“A healthy outside starts from the inside.” – Robert Urich
We couldn’t agree more with Robert Urich. Good health is a result of good nutrition.
Whether you are a budding athlete, a fitness enthusiast or someone who exercises from time to time, the importance of a nutritionally balanced diet cannot be understated.
Lack of proper nutrition leads to issues like loss of muscle mass and weight, longer recovery times, inflammation, irregular sleeping patterns, increased injury & illness risk, etc. to name a few.
So, how do professional athletes who have to constantly be at the top of their game go about meeting their nutritional requirements?
Serena Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Sunil Chhetri, Patrik Baboumian, Venus Williams, Kyrie Irving, Alex Morgan, Diana Taurasi, Novak Djokovic, Aarathi Swaminathan are all prime examples of plant-based champions. Besides being top performers in their respective sports, they all proudly support and are strong advocates of following a plant-based diet. Their elite performances help debunk the myth that only animal protein can provide the necessary nutrition for athletes to compete at a high level.
Whilst the reasons for adopting a plant-based diet are different for the athletes, there is consensus that the benefits experienced by them are manifold: improved stamina, quicker recovery period, reduced inflammation, lower body fat percentage, leaner bodies, and much more.
Plant-based diet vs Animal protein diet
So, how exactly does a plant-based diet impact an athlete compared to an animal protein diet? Some of the key reasons cited by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) include:
- Meat and high levels of cholesterol increase overall bodily inflammation, damaging the body’s ability to perform and recover. Plant-based diets have the opposite effect.
- Those on a plant-based diet typically have lower blood viscosity (i.e. it is not as thick as in meat-eaters) due to the reduced levels of lipids and cholesterol. As a result, it is easier for the blood to reach the muscles and tissues to provide oxygen, therefore boosting athletic performance.
- People on plant-based diets have more flexible and wider arteries in general compared to meat-eaters. This improves the flow of blood around the body. According to PCRM, “One study found that even a single high-fat meal, including sausage and egg McMuffins, impaired arterial function for several hours”.
- Eating a plant-based diet means we consume more antioxidants; these help to neutralise free radicals, which cause muscle fatigue and impair athletic performance and recovery.
- Due to the lower levels of fat and increased levels of fibre consumed on a plant-based diet, body fat is reduced in plant-based athletes. This, in turn, is known to increase aerobic capacity and increase their VO2 max (this is the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilise during intense exercise); both of these mean much-improved endurance.
“I’m physically in better shape than I’ve ever been, and I’m more successful than ever right now, and my plant-based programme has played such a big role in that.” – Lewis Hamilton
Maintaining a balanced plant-based diet
Whether you are a budding athlete, fitness enthusiast or someone who wants to eat healthy, eating right and meeting your daily nutritional requirements is very important. A well-balanced plant-based diet can help you meet those requirements by keeping the following points in mind:
- Know your protein – Eating the right type and quantity of protein is pivotal. Not all plant-based protein sources will contain all the essential amino acids that your body requires. Therefore it is advisable to consume a variety of different plant-based proteins to improve your chances of getting good quality protein to meet your recommended daily intake. Some plant-based sources of protein are tofu, tempeh, quinoa, amaranth, chia seeds, buckwheat, etc.
- Consume enough calories – Plant-based food tend to be higher in volume and fiber resulting in people feeling fuller faster and ending up eating less. It is important to eat calorifically dense foods like sweet potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, etc to meet your calorie intake.
- Monitor Nutrient Intake – Although plant-based diets are nutritious, they tend to be deficient in certain micro-nutrients like iron, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, iodine, omega 3 and vitamin D. However, doing a little bit of research will enable you to identify different plant-based sources that are rich sources of these micro-nutrients, viz., flaxseeds, tahini, seeds, nuts, nutritional yeast, legumes, peanut butter, etc to name a few. Another option is to consume supplements that are suitable for vegans.
Plant-based athletes have always been around for many years, but only in recent times the focus is on them due to increased media exposure and awareness. Athletes are pushing the boundaries of healthy lifestyle and even teaching us a thing or two about how the human body can function! However, it is important to know that eating plant-based diets are not “all-or-nothing”. Everyone can integrate the level of plant-based foods that is best for their body and lifestyle.