I’m really excited to see that exercise nutrition is finally moving away from just talking about carbohydrates, protein and fats, and is now beginning to investigate the effect of overall eating habits on sport performance.
Why does this matter? Because the daily food choices you make have a significant effect on your overall health. Being an athlete, not matter what your sport, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have better health than your friend who never exercises and eats a lot of pizza. You’ve probably heard of cardiac events, or even deaths, happening to fit people while they’re out training or competing in events.
I want you to understand the effect of your daily food choices on your health, and particularly your heart. When exercising, your cardiovascular system is the main engine driving your performance, and the food you eat provides the fuel for that engine.
What current science says about eating choices and exercise performance
I looked at recent studies carried out on the difference between plant-based diets (vegetarian and vegan) and meat-eating diets on physical health and exercise performance. They conclusively squash the notion that vegetarian and vegan diets are inadequate for optimal health and sports performance.
Over a range of tests, including VO2 max, power output and time to exhaustion, there was no performance difference between plant-based eaters and meat eaters.
However, this is where it gets more interesting. Vegetarians and vegans tend to have less incidences of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Your health and your EXERCISE performance
Sports-related cardiac deaths often occur in athletes with pre-existing coronary artery disease (known as atherosclerosis). Hardening of the arteries reduces blood flow around the body – including to the brain and the legs. So, this will directly affect your performance. And here’s the kicker – you can have thickened arteries and not know it, as it is without obvious symptoms.
Plant-based eating has a positive effect on the factors that contribute to hardening of the arteries and heart disease in general. Research has shown that:
- Vegetarian and vegan diets reduce blood pressure.
- Vegetarian and vegan diets help to reduce body fat as they tend to be higher in fibre, and lower in saturated fat and sodium.
- Adding more plant foods improves lipid profiles (that is, the fats in your blood such as cholesterol).
- Plant-based eating tends to improve insulin sensitivity, which assists with glycogen control.
How does this impact your ability to train and compete at your best?
- A leaner body mass is associated increased aerobic capacity and VO2 max.
- A strong cardiovascular system will provide good oxygen delivery to working muscles – this is important for both performance and recovery (via removal of waste products in the blood). Food choices after activity have been shown to have an immediate effect on blood flow and the arteries – for example high fat meals reduce circulation.
- Carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for most types of physical activity, including endurance exercise. A plant-based diet is high in whole food carbohydrates, which can improve glycogen storage and use. (A 2016 study of endurance athletes found that less than half of them were eating enough carbohydrates for their training volumes – this can lead to early fatigue and impaired performance from inadequate glycogen stores.)
- Exercise produces free radicals that can damage cells. Your body neutralises these using antioxidants. However, if there are too many free radicals for your body to handle, this causes oxidative stress. It’s speculated that plant-based diets can boost post-exercise recovery as they are high in vegetables and fruits containing natural antioxidants.
- Another by-product of exercise is inflammation – this is one of the normal processes for repairing muscles that have been stressed by high loads. Inflammation is also found in many diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis. Plant-based eating tends to include more foods that are have anti-inflammatory properties than meat-based eating.
- Plant-based eating can provide all the nutrition you need for both good health and athletic performance.
If you want optimal health and to be able to consistently perform at your best, you need to be making plant-based food choices at every meal.
This doesn’t mean you have to become vegan. You can still eat fish, meat, poultry, or dairy but instead of your meal revolving around the animal protein on your plate, make it an accompaniment to an appetising plant-based meal.
What is plant-based eating?
Plant-based eating simply means eating whole, or minimally processed, foods that aren’t derived from animal sources. It’s about eating real food from the land rather than processed food from the factory.
Aim to reduce all the processed foods on your plate. Often these are referred to as ‘white’ foods because they usually contain a lot of refined wheat flour, white rice or potato, as well as sugar, salt and hydrogenated fats.
Fill your plate with plants: vegetables, root vegetables, fruits, berries, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains and pseudo grains. Go for variety, colour, and texture. Have a good mix of raw and cooked plant foods. If you can, eat seasonally, which will help to keep your meals interesting too.
If you need any more proof that plants are essential foods for boosting your performance, here’s what one group of study authors of concluded:
Plant-based diets play a key role in cardiovascular health, which is critical for endurance athletes… The possibility that such diets may also contribute to improved performance and accelerated recovery in endurance sports is raised by their effects on blood flow, body composition, antioxidant capacity, systemic inflammation, and glycogen storage. These attributes provide a scientific foundation for the increased use of plant-based diets by endurance athletes.
I’ve been plant-based for my entire adult life. I’ve been called a rabbit often. I don’t eat red meat, poultry, seafood or fish. I do eat eggs, but I have no fondness for dairy. Plant-based eating powered me through my first Ironman, and I’m keen to refine my nutritional strategies as I train for Ironman number two.
And for those of you who get turned on reading the science stuff in detail, you can check it all out here:
- Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients. 2019 Jan; 11(1): 130.
- Plant-Based Diets: Considerations for Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance. Nutrients. 2018 Dec; 10(12): 1841.
- Exercise capacity of vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian and omnivorous recreational runners. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2019 May 20;16(1):23.
- Health Status of Female and Male Vegetarian and Vegan Endurance Runners Compared to Omnivores – Results from the NURMI Study. Nutrients. 2018 Dec 22;11(1)