An increasing number of athletes are choosing to adopt a plant-based diet. There is some concern among coaches and sports professionals that a plant-based diet may not provide the nutrition needed to optimise training and performance. This however is not the case for a well-planned plant-based diet. You can still be a high-performing athlete on a plant-based diet.
Protein and energy needs at all ages are well achieved by plant-based diets. To obtain proper nutrition and maintain optimal performance on a plant-based diet it is important to first ensure you are meeting your daily energy requirements. Once this is achieved you may need to emphasise the inclusion of foods rich in iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B-12 and riboflavin.
Research in the field of high performance athletes and plant-based diets is relatively new and therefore limited. Interestingly however short-term studies comparing those who consumed a vegetarian diet against those who consumed a non-vegetarian diet for several weeks did not find a difference in strength, endurance or anaerobic performance. These early findings suggest a plant-based diet neither improves or hinders athletic performance.
Some hypothesize that if anything, plant-based diets support an increased intake of antioxidants which helps improve recovery by reducing inflammation.
2. Weight loss
Plant-based diets, specifically vegan and vegetarian diets, are well reported as a successful way to lose weight amongst western populations. After a review of 87 studies, it was found that vegan diets cause continuous energy to be burnt after eating in comparison to non vegan diets where fewer calories were burnt and more were stored as fat . Statistically vegetarians are typically slimmer than their meat-eating counterparts.
Another study assessed the eating patterns and weight changes of a group of meat-eaters, vegetarians, pescetarians and vegans from the United Kingdom. Over a 5 year period it was found that weight gain was lowest among the people who ate the fewest meat products.
With NZ ranking as the third most obese adult population of all the OECD countries, a diet that may help maintain or reduce weight is of interest to population health. Plant-based diets are low in energy density, and high in complex carbohydrates, fibre, and water which may help to increase and prolong fullness and resting energy expenditure. Plant-based diets may offer performance advantages in sports where a leaner body composition is advantageous.
3. Heart Health
A plant-based way of eating is beneficial for heart health, an aspect of critical importance for endurance athletes. Compared with those consuming a meat-containing diet, plant-based eaters are 32% less likely to develop coronary heart disease.
Plant-based diets address some of the key determinants of heart health, including high blood pressure, high body weight, elevated blood lipid levels and diabetes. Vegan and vegetarian diets have been found to lower blood pressure perhaps as a result of the higher potassium content of a plant-based diet, weight loss and lower blood viscosity (thickness/stickiness).
4. Improved digestion
When people suddenly switch to incorporating more plant foods in their diet, their diet often becomes higher in fibre which for some people may cause gas or bloating while the body adjusts. Over time, a high-fibre diet is an optimal way of eating for a healthy digestive system. Most people adopting a plant-based way of eating have improved bowel habits in a short-time period.
5. Boosts energy levels
A plant-based diet rich in legumes, nuts, grains, vegetables and fruit is a very energising diet. I’m sure we’ve all heard a friend, work colleague, family member or online presence talk about how energised they feel after switching to a plant-based diet. Alongside other lifestyle factors, our energy levels are very dependent upon the food we select, and the amount we choose to consume. Processed foods and refined carbohydrates can cause spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. This is not to say these foods are not present in plant-based diets, however, often when switching to a plant-based diet, an increase in whole food consumption is seen. Whole foods like fruit, vegetables and grains contain more fibre than most processed foods which help to sustain your energy levels for longer.
If your plant-based diet is zapping your energy, it’s worth checking in with the variety of foods you’re eating and whether you’re eating enough to meet your energy requirements. You can seek out the help of a dietitian or nutritionist to assist in pointing out areas where your plant-based diet may be deficient to help you get back on track.
6. Reduce carbon footprint
Plant-based diets are a big win for the environment because they typically use less resources and therefore have a lower environmental impact. There is a call from many scientists, environmentalists and a movement in the general population, towards a reduction of animal products in the diets of humans as a way to reverse climate change.
Plant-based diets, when compared with diets that contain meat use less water, fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilisers - in fact, something as simple as replacing beef with beans has a considerable impact. Calculations of 210 common foods revealed that greenhouse gas emissions were around 29% lower from consuming a vegetarian diet than with a non-vegetarian diet. A vegan diet may have greater than a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than a meat-containing diet . Animal farms are associated with the degradation of land, air pollution of air, loss of biodiversity due to intensification measures many conventional farmers choose to take.
7. Culinary Skills
Switching to a plant-based diet offers an excellent opportunity to advance in a new skill, as with any new habit - it will get easier! As you progress in time on a plant-based diet you will know where to find all the best non-meat products in the supermarket, you’ll know how to set up a plant-based meal plan, and you’ll know what type of foods to pair with the likes of tofu, tempeh and lentils.
There are a wide variety of new foods that help make the transition from meat-eating to plant-based easier, some of which you may not even know existed. In fact, with the current rate of new meat alternatives being released, it’s hard to keep up. The good news is that the internet is full of useful resources and recipes to help you know the best ways to cook and prepare plant-based proteins.
With new foods, comes a new way of cooking. Don’t be thrown off that it may take a couple of types to perfect a recipe, we’ve put together some delicious tasting plant-based recipes below to help get you started.
Thinking of going plant based?