Lifestyle

Is a Plant-Based Diet the Answer to Becoming a Better Athlete?

It’s been almost two months since I started training for the TCS 2019 NYC Marathon and it’s been quite an experience. In order to get in tip-top shape, I knew I’d have to make a couple of changes. This meant organizing my schedule to make sure I made time to get my daily runs in, getting enough rest, drinking more water, and even switching up my diet a bit. I was a vegetarian for about 11 years (for other health reasons) until I decided to add back lean meats into my diet. And even though I felt healthy with some animal protein in my diet, as I embarked on this new journey, I decided I wanted to switch things up. I’d picked up running back in the day while I was a vegetarian and found that it did a good job keeping me fueled up. In fact, I learned that there are some athletes who are transitioning into plant-based diets because they believe it helps their athletic performance. But is it worth all the hype? 

A Plant-Based Diet Is Beneficial When Done Right

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Some studies have even found that endurance athletes, who are prone to certain heart conditions, are more protected while eating plant-based diets. “Athletes will absolutely benefit from the constant influx of vitamins, minerals and other compounds found in plants, as they support optimal body function, cell function, and energy production,” Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM says.

Adding more plants to your diet has also been shown to lower the risk of developing heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes and may slow cognitive decline in older adults. Although there’s been a rise in athletes going more plant-based, Ritanne Duszack, MS, RD, LDN, certified Level 1 Coach by both USA Track and Field (USATF) and USA Triathlon (USAT), and owner of Prism Endurance, explains that there isn’t enough evidence that a plant-based diet improves performance. “Right now, there are only correlations and no direct evidence that a plant-based [diet] leads to improved performance,” she explains, “However, a well-planned plant-based diet can meet all of your needs and often when increased attention is paid to your diet, you may see improved performance.” 

Meal Prep is Important

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I’ve found in order to stay on track and make nutritious food choices, I need to make sure I meal prep at the top of the week. However, as my mileage has increased in my training plan, I’ve found that it leaves me less time to cook. In this case, meal prep companies that offer different meals for your dietary needs such as Kettlebell Kitchen have kept me on track. And for times when I need something on-the-go, readily available vegan protein shakes such as OWYN has been a great help. If you choose to go down the plant-based path, have fun experimenting with new recipes. Even if you don’t go fully vegetarian or vegan, they’re still recipes you can add to your weekly meal prep and you’ll also get the nutritional benefits. 

Keep Track of Your Protein Intake

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Many people worry about getting enough protein if they change to a plant-based diet. While this can be tough to accomplish it can still be managed. “The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 g/kg; however, most athletes would benefit from a higher intake,” Duszack says. “Protein requirements can vary depending on the type of athlete and the goals of that athlete. For example, a track and field athlete who wants to maintain her weight should probably consume 1.3-1.6 g/kg/day of protein.” Fiske agrees and says, “It’s important to be very specific and intentional with your meals and snacks to make sure your body’s nutrient needs are being met.” She explains, “Out of all 3 macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins), protein is largely responsible for maintaining our organs in optimal condition along with muscle, tendon and skin health.”

Are There Specific Athletes Who Should go Vegan/Vegetarian?

Duszack says there isn’t a specific type of athlete that would benefit from a plant-based diet. However, she explains a possible theory behind why some athletes choose to go down this route. “One potential advantage of a plant-based diet compared to a traditional meat-based diet is that plant-based diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates,” she says further elaborating,”Because carbohydrates are a primary fuel for most types of exercise, a plant-based diet may offer a performance advantages for some athletes due to a higher intake in carbohydrates compared to their normal intake.” Caleb Backe, a CPT, and Health and Wellness expert elaborates that some athletes follow a plant-based diet because a lot of the foods involved can help boost with muscle recovery. “This is due to the fact that nitric oxide rich foods like beetroot, garlic, and leafy greens, help to improve blood flow ensuring that necessary nutrients reach your muscles and optimize the recovery process,” he says. 

Fiske claims that the type of sport you do may impact whether a vegan or vegetarian diet is right for you. ”For powerlifters or anyone doing heavy weight lifting especially, protein needs increase and it can be difficult to meet your needs without some animal proteins,” she says. Fisk explains that they may struggle to meet their daily protein intake because vegan protein sources are usually incomplete proteins higher in carbohydrates. “Often supplementation with protein powders or even specific amino acids (like proline and taurine) will be necessary,” she advises.”

Is a Plant-Based Diet Right for You?

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Whether or not a plant-based diet will work for you is subject to the individual. Someone like myself might feel great on it, but another woman might feel drained or become vitamin deficient. “I am a firm believer in intuitive eating and if a vegan or vegetarian diet leaves you feeling weak or with any other negative symptoms, I usually recommend adding back in some animal protein, even if just a couple of times per week,” Fiske suggests. Duszack agrees wholeheartedly and says, “If it doesn’t fit your life, incorporating animal-based foods can also work and, in many cases, may make it easier for someone to meet all of her nutritional needs.” She emphasizes that everyone can benefit from adding more plants to their life such as making one plant-based meal a day or once a week.

 She adds, “Or, just including more plant-based foods to your meals can really be beneficial, especially if you diversify those foods.” Backe supports the same idea and says, “The truth is that as long as you’re getting enough protein and complex carbs in your diet, balanced with plenty of fruits and vegetables, there’s no reason why you should switch to a plant-based diet over a meat-based one.” He says a  plant-based diet might naturally increase your nutrient intake because a lot of your proteins come from other nutrient-dense foods like certain vegetables or legumes, but sticking to a meat diet and increasing your vegetable intake could have the same restorative effect on your muscles. Remember, it’s all about listening to your body and understanding what works and what doesn’t work for you. If a vegan or vegetarian diet leaves you feeling worse for wear, it’s best to not force it. You can still reap the benefits of a plant-based diet by adding more veggies and fruits alongside your daily meals.