Beckett University.
But Mitchell wasn’t as sure, saying: “Some people talk about an increase in antioxidants, but the evidence for that is really quite low.
“You can get all of that from a mixed diet, so I wouldn’t see that there’s any massive nutritional gains from it. Anybody eating a diet that is containing meat can still get all of the vegetables.”
What does Hamilton need to keep an eye on?
Of course, there are also pitfalls to avoid for anyone making the vegan switch – Mitchell recommended supplements for vegan athletes, while Smith pointed to what can happen if you miss out on certain things.
“Too little B12 can result in fatigue and nerve damage, limited iodine can impact metabolism and low zinc can limit the processing of nutrients in foods which can all negatively impact performance,” she said.
“A vegan athlete would usually need to supplement these nutrients.
“The long-term effects of a vegan diet in athletes are thought to be lower bone mineral density and increased risk of stress fractures,” she continued. “Although calcium (needed for bone health) and iron is often highlighted as a concern, in my opinion athletes can often meet these requirements from green leafy veg, nuts and seeds.
“And with vitamin D supplementation, we better absorb calcium from the diet.”
What’s the verdict then?
The consensus is that Hamilton shouldn’t experience many negative effects, assuming he consumes the required nutrients – but what effects do the experts expect to see?
Smith said that while his vegan diet shouldn’t impede him, there isn’t any evidence she’s aware of that suggests Hamilton will gain an edge on his rivals.
“There aren’t any studies to my knowledge that demonstrate a vegan diet to be superior to a mixed diet in athletes,” she said. “But case studies do tend to show that athletes consuming a vegan diet can perform just as well despite the common concerns of lower nutrients intakes.”
David Rogerson, a sports nutritionist at Sheffield Hallam University, said it’s difficult to predict how Hamilton will fare on a vegan diet.
“It’s tough to say, because very little research has been done on veganism in a sport context,” he said. “So we’re speculating about a lot of things that we don’t really know about.
“I’d be very interested as a casual observer to see how he gets on.”
Will a vegan diet help or hinder Hamilton’s efforts to move closer to Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world drivers’ championships? The world of sports nutrition is apparently keen to find out.