Benefits Of A Plant-Based Diet For Endurance Athletes
Modern statistics on health can be extremely upsetting: by age 10 to 14, most U.S. children already have fatty streaks in their coronary arteries and more than 5% have more advanced coronary disease. This tendency continues as we age, with approximately 10% of the population in developed countries showing advanced atherosclerotic lesions in the abdominal aorta by the age of 20. This typically leads to reduced blood flow and often results in lower back pain. Many people try to live healthier lives by engaging in athletic activities. However, there is a common misperception that a vegan diet may not be appropriate for athletes.
In this study, a group of medical professionals and researchers in the U.S. reviewed the available scientific literature on the ability of a plant-based diet to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease, and positively affect endurance sport performance. Previous studies looking into the cardiovascular health of middle-aged and older endurance athletes showed that, although being well-trained, they are exposed to significant risks (double compared to sedentary people) for atherosclerosis and myocardial damage. The data, however, did not reveal whether these changes are the consequences of athletic activity or food.
This is where a plant-based diet might come in. As a part of a healthful lifestyle, low-fat vegetarian diets have been shown to reverse coronary atherosclerosis, increasing blood flow, and reduce the risk of coronary events. In fact, vegetarians are known to be 32% less likely to develop coronary heart disease. The paper outlines five of the possible confounding advantages that avoiding animal-derived foods may bring:
- Lower Body Mass: Reductions in body fat are brought on by the low fat and high fiber content of a plant-based diet. These traits reduce the energy density of meals and increase postprandial metabolism – the “rest and digest” state our body goes into after meals. Finally, it’s much more costly for our bodies to convert dietary carbohydrates to body fat, than going from dietary fibre to body fat.
- Improved Glycogen Storage: As is well known, carbohydrates are the primary energy source during moderate and high-intensity exercise. High-carbohydrate intake, in fact, enhances endurance not only immediately before athletic events but over the long term, too.
- Reduced Blood Viscosity And Increased Tissue Oxygenation: As plants are typically low in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol, a plant-based diet reduces plasma lipid concentrations, leading to reduced overall blood viscosity. The reviewed studies suggest that while animal fats are particularly harmful for arterial flexibility, there is a benefit from meals prepared from plants without animal products or added oils. This is mainly attributed to lower blood viscosity, healthy arterial diameter, and arterial compliance and elasticity – all expected to improve tissue oxygenation, endurance and overall performance.
- Reduced Oxidative Stress: Typically, a plant-based diet fares much better than its omnivorous counterparts in terms of higher antioxidant activity. The higher intakes of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and higher antioxidant enzyme production are to thank for this benefit. Research has also pointed out several specific antioxidant-rich foods with high exercise performance improving potential – beets, vegetables of the onion family and cherry juice.
- Reduced Inflammation: The well established anti-inflammatory benefits of a plant-based diet are backed by high antioxidant content, the absence of inflammatory or sensitizing products, and the absence of pro-inflammatory fats. In individuals with rheumatoid arthritis, several studies have demonstrated that a plant-based diet reduces systemic inflammation, and overall signs of arthritis. Similarly, anti-inflammatory effects were observed in both patients with and without coronary artery disease.
Despite these already well-documented benefits, nutrient adequacy of a plant-based diet is often questioned by skeptics. The researchers highlight that individuals who change from an omnivorous to a plant-based diet usually improve their overall nutrition. The reason for this is that fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains tend to be high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and very low or devoid of the implicating saturated fats and cholesterol. Meanwhile, surveys show that virtually all endurance athletes meet recommended protein intakes, whereas a diet consisting of varied plant foods easily provides adequate amounts of all essential amino acids.
The study points out that a plant-based diet may present safety and performance advantages for endurance athletes and provides a scientific foundation for the increased spread of such a dietary regimen among endurance athletes. For animal advocates, this research provides a good overview of how pressing and widespread the issue of cardiac disease is in the Western world. The fact that a plant-based diet can aid in protecting human health and, potentially, improve endurance sports performance, is a great point to make when promoting low fat plant-based eating.