Meet The Nutritionist Who Helped Team GB Cyclists Get Olympic Gold And Then Turned Himself Into A Vegan Experiment

Nigel Mitchell joined British Cycling in 2000 and was the nutritional game-changer whose input into the marginal gains philosophy not only powered Team GB riders to unprecedented Olympic victory but also fuelled Team SKY in their pursuit of tour domination. He’s now nutrition advisor to the Education First Cannondale-Drapac Cycling Team, author of ‘Fueling The Cycling Revolution’ and a visiting lecturer in nutrition at the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Sport and Exercise Science.

He recently made himself the experiment in a bid to discover the implications a meat-free diet can have on physiology and the impact for cyclists. But what he found out prompted him to write a book for all endurance athletes looking to eat more ethically…

RSNG Why has cycling’s most influential nutritionist gone vegan – are you following the latest trend too? NIGEL MITCHELL, CYCLING NUTRITIONIST ‘Well, it goes back a long time to be honest. I’ve always had an interested in vegetarianism as my wife and my youngest son follow meat-free diets. I’m aware of its development in terms of the ‘trend’ and the availability of meat-free food, replacements through working with some vegan and vegetarian athletes too.’

‘I received a lot of criticism after filming a recovery advice video for a cycling channel (GCN) during one of the rest days of the Tour de France. I’d been talking about the importance of protein for recovery and citing foods like chicken and fish for cyclists. Unbeknown to me I was getting a lot of stick from vegans for recommending meat as the go-to source of race recovery food.’

I was getting a lot of stick from vegans for recommending meat as the go-to source of race recovery food

RSNG What was your reaction to being called out by the vegan lobby? NM ‘I actually thought, that’s quite a fair criticism. Because up until now society and cycling would lean towards what it had always tended to use. It tallied with more and more enquiries I was getting from cyclists who were interested in following a plant-based diet along with media requests for plant-based advice. As sportsmen like Lewis Hamilton and footballers (Hector Bellarin), began talking about following a vegan diet, so I thought I’d look deeper into it.’

RSNG What would cyclists have to worry about by going vegan? NM ‘Part of my aim going forward is to allay fears and also provide solid, evidence-based advice to men and women – though it’s predominantly men who are asking me about veganism – who want to go vegan and are worried about its effect on sports performance. I’ve heard some horror stories where people were going on vegan diet but not investigating the repercussions of not doing so properly; they were losing a vast amount of weight, including lean tissue, and suffering for it.’

‘My method, since my time at British Cycling, is to get a thorough understanding of a change in diet, and also to follow it myself. They key things for endurance athletes to consider when opting for a vegan diet is to still ensure they meet their energy requirements (3000-5000 kcal/ day according to size and training demands [you have to be doing an athlete’s training load to burn that] whilst also getting the nutrients that are easily obtained from meat, especially Vitamin B12 which is vital to blood cell function but not obtainable from plants.’

‘Iron intake from vegan foods can be a concern too because vegans only get this in non-haem form – plant-sourced iron – which isn’t so easily absorbed by the body but crucial to energy conversion.’

RSNG What did you do to adapt your diet? NM ‘I went full gas on plant-based foods only for 12 weeks – from the end of the cycling season up until Christmas Eve. That was my rationale. I wanted to find out, for the sake of those considering going vegan for health, environmental, ethical or whatever reasons – how it could be done.’

‘I sourced the bulk of my carbs from plant-based foods, I used some vegan supplements to cover the micronutrients and I measured my bloods (via my GP) to monitor my iron levels, cholesterol and any indication of deficiencies, along with my body fat composition using a set of bio-electrical impedance scales through the duration of the experiment.’

RSNG What did the blood checks tell you? NM ‘At the end of the three months my bloods revealed a moderate vitamin D deficiency. I had chosen not to take a vitamin D supplement and I think the fact that I chose to do this over the Autumn/ Winter when sunlight is scarce may have been the cause for this drop – the body naturally produces vitamin D when the sun shines.’

RSNG How do you feel the experiment benefitted you? NM ‘The experiment had a profound effect both physically and emotionally. I didn’t struggle with it, which surprised me. I thought I would miss meat or dairy, but I did not. I focused a lot more on my food sourcing and my meal making, which improved over the period as I developed some vegan recipes myself too.’

‘I felt better and less fatigued – despite increasing my exercise routine. I went to the gym three times a week, went running two to three times a week and did several cycle rides a week totalling between six and nine hours. My power output increased by 60 watts over the period, I shed 7kg of fat and I’ve since greatly reduced my meat intake. Whilst I wouldn’t claim that going vegan improved my performance, it certainly didn’t impede it.’

My power output increased, I shed 7kg of fat and I’ve greatly reduced my meat intake

RSNG But you wouldn’t advise going ‘meat-free’ without supplementation too? NM ‘I wouldn’t. Endurance athletes need to be aware that a direct swap from cow’s milk to dairy free will affect your nutritional intake. Unless the dairy free or soya milk is fortified with calcium then it tends to be very low in protein (especially oat milk and almond milk).’

‘They should also be aware that it can take time to become deficient in some micronutrients, B12 in particular, which is fortified in foods like Marmite. Also they need to ensure they maintain their iodine levels, which you can get in seaweed and is also fortified in salt. Vitamin D3, sourced from lanolin – an animal byproduct – needs to be sourced from a vegan version.’

‘I used a vegan protein supplement shake and for the all-important omega-3 fats – so crucial to muscle health and development, which many non-vegans source from fish and fish oils – I sourced them through flax seeds. But even then you need to have milled flax seed, if it’s not mushed up it passes right through the digestive chain. You can also get synthesized omega-3 supplements that are completely vegan.’

RSNG So you’d advise athletes considering a switch to a vegan diet to do their homework before going the whole hog? NM ‘Absolutely. I advise all athletes regardless of diet to put value in getting their biomarkers taken regularly, to monitor their body composition and identify any nutritional needs. Not all GPs are as accommodating as mine, but there are plenty of online sources for blood testing these days. It’s also the case that a plant-based diet may be less energy dense than a regular diet, so you will need to eat a greater bulk in food for the same energy.’

‘I know from my post-bag these days that more and more athletes at all levels are looking into the vegan option. I’m now on a mission to enable them to do that safely, healthily and in a manner that won’t impinge on their success.’

WHAT NEXT? Whilst Nigel continues to research the effect of veganism for endurance athletes you can investigate meat-free endurance athlete’s meals for eve of race energy, event day snacks and recovery meals – see Vegan Foods for Athletes with Rich Roll and Karen Smith.

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.