How veganism helped fuel Hamilton to F1 glory


The Briton has always looked forward to his bread and butter, of course. Grand Prix weekends will always set the pulse racing.

But it is his morning routine which has been transformed. Breakfast has never been so mouthwateringly tasty.

“I used to get to my summer or winter break and the first thing I’d do when I arrived in the morning was have a stack of pancakes,” Hamilton tells CNN’s The Circuit.

“It’s exciting when you’ve gone the whole year not having them, but now I’m having them every weekend and they still taste amazing.

“It’s crazy. I’m not putting more weight on because, with this new plant-based diet, I can have more carbs which is contradictory of what you’d normally have thought diet-wise, but I’m not going to complain, I love pancakes so it’s great.”

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It was in September that Hamilton revealed that, for health and environmental reasons, he was to become a vegan, removing all animal-based products — meat, seafood, dairy, even honey — from his diet.

There were those who questioned this mid-season lifestyle change. They talked of the potential harm to his “racing edge,” of a possible drop in testosterone, and of protein, iron and Vitamin D deficiency, all nutrients which meat easily provides.

But such a dietary change during the F1 campaign did not do the 32-year-old any harm. Two months after announcing his switch, Hamilton won the world title, creating history in the process by becoming the first Briton to win four F1 world titles.

Far from being a negative, the new diet has made Hamilton feel, he says, “better than ever.”

“I feel amazing. It’s the best I’ve ever felt in my life,” Hamilton, whose historic season will come to an end this weekend at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, says.

“Physically I feel the best I’ve ever felt. I feel incredibly clean and healthy.”

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The Briton has said he had decided to change his diet after watching a documentary about the meat industry and its potential effects on the environment, animal welfare and human health.

Many studies have been conducted on the impact the livestock sector has on global greenhouse gas emissions — an assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicated it exceeded that of transportation.

There is also plenty of evidence to support the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

Followed correctly, it tends to contain oodles of fiber, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E, while it is also a diet low in saturated fat, which can reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.

A study carried out by the Vegan Society, which was formed in 1944, found that the number of vegans in Britain had grown by 360% in the last 10 years, with some 542,000 people aged 15 or over adopting a plant-based diet.

It has never been easier to be vegan and though Hamilton is not the first sportsperson to go meat free — tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams became vegans in 2012 — it is still rare for elite athletes to solely follow such a diet.

Hollywood celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Ellen DeGeneres and Brad Pitt may enthusiastically talk of the virtues of veganism, but they do not rely on their athletic prowess to fuel their greatness. it is not essential to their trade that their bodies be machine-like in efficiency.

For elite athletes poor nutrition is catastrophic. Too little protein and the mind will start to lose focus when speed of thought is of the essence, too many carbohydrates and the body may begin to slow under the weight of the extra brawn.

For those striving for sporting perfection, every nutrient has a purpose, every calorie must be accounted for.

But discipline and focus is part of an athlete’s habitual routine which is why nutritionist Tara Ostrowe, a consultant for top athletes and teams — she worked with French Ligue 1 champions Monaco last season — says it is possible for elite athletes to get all the nutrients they need from a vegan diet.

“He needs to be extra disciplined … it sometimes makes it a little bit more difficult being a vegan athlete,” Ostrowe tells CNN Sport, reflecting on the dietary challenges potentially faced by Hamilton and other vegan athletes.

“Racing is both physically and mentally demanding so he needs to make sure he’s getting top nutrition to obtain peak performance in the car and that he’s following good recovery practices.

“He has to be careful that he’s meeting his protein needs, but he can absolutely get that in his diet, as long as he’s making some good choices.”

Protein, a macronutrient commonly found in animal products, is essential to building muscle mass and is particularly important after exercise when muscles are particularly receptive to protein synthesis.

Someone who exerts as much energy as the 1.74m Hamilton needs, according to Ostrowe, around 1.4g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, which equates to 95g of protein a day. Those of us who do not follow Hamilton’s lung-busting training routines will need about 0.8-1.0g of protein per kilo.

While 251g of steak would have given Hamilton 62g of protein, 248g of tofu only provides 20g of protein and 200g of chickpeas has about 39g of protein. His dietary change will have given him plenty of food for thought.

“If his protein sources are low, I’d recommend a protein shake 30 minutes after training. That is something I’d recommend for vegan athletes anyway,” says Ostrowe.

But there are potential pitfalls, even for multimillionaire vegans (The Sunday Times reports that the Briton has a £131 million [$174 million] fortune.)

Iron deficiency can be a problem for many athletes, be they carnivores or vegans.

“Animal protein is a high source of iron so he needs to make sure when he has iron-rich food he combines it with food rich in vitamin C food because that helps with absorption of the iron from non-meat sources,” says Ostrowe.

“For example, if he’s having oatmeal in the morning, then he needs to add strawberries or blueberries to help with the absorption.

“Every single day he would need to take additional multi-vitamins. In a vegan athlete, vitamin D — which plays a huge role in a lot of body functions — and calcium tend to be difficult to get and B12, crucial in the formation of red blood cells, is very difficult to get.”

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