How Does a Vegan Diet Affect Athletic Performance?
Unived is an Indian company that makes a wide range of natural, vegan health foods and supplements, including sports nutrition products used by some of the world’s top ultrarunners. We were interested in learning something about the intersection of veganism and endurance sport, so we decided to ask Unived founder Amit Mehta a few questions. Mehta founded Unived in Mumbai in 2010, offering five products, including three health teas, and today the company manufactures 135 products, including vitamins and minerals, protein powders, nutritional supplements and superfoods. Unived is in the process of moving to a new 20,000 sq. ft. production facility “amidst nature”, a two-hour drive from Mumbai, and plans to continue to expand its product offerings, but always within its “natural, vegan” mandate.
RDRC: Amit, I assume you are a vegetarian, and possibly vegan as well? Have you always been vegetarian (obviously something that is much more likely in India, which has so many vegetarians), or is that a change you made at some point, and if it is, what prompted it?
Amit Mehta: I was born in a vegetarian family, so I grew up vegetarian. I did dabble with fish and meat when I went off to college, but while my mind wanted to eat it (for protein!), my body seemed to reject it; I suffered from indigestion, felt sluggish, got acne, and just felt in an overall unhealthy state. I was 20 and started reading into food and nutrition, and the role it plays in athletic performance. Before too long, I switched back to being vegetarian and then soon enough turned vegan.
RDRC: How did you think the change might affect your life as an athlete, and how has it affected your life as an athlete, if at all?
Amit: I turned vegan for health reasons, and have remained vegan for health and ethical reasons. It’s important to note that ‘plant-based’ and vegan are quite different. Plant-based individuals may eat a vegan diet, but do not live a vegan lifestyle. Being vegan is all-encompassing and entails a life of compassion and non-violence that outgrows just diet to involve all aspects and choices of life. It has had a profound effect on my mental and physical health, and most importantly on my near-immediate recovery from hard workouts. It also keeps me lean, and full of energy.
RDRC: When and why did you start Unived? I assume you had just a handful of products at the outset, and now you have quite a big range. What was the goal then, and how have your goals evolved since then?
Amit: Unived was founded in September 2010. The ‘why’ is a little complex – I had graduated with an MBA, I had to do something with my life, I was passionate about sports and nutrition, so I decided to jump off the cliff, without a parachute and with no idea about how far & fast I would fall.
We launched our first products in 2012 – 5 products, to be precise. A range of three health teas, plus Omega-3 and Red Yeast Rice. We now have 135 finished goods that we manufacture and market, and they’ve all been originally researched and manufactured by us.
The idea was to do something ‘creative’, which I define as ‘producing something original, of true value’. That was the goal on day one, and remains the goal today. The outcome seems to have changed, dramatically, as we navigate product verticals and markets, and as we aim to continue to remain relevant and refreshing to our customers.
RDRC: Unived is one of the world’s leading makers of vegan sports nutrition products, and you sponsor quite a few elite athletes (including Hayden Hawks and Rajpal Pannu, who wowed us in finishing second to Jim Walmsley in the Hoka One One Carbon x2 100K a couple of months ago). What can you share from that world (the world of elite vegan athletes) about nutrition and training/racing as a vegan that might be helpful to non-elite athletes?
Amit: There are a lot of myths around being a vegan athlete; for some reason, people seem to think one cannot perform to their best on a vegan diet. The no truth to that sentiment, and conversely, we are seeing athletes performing, outperforming, and optimally performing on a vegan diet and with vegan supplements.
The elite vegan athlete focuses largely on unprocessed and wholesome food habits – fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, lentils, as well as good complex carbohydrates. There is enough and more for the body to recover and perform, optimally.
The first change athletes experience when converting from a non-vegetarian to a vegan diet is the almost instant reduction in recovery time, less inflammation, and more energy throughout the day.
RDRC: Over the past few years a number of athletes (Venus Williams, Kyrie Irving, Lewis Hamilton) have publicly announced they are vegan, and that has stimulated a lot of interest among the rest of us. A bunch more (Mike Wardian, Ellie Greenwood, Sage Canaday) are vegetarian. At the same time, I don't think there's a lot of advice on making the transition. How would you recommend that athletes who are interested in giving vegetarianism/veganism a try make the transition without sacrificing health or performance?
Amit: Transitioning towards a vegan diet is actually very easy and simple. It takes 21 days to reset our palate, so we always recommend undertaking a 21-day challenge. No meat or dairy for 21 days straight, only wholesome plant-based foods. You are guaranteed to notice changes within these 21 days – changes in emotional and physical health. Most likely, on day 22, you’re left with a clear distinction between your older self and your new self, and you can make an informed decision about which direction you’d like to continue in.
RDRC: Unived produces quite a lot of vitamins and nutrition supplements. What’s the reason behind producing these? How do they support athletic performance and general health?
Amit: Nutrition for athletes is not limited to just performance fuel. We train for only an hour or two every day. The rest of the time is spent eating, drinking and working. Vitamins and minerals, supplements, superfoods, proteins, these are all crucial to our overall health and wellbeing. Most athletes require additional nutrition support, in the form of D3 and B12 (which are the most common), and also in the form of minerals such as magnesium, calcium and zinc.
We have a lot of athletes who consume our natural marine magnesium at night before bed, it helps improve quality of sleep and recovery adaptations. Many use our CoQ10 (anti-ageing), or our KSM-66 which is another fantastic powerhouse natural Ashwagandha root extract that is clinically proven to improve sleep quality, muscle size and recovery.
We have also recently launched a new Performance Nutrition range with products such as Creatine Monohydrate, Beta-Alanine, Taurine, ALCAR, MCT, and beet-derived nitrates.
RDRC: From the Unived product range, what would you recommend for running newbies, for strength athletes, and for long-distance endurance athletes?
For strength athletes, I recommend Pea Protein, Creatine Monohydrate, ALCAR, Elite Beet-420 and Marine Magnesium.
And for endurance athletes, again Salt Capsules, Gels, Elite Gels, Elite Drink Mix and Recovery Mix, plus Marine Magnesium & Elite Beet-420.
These things are all aimed at helping athletes recover faster from tough training sessions, and maintaining overall health, which is also critical to performance.
Many thanks to Amit for talking to us, and you can find RDRC’s Unived products here, and the main Unived website here. If you're curious about any aspect of nutrition – either for athletic performance or day-to-day life, please don't hesitate to come in to the shop to talk to us.