Plant Based Athletes

Many leading athletes are adopting a whole food, plant-based diet for improved sports performance. The release of the The Game Changers documentary (see below) in late 2018 is likely to be a tipping point for interest in WFPB nutrition – a performance enhancing strategy that is safe, ethical and available to everyone, from leading sportspersons to regular gym users.

The benefits of whole foods, plant-based nutrition combined with avoidance of the adverse effects of animal products and processed food, impact the whole cycle of sports performance – training, competition and recovery. Whole plant foods counteract the oxidative stress and inflammation created by exercise, resulting in a shorter recovery time and therefore more training sessions than your competitors.

How does a whole foods, plant-based diet improve sports performance?

  • The high carbohydrate content maximises glycogen stores which provides fuel for endurance events and long training sessions
  • The lower fat content and higher water and fibre content of whole plant-based foods means they have a lower energy density, making it easier to maintain a lean physique
  • Supports optimal cardiovascular health. Arteries remain free of plaque and the improved endothelial (artery lining) health allows arteries to dilate fully, improving blood flow to the heart and working muscles
  • Nitrates in leafy green vegetables and beets boost nitric oxide production, improving blood flow to muscles and reducing blood pressure, particularly in those who are older and less highly trained. (See FAQ Nitrates under construction).
  • Blood viscosity and red blood cell stiffness is reduced, boosting capillary blood flow, and delivering more oxygen to where it’s needed
  • The metabolic processes that ‘burn’ food are intricate but imperfect, and produce free radicals, including reactive oxygen species, which cause a cascade of molecular damage. The antioxidant phytonutrients in whole plant foods assist the cellular mechanisms that neutralise free radicals, reducing damage to DNA and other large molecules
  • Phytonutrients in whole plant-foods have powerful anti-inflammatory actions. Anti-inflammatory phytonutrients also have localised effects, dampening down sports related tissue inflammation without any of the harmful side effects of anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals. Processed plant products have few of these phytonutrients.
  • Meat, chicken, fish, egg and dairy consumption cause an inflammatory response through multiple mechanisms. This metabolic inflammation has an adverse effect on many functions including blood flow and energy metabolism
  • WFPB nutrition supports improved mood and energy levels, essential for consistent and goal directed training
  • Immune function is improved through the action of whole plant food phytonutrients and the absence of inhibitory effects from animal products and processed food. This is important for athletes as heavy training can suppress immunity and lead to more time lost to viral respiratory infections.

The number one nutrition issue for whole foods, plant-only athletes is consuming enough calories to support a heavy training load. Failure to thrive on a plant-based diet is usually the result of not eating enough calories. The carbohydrate-rich foods that provide the ideal fuel for athletes – eg oats, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, potatoes and beans – have only half the calorie density of meat, chicken and fish, so twice the quantity will be required to get the same number of calories. The elimination of oil will further reduce the calories, and whole foods, plant-based athletes will need to adapt to eating larger meals and more snacks.

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There are many variations of whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diets. Although raw food diets are popular, the evidence for the benefits of plant-based nutrition is largely based on studies of people who also eat cooked foods such as grains, legumes and starchy vegetables. It may be difficult for athletes to obtain optimal nutrition when eating only raw foods. (FAQ on raw foods under construction).

Most WFPB experts advocate a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet for sports performance. Some whole plant foods – nuts, seeds, avocados and soy beans for example – have most of their calories as fats which makes them more calorie dense. Increased consumption of these foods may be necessary for athletes struggling to meet their calorie requirements but in general we consider a low fat, WFPB diet to be optimal. (see our FAQ Why we recommend a low-fat diet). In practical terms this means the major source of calories are high carbohydrate foods: grains, legumes, fruits and starchy vegetables rather than nuts, seeds and oils*.

*NB Vegetable oils, even olive oil and coconut oil, lead to impaired blood flow (see e.g. Vogel et al) as well as being nutrient-poor food choices. See our No Oil! page.

Protein needs for athletes

Where do we get our protein from?

The focus on protein, particularly animal protein, is the most persistent myth in sports nutrition. No one who is consuming adequate calories from whole plant foods is likely to suffer reduced performance due to lack of protein. We need to stop calling particular foods ‘protein’ and recognise that protein is just one component of the complex package of nutrients that constitutes each type of whole food.  The natural plant protein package includes an abundance of performance enhancing phytonutrients and dietary fibre whereas the animal protein package includes a witch’s brew of artery toxins and inflammatory substances.

Plants contain all the essential amino acids and have an amino acid profile that is more health supporting than that of animal proteins. Protein quality is not considered to be relevant to humans consuming a variety of foods over each 24hr period – protein complementarity is no longer considered necessary for meal planning.

The general RDI for protein is 0.8g/kg or approximately 10% calories. Note that this the recommended intake and that the minimum is only 5-6% of calories. Many whole plant foods have moderately high protein levels – legumes are one of the highest protein food groups (24% calories) and wheat/oats (13% calories) are not far behind quinoa (15% calories). Athletes have higher protein requirements, and the Australian Sports Commission gives estimates of protein requirements of up to 1.7 g/kg during the early stages of strength training and up to 1.2 g/kg for strength training steady state and endurance training. Women are noted to have slightly lower requirements than men (see AIS Fact Sheet – Protein).

Athletes do not need to choose higher protein foods to meet their extra protein needs because they consume more calories than the sedentary population, which means more food and more protein. A typical whole foods plant-based diet provides about 12% protein, which equates to approximately 1.5 g/kg protein for a moderately active person (rather than an ‘athlete’). The protein content of the diet can be increased by shifting the balance towards higher protein plants – more legumes, higher protein grains (e.g. wheat rather than rice), higher protein tubers (potatoes rather than sweet potatoes) etc. For most athletes, the selection of higher plant protein foods will only serve to reduce anxiety about getting enough protein. However, there are some situations where it may be physiologically required, such as early strength training combined with calorie restriction for weight loss.

While it is safe to maximise your protein intake from whole plant foods, the same cannot be said for animal protein foods or plant protein supplements. High intakes of animal ‘protein’ foods have many adverse effects, some due to the animal protein itself and others related to the other components of meat, dairy and eggs.

Animal proteins have an amino acid composition that, particularly in larger quantities, cause many adverse effects in the human body:

  • Acid load (possibly reducing tolerance to lactic acid build-up during intense exercise)
  • Negative calcium balance and bone loss due to acid load
  • Kidney stress and long-term damage
  • Dehydration and electrolyte depletion
  • Body odour and halitosis
  • Increased risk of bowel diseases
  • Up-regulating of growth factors that cause acne and accelerate cancer growth and aging
  • Promotion of all stage of cancer development
  • Increased blood cholesterol and cardiovascular risk

All this with no evidence for superiority over plant-based protein sources.

Plant protein supplements are unnecessary and may even have a negative impact on your nutrition and body composition. The supplement industry encourages the misguided idea that taking a nutrient supplement will do no harm and may boost your well-being by correcting some undiagnosed nutrient deficiency. There are many examples of safe, health supporting food nutrients having adverse effects when consumed as an isolated concentrated supplement (e.g. beta-carotene in food reduces lung cancer risk but beta-carotene supplements increase lung cancer risk). The healthfulness of macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) also depends on how it is packaged. Eating a a lot of processed sugar increases health risks whereas eating more whole fruit has only ever been associated with better health outcomes.

When you don’t need more protein than your diet is already providing, adding protein powder to your smoothie is like adding sugar – you get extra calories with minimal increase in bulk and satiety. Protein and carbohydrate have approximately the same calorie content per gram, so 50g of protein powder is equivalent to 50g of sugar – that’s 10 tsp in household measures. If you are using protein supplements and struggling to stay lean, then this could be part of the problem.

It’s ironic that taking a protein supplement, just to be sure you are getting enough, may worsen your nutritional status through displacement of nutrient rich whole plant foods. A 50g protein powder serve has 200 calories but none of the fibre, iron, vitamins and phytonutrients that you would get if you ate an equal calorie, 200g serve of legumes. Iron deficiency is probably the most common nutrient problem in female athletes and protein supplements, alongside other iron depleted foods – refined grains, vegetable oil and sugar – exacerbate the problem through displacement of iron rich whole plant foods. You could take an iron supplement (which would impair the absorption of other minerals) but you would still be missing the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in minimally processed plants that protect athletes from oxidative stress and hasten recovery.

Plant-based athletes can easily meet and exceed their protein requirements by eating adequate calories of whole plant foods. The protein is packaged with nutrients and countless phytonutrients and is in a form that our bodies are designed to process. We say, ‘eat peas, not pea protein’.

Nutrient supplements

The only supplement that is universally recommended for athletes on plant-only diets is vitamin B12. Vitamin D may also be required if there is inadequate sun exposure. Other nutrients that may be low in some whole foods vegan diets – iodine, omega 3 fats, selenium – can be boosted through the inclusion of nutrient dense whole plant foods. (See Vitamins and Minerals).

Transition tips

It’s not difficult to eat a whole foods, plant-based diet at home, and with some planning, travel and eating out can be accommodated without too much compromise. The following are just a few tips for making a smooth transition: 

  • Take several weeks to discover new recipes, staple foods and snacks before making the full transition.
  • Once you have gained confidence in preparing plant-based meals we recommend that you give it 100% for a few weeks to reset your food tastes and experience the full benefits of being a plant powered athlete.
  • Don’t make major dietary (or any other) changes just before competition.
  • Keep it simple, don’t let perfectionism make it too hard.
  • Increase the amount of food on your plate and eat more snacks. (See how not to lose weight)
  • For athletes with irritable bowel type symptoms, low FODMAP choices may be advisable initially and before competition (see FODMAPs).
  • See also Transition resources

The Game Changers

This documentary is expected to be released in Australia in late 2018. We have watched a pre-release screening and we think it’s got what it takes to reach out to sporting men and women and shatter the myths around meat and protein that permeate Australian sporting culture. Its release may be a tipping point for plant-based sports nutrition in Australia. The documentary is a high-quality production and the science is concise and accurate, giving it the strength to withstand the expected fight back from industry.

The Game Changers follows the plant-based journey of UFC fighter and combat instructor, James Wilkes, as he discovers the performance advantages and healing effects of a plant-based diet. The film features awesome athletes across a range of sports from Australian 400m runner, Morgan Mitchell, to superhuman strongman Patrick Baboumian. But it’s far more than a show case of athletes – the documentary covered an extraordinary amount of nutrition science with a gentle flow of easy to understand graphics and simple explanations from leading experts and athletes. The health information provided is just as relevant to the general community as it is to athletes. Environmental issues and animal welfare complete the case for a plant-based diet.

As the film progresses, it becomes very clear that meat is not manly, meat and other animal products are an inferior source of protein to plants, and that eating animal products damages health and impairs sports performance. On the positive side, whole plant foods are just as good for building muscle, provide a superior fuel for athletic performance and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that give athletes the critical advantage of faster recovery from training and competition.

See also:


Resources

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Web links:

On the protein question:

Fitness, Personal Trainer, Coaching websites:


Key plant based athletes


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Page created 21st April 2014
Last updated 12th April 2018