Ask the Fight Doc: Can vegan/vegeterian diets hinder fighters such as Jon Fitch?
by Dr. Johnny Benjamin on Feb 28, 2011 at 10:20 am ET
Ahead of his eventual majority draw with B.J. Penn at UFC 127, much of the pre-event discussion focused on Jon Fitch and his new vegan diet.
While once a massive welterweight who'd hit close to 200 pounds between fights, Fitch recently switch to an all-vegan diet that reportedly caused him to slim down prior to UFC 127.
Fitch finished strong in the third round at UFC 127, and his late-fight surge resulted in a pair of 10-8 scores that prevented a loss. But in our latest "Ask the Fight Doc" installment, MMAjunkie.com medical columnist Dr. Johnny Benjamin discusses whether Fitch's performance could have been affected by the dietary changes.
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J Beazy – There is a lot of talk leading up to UFC 127 and Jon Fitch going vegan. What's the real story about a vegetarian diet and MMA performance? "Gorgeous" George from MMAjunkie.com Radio
GG, the vegan-diet discussion seemed like a more popular topic than the fight itself. I'm with you, though, brother; I can't go without an occasional juicy steak or a piece of my late grandmother's famous fried chicken. (OK, watch the jokes!)
(Sidebar: How can you hate on a guy who calls himself "Gorgeous" to your face? That's my man!)
Vegetarian diets come in many, many forms, so it is a bit difficult – if not impossible – to lump them all together. Some vegans are strict and consume no meat whatsoever, and others limit meat or allow chicken and/or fish.
The common theme about vegetarian diets is that they usually are high in fiber and carbohydrates. Does this tend to enhance or hinder athletic performance?
Another confounding variable when discussing vegetarian diets as they pertain to potential MMA performance is the classification of the athlete. Is an elite MMA athlete an endurance athlete or a strength athlete? Their nutritional requirements and performance physiology can be quite different. I suggest that an elite MMA athlete is a hybrid.
Glucose is the primary fuel for the body. It is stored as glycogen, primarily in muscle. The most common source of glycogen is derived from carbohydrates. (FYI: Protein builds muscle mass, but carbs primarily build glycogen stores.)
Well-stocked glycogen stores in the muscle and will adequately fuel athletic competition lasting less than 90 minutes.
(FYI: Along with dehydration, depleted glycogen storage leading to poor performance is often related to extreme weight-cutting.)
Most performance nutritionists recommend a dietary goal with a carbs/protein/fat ratio of roughly 65/15/20. (This ratio is a little heavy on the protein for simplicity, but that's not entirely a bad thing for MMA athletes.)
As long as the total calorie intake remains constant between vegans and meat-eaters, it really doesn't matter the source – where it's plants or meat (we're obviously not talking junk food here). Also, with the abundance of high-quality supplements and vitamins, ingesting the necessary amounts of amino acids and trace minerals is not very difficult for vegetarians.
It is interesting that the medical research shows no significant difference (good or bad) in the athletic performance of endurance athletes who utilize a vegetarian or meat-rich diet.
If you question my conclusions (and you should), please start your reading with "Serum sex hormones and endurance performance after a lacto-ovo vegetarian and a mixed diet" (Nov. 1992 "The American College of Sports Medicine"). This article is the most widely cited peer-reviewed article, and it states: "In conclusion, six weeks on a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet caused a minor decrease in total testosterone and no significant changes in physical performance in male endurance athletes compared with six weeks on a mixed, meat-rich diet."
I can give you more references, but they are just as boring and reach a similar conclusion.
The take-home messages are to concentrate on carbs and not merely focus on protein intake since carbs are the primary source of fuel (glycogen that gets converted to glucose) for MMA competition that can last 15-25 intense minutes. Also, the source of those carbs isn't that important.
One potential benefit to a vegetarian lifestyle and not merely a training-camp diet is that an MMA athlete who chooses this path is likely to stay closer to his or her desired weight between camps, which reduces the need for extreme weight-cutting.
Finally, it's worth noting that eating sugar or honey just before an event does not provide any extra energy for the event. It takes about 30 minutes for the sugar to enter the bloodstream. This practice may also lead to dehydration because water is needed to absorb the sugar into the cells. Furthermore, sugar eaten before an event may hinder performance because it triggers a surge of insulin, which causes a sharp drop in blood-sugar level in about 30 minutes. Competing when the blood-sugar level is low leads to fatigue, nausea and dehydration.
That last point had nothing to do with this topic, but it's cool information nevertheless. And I didn't even ask you for your insurance card!
Dr. Johnny Benjamin is MMAjunkie.com's medical columnist and consultant and a noted combat-sports specialist. He is also a member of the Association of Boxing Commissions' MMA Medical Subcommittee. Dr. Benjamin writes an "Ask the Doc" column every two weeks for MMAjunkie.com. To submit a question for a future column, email him at askthedoc [AT] mmajunkie.com, or share your questions and thoughts in the comments section below. You can find Dr. Benjamin online at www.drjohnnybenjamin.com
, and you can read his other sports-related articles at blog.drjohnnybenjamin.com.