Can Athletes Thrive on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

Ask the Pros Q&A

Q: Can you be an athlete and thrive on a whole food plant-based diet?

A: There is a longstanding myth that to be a successful athlete you must get large amounts of protein – primarily from animal sources. We have already established that plants have plenty of protein and if protein deficiency in plant-based individuals were an issue, why do we see top-notch athletes like Seba Johnson, Olympic skier, Patrik Baboumian, a world-record-holding powerlifter, Derrick Morgan, pro NFL player,  Venus Williams, tennis pro, Rich Roll, ultramarathoner, and Alex Morgan, soccer pro all follow a plant-based diets?

Evidence shows that not eating animal products can actually help your fitness goals. “A plant-based diet is the winning choice for athletes who want to attain and maintain their ideal weight, gain strength, improve endurance, and speed recovery,” says Barnard Medical Center director James Loomis. A scientific review shows that a plant-based diet helps athletes reduce body fat, improve heart health, and fight oxidative stress and inflammation. There are four areas of athletic performance that are shown to improve on whole food plant-based diets.

1)      Plants provide optimal fuel. Muscles run primarily on glycogen, a form of carbohydrate stored in our liver and muscle. Carbohydrates, which come almost exclusively from plants, also provide our brain with its primary and preferred fuel, glucose, which helps us stay focused during intense training sessions and competitions. Performance-based diets built around meat and other animal products often provide dietary fat at the expense of carbohydrates. Unlike carbohydrates, fat can’t produce energy fast enough to meet the demands of intense exercise, so diets that sacrifice carbohydrates typically impair high-intensity performance. Low-carbohydrate diets, including the ketogenic diet, have been shown to cause so much fatigue that they even affect our motivation to begin a training session, let alone finish it.

2)      Increased blood flow. A single animal-based meal can quickly thicken our blood, which slows down the flow of oxygen and the nutrients blood transports to the areas that need it most, including the muscles we use during exercise. People who avoid meat experience the opposite effect since plant-based meals allow blood to remain fluid and flow quickly to its destination. There are also common ingredients found in plant-based foods – nitrates which are found in foods like spinach, lettuce, carrots, and beets that actually signal our blood vessels to open, allowing more blood to flow through them at a faster pace.

3)      Improved muscle efficiency. The energy reserves our muscles use for intense training or competition are limited, and when we run out, we’ve reached the end of the line. The more efficiently our muscles work, the further these energy reserves can take us. In addition to encouraging our arteries to expand, the nitrates found in plant foods also allow our muscles to contract more efficiently, sparing their energy reserves and allowing them to accomplish more work with the same amount of effort. This translates into measurably better performance, whether it’s lifting weights at the gym, playing football, or running sprints.

4)      Reduced inflammation. Extensive research has shown that meat and other animal products contain (or lead to the formation of) a wide range of pro-inflammatory compounds and molecules. The damage they inflict can be severe, with research showing that a single hamburger can increase measures of inflammation by 70 percent.  

For more information on the benefits of plant-based eating for athletes please check out the  Gamechangers Movie.

 

References:

Barnard ND, Goldman DM, Loomis JF, Kahleova H, Levin SM, Neabore S, Batts TC. Plant-based diets for cardiovascular safety and performance in endurance sports. Nutrients. 2019 Jan;11(1): pii: E130.

Kanter M. High-quality carbohydrates and physical performance: Expert panel report. Nutr Today. 2018 Oct;53(1):35-9.

Jenner SL, Buckley GL, Belski R, Devlin BL, Forsyth AK. Dietary Intakes of Professional and Semi-Professional Team Sport Athletes Do Not Meet Sport Nutrition Recommendations — A Systematic Literature Review. Nutrients. 2019 May;11(5):1160.

Mosher SL, Sparks SA, Williams EL, Bentley DJ, Mc Naughton LR. Ingestion of a nitric oxide enhancing supplement improves resistance exercise performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Dec;30(12):3520-4.

Domínguez R, Maté-Muñoz JL, Cuenca E, et al. Effects of beetroot juice supplementation on intermittent high-intensity exercise efforts. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Jan;15:2.

Li Z, Wong A, Henning SM, Zhang Y, Jones A, Zerlin A, Thames G, Bowerman S, Tseng CH, Heber D. Hass avocado modulates postprandial vascular reactivity and postprandial inflammatory responses to a hamburger meal in healthy volunteers. Food Funct. 2013 Feb 26;4(3):384-91.


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