All diets have their pros and cons and what works for some might not work for others. The science behind dietary lifestyles and how they can improve or hinder athletic performance, is what should be the focus for athletes before undertaking any change to eating habits. Understanding how diet can affect the body, especially where athletic performance is concerned, lays the groundwork for a healthful lifestyle, complete with adequate nutrition to ensure the right nutrients are being taken in.
There are studies that suggest that athletes, namely endurance athletes, are at a higher risk than the average person of developing atherosclerosis and sustaining myocardial damage. The heart is, of course, key in ensuring effective endurance for athletes and when this muscle is compromised in any way, it impedes the ability of the athlete to perform optimally. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine, “the performance of, and recovery from, sporting activities are enhanced by well-chosen nutrition strategies”.
In a 2017 study conducted in the United Kingdom, coronary plaques were found in 44% of endurance athletes who were middle aged or older in comparison to 22% of the sedentary control group/s. Furthermore, a study of 50 males who had run no less than 25 consecutive Twin Cities marathons in Minneapolis, MN, USA, determined that these athletes had increased total plaque volume and non-calcified plaque volume, when compared against 23 sedentary control individuals. What these studies show is that athletes are not immune from cardiovascular disease and are, in fact, at increased risk for atherosclerosis and myocardial damage. Whether or not these risks were the result of the athletic activity and exercise itself, or from the food used to fuel themselves, is undetermined. It is thought that the consumption of animal products as a means to fuel the activity they are engaging in, raises their saturated fat intake, their cholesterol and sees an absence of antioxidants and fiber; all of which play a role in the observed atherosclerotic changes.
While any diet that’s well-rounded and nutritionally balanced is advantageous for an athlete, the research that’s out there suggests plant-based diets may be winning by a nose in this race as they aide in not only athletic performance, but in recovery as well. As a plant-based diet tends to be high in carbohydrates, it can offer benefits in performance in that the primary source of energy during any kind of aerobic exercise are carbs, allowing those partaking in endurance sports to see an enhancement in their performance. Athletes consuming a vegan or vegetarian diet, researchers found, reported a boost in their performance and recovery, which is indicative of increased blood flow and tissue oxygenation, and a reduction in oxidative stress and inflammation in and around the body.
Though the research shows a vegan diet has a positive effect on a person’s health, the type of foods consumed can belie the health benefits. These are the processed versions of non-vegan options: non-dairy ice cream, certain plant-based burgers, some dairy-free yogurts and even jar sauces. Processed food, whether vegan or not, tend to contain additives to lengthen shelf life and render the product stable, but this isn’t always healthy for a person, even if it says ‘vegan’ on the label. Many non-dairy ice creams for example, are made using coconut oil or other oils which have been heavily processed and this is done to make the ice cream creamier. While a nice smooth texture is great at first, the added oils contribute to unnecessary saturated fat intake. Additionally, some ice creams contain several different kinds of sugar, raising the caloric content significantly. When training for any kind of endurance event, it is essential to eat the right kinds of foods in order to safeguard against fatigue and oxidative stress and ensure peak performance and reduced recovery time.
The necessary nutrients required for vegan athletes are the same as those who aren’t vegan. Protein, carbohydrates and fats are all a requisite part of a sound nutritional plan for anyone, particularly people engaging in high-intensity sporting activities; the difference lies in the sources from which these are obtained and for endurance athletes, the timing of consumption of these nutrients. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel during any strenuous exercise and as such the carbohydrate intake needs for athletes is dependent upon their weight and type of activity. Training for marathons, where the activity is repetitive and often puts a strain on the body, may mean that the timing of carbohydrate intake (i.e. carb loading prior to an event) will help further enhance performance and recovery, especially if the foods being ingested are plant based, whole foods such as oats, quinoa, buckwheat, and other high fiber sources. These also lower the food’s glycemic index which means the sugar found within the food is released more slowly into the blood, thereby providing a steady stream of energy; a good thing when partaking in endurance events.
It isn’t just the carbs though, that are important. Protein is key in building and maintaining body tissue, which makes it a crucial part of post exercise recovery. Plant-based sources are best as they provide not only the desired protein, but fiber as well. Athletes can obtain plant protein from foods such as beans, nuts, seeds and soy products like tempeh and tofu.
Fat is also an essential part of an athlete’s diet and as animal products tend to be high in saturated fats it’s best to obtain fats from plant sources like seeds, nuts, avocados, olives and oils made from plants such as sunflower and safflower. These are made up of higher amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids, and with the added risk for endurance athletes of developing atherosclerosis and sustaining myocardial damage, these food sources safeguard against cardiovascular problems better than their animal-based counterparts.
The transition to a vegan lifestyle has clear and well-studied benefits, particularly where cardiovascular health is concerned. For endurance athletes, it is of prime importance to maintain their heart health; the general scientific consensus points towards the benefits of engaging in a meat-free, plant-based diet, and as such, perhaps it is one of the better lifestyle choices to embark on.