Why plant-based is the optimal diet for fitness and health

From professional athletes to exercise enthusiasts, people are thriving on plant-strong diets all around the world.

above (left to right): mountaineer Dr Robert Gropel, powerlifter Noah Hannibal, olympic runner Izzi Batt-Doyle

Whether motivated by ethics and/or goals ranging from improved general fitness, endurance, muscle building and strength training, to quicker recovery and reduced inflammation, there are so many reasons athletes are making the switch to being fuelled by plants. An increasing number of elite athletes have excelled in their field of sport, citing a plant-based diet as playing an important role in their successes.

Here are just some of the many top-level athletes who adhere to plant-strong diets to enhance their performance and longevity in their sport:

 

 

Numerous studies have demonstrated that eating a diet rich in plants is better for our general health, with a strong correlation to reducing the incidence of chronic diseases. A plant-based diet is endorsed by national health bodies including the Australian Government’s Dietary Guidelines, Dietitians Australia and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As the world’s largest organisation of nutrition professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics affirms that, “vegan diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate…during all stages of the life cycle” and “may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

When following a vegan diet with a focus on minimally processed foods, the science shows there are several health benefits, including:

Better heart health

Prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes

Improved kidney function

Protection against certain cancers (prostate, breast, colorectal, ovarian)

Reduction of pain from arthritis

Improved gut bacteria

Promotion of mental wellbeing

 

More recently, a study published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health found that people following a plant-based diet were associated with 73% lower odds of experiencing moderate-to-severe Covid-19 infection, compared with individuals who did not follow a plant-based diet. The study concluded that plant-based diets may be considered as protection against more severe Covid-19 infections.

Appropriate physical activity coupled with a well-balanced vegan diet, has demonstrated positive outcomes for:

general fitness and health

endurance

building muscles and strength training

quicker recovery

General Fitness and Health

While it’s commonly accepted that heart health is affected by both diet and physical exercise, evidence-based literature indicates that diet is the most influential lifestyle factor in relation to general wellbeing and a healthy heart, more so than exercise. In Dr Katharina Wirnitzer’s review of Vegan Diets in Sports and Exercise, she explains that a, “daily intake of one cup of beans, chickpeas or lentils over 90 days has been shown to reduce the resting heart rate (-3.4 bpm) by the same amount as exercising for 250 hours on a treadmill.”

When looking at becoming more fit or taking up a new form of physical activity for health, it’s important to pair your exercise with a well-balanced vegan diet as this can help you achieve your optimum level of fitness.

A healthy plant-based diet that is rich in essential nutrients consists of eating from the six plant food groups daily:

above: Six Food Groups devised by Dr. Amanda Benham www.pbnutrition.com.au
  • Whole grains – e.g. brown rice, rolled oats, quinoa, barley, wholemeal pasta, whole grain bread
  • Legumes and soy products  – e.g. lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, borlotti beans, cannellini beans, navy beans, soya beans, tofu, tempeh
  • Green vegetables – e.g. spinach, rainbow chard, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, asparagus
  • Colourful and starchy vegetables – e.g. carrots, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, corn
  • Fruit, nuts and seeds – e.g. kiwi fruit, oranges, berries, mango, pineapple, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, flaxseeds (ground), chia seeds, sunflower seeds
  • Calcium-rich foods – e.g.  Asian greens, rocket/arugula, kale, figs, tahini (ground sesame seeds), fortified plant milks

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Consuming a variety of these food categories provides all the amino acids, calcium, and other essential nutrients our bodies need. It is important to include a reliable source of vitamin B12 in the form of supplements and fortified foods. For those over 50, whether vegan or not, Australian dietitian Dr Amanda Benham recommends supplementation because the ability to absorb B12 from food reduces with age. If you’re not getting enough sun exposure daily, regardless of diet, vitamin D supplements may also be required. Always ensure you are basing your existing levels and any potential supplementation and monitoring requirements in consultation with a registered healthcare professional who can tailor advice to your specific needs.

A Note About Soy

Soy is a nutrient-rich food that contains all of the essential amino acids as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals. A common myth associated with this legume is that it contains high amounts of estrogen and may affect men’s testosterone levels. However, this is simply not true. Soy contains phyto-estrogens, which are compounds that naturally occur in plants. Studies have shown that phyto-estrogens have no impact on the reproductive hormones of men or women.


Endurance

above: Fiona Oakes, ultra marathon runner credit: Running For Good

For endurance athletes, like long distance runners, cyclists, rowers, swimmers and triathletes, not only does a plant-based diet cover all nutritional needs, but it can impart an advantage over competitors when it comes to heart health, performance and recovery.

In an article published in the journal Nutrients, a team of researchers led by Dr Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, reported that endurance athletes, particularly as they age, are more prone to atherosclerosis and cardiac events in comparison with inactive people. This discovery was revealed in a United Kingdom study where coronary plaque was found in 44% of middle-aged and older endurance athletes, compared with 22% in sedentary subjects. The review by Dr Barnard and team established that plant-based diets play a significant role in heart health by reversing plaque and reducing blood pressure and cholesterol.

Healthy vegan diets coupled with moderate exercise are also known to decrease body fat. This is associated with the improved ability to use oxygen to power movement, leading to better endurance. Since glycogen (predominantly from carbohydrates) is the primary energy source during aerobic activity, a minimally-processed  carbohydrate and fibre-rich diet offers athletes the sustaining fuel they need.

Other physiological attributes of plant-based diets that contribute to enhanced performance and recovery found by the study in Nutrients, include:

  • reduced blood viscosity and improved tissue oxygenation, which helps more oxygen reach the muscles
  • lower oxidative stress due to higher antioxidant intake
  • reduced inflammation, since various plant compounds have anti-inflammatory effects

Building Muscle and Strength Training

Nick Squires is a 4 x sub master 100kg drug tested California state record holder credit: Great Vegan Athletes

If your goal is to train to gain muscle and develop strength, figuring out how much of the macronutrient protein you will need can be helpful. Each person’s goals will be unique, however based on the current scientific literature the nutrition recommendations for building muscle are:

  • Protein: consume 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day.
    • Divide into optimal amounts of 0.40-0.55 g/kg per meal and distribute evenly throughout the day over 3-6 meals, including within 1-2 hours of pre- and post-training.
  • Fat: consume in moderate amounts (0.5-1.5 g/kg/day).
  • Carbohydrates: consume ≥3-5 g/kg/day, enough to support energy demands from resistance training.

 

Likewise, it’s important to make sure you’re on the right muscle building program. If your goal is to become a competitive bodybuilder or powerlifter or simply to gain more strength be sure to consult with a qualified and experienced professional to help you devise a suitable training program.

Of course, when it comes to building muscle on a plant strong diet, most people will want to know about sources of protein.

Consuming various plant foods in sufficient calories can easily provide all of the essential amino acids required for building muscle mass. Amino acids are found in all foods. Plant sources include lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables – especially dark green leafy produce. Please be mindful that vegans do not need to practice “protein combining” to obtain sufficient protein but they should include a wide variety of protein sources in their diet. Athletes may need to be more mindful of the overall protein quality of their chosen source.

A sample menu for one day could look something like:

  • Breakfast – mushroom and spinach tofu scramble and wholemeal toast
  • Lunch – wholewheat burrito wrap with black beans, veggies, tomato salsa and avocado
  • Dinner – stir fry with tempeh, mixed greens, other veggies and brown jasmine rice mixed with quinoa
  • Snacks – smoothie with greens, banana, berries (can add protein powder); mixed nuts; protein bars/balls (e.g. made with medjool dates, hemp seeds, peanut butter, protein powder, cocoa powder)
  • Drink plenty of fluids, particularly water

 

If you are new to vegan eating or have changed your fitness goals, you may want to consider tracking your macronutrient intake (protein, carbohydrates, fat) with an app for the first few weeks to ensure you are consuming the recommended amounts.

For a more comprehensive look at vegan protein requirements, check out this article by sports dietitian Leah Higl.

Faster Recovery

above: Triathlete Brendan Brazer credit: @brendanbrazier

Inflammation is the body’s immune response to an injury, a foreign artefact, like a thorn in your finger, or germs. It is part of the body’s natural process for protecting and healing itself. For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, inflammation can occur after an intense or prolonged workout, which can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Managing inflammation is critical to optimise recovery time and enhance athletic performance. Quicker recovery times between workouts and healing faster from sporting injuries can be assisted through quality nutrition. A whole food plant-based diet helps to reduce inflammation due to:

  1. the antioxidant content of plants
  2. the absence of pro-inflammatory fats and other inflammatory compounds
above: Berry Smoothie credit: VeganEasy

More specifically, the review of plant-based diets for heart health and endurance sports published in Nutrients found that foods high in antioxidants like blueberries, blackcurrants, tart cherries, pomegranates and watermelon, were effective in decreasing post-workout inflammation and accelerating recovery.

Conversely, a diet that is animal-based contains pro-inflammatory compounds, which for an athlete is undesirable and will impede performance and recovery.

Some post-workout anti-inflammatory snacks or meals could be:

  • Fruit smoothie with blueberries, ground flaxseed, turmeric powder, soy/nut milk
  • Rolled oats with chia seeds, berries, nuts and plant-based yoghurt
  • Bowl of steamed sweet potatoes, black beans, quinoa and spinach drizzled with lemon tahini sauce
  • Curried chickpeas with mixed vegetables and brown rice
  • Salad wrap filled with tofu, hummus, tomato, cucumber, leafy greens and fresh coriander