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Athletes Can Thrive on Plant-Based Diets

Athletes Can Thrive on Plant-Based Diets

By:  Lisa Esposito   Courtesy:  USNews.com (health)

Athletes are always looking for a competitive edge – and that could mean swearing off meat. Elite athletes from Olympians to NFL linebackers are adopting vegan or vegetarian diets for improved performance, quicker recovery and overall health.

Even if you're into running half-marathons or otherwise competing for personal enjoyment, growing evidence suggests that following a plant-based diet could help you get leaner and train better.

Champion Vegan

Dotsie Bausch is an Olympic medalist and a true believer in diets that are free from animal products. Now retired from competitive cycling, Bausch is a multiple USA Cycling National Champion, two-time Pan American champion and silver medalist in women's cycling team pursuit at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. As an elite athlete, she embraced plant-based eating about nine years ago and has since become a full-time advocate.

For Bausch, healthy eating means a vegan rather than vegetarian diet. Dairy products are not OK from her perspective. An anti-cow's milk PSA featuring Bausch and five fellow Olympians – which aired during coverage of the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, – makes that clear. Today, Bausch, now 45, is executive director of the nonprofit Switch4Good, an athlete-led coalition aiming to build a dairy-free future.

Bausch made the switch to veganism as a relatively older athlete. It was something she discovered on her own. "The U.S. Team was a little nervous about what I was embarking on," she says, but trainers didn't try to deter her.

She noticed results from her new way of eating almost right away. "I wasn't feeling as inflamed, creaky or sore, or just kind of blah in the morning," she says. "I was bouncing out of bed – I felt ready to go. I was more energized."

The biggest race, Bausch says, was against the time it took her body to recover after training and competing. Changing to a plant-based diet helped.

"When you recover faster, you can handle more load," Bausch says. "You can handle more damage, more training. The more training you can do, the faster you're going to become. People can't train 24 hours a day, because you have to recover. So if you recover fast, you can train again. So, yes – I got much better and much faster."

Evidence for Plant-Eating Athletes

Athletes who follow plant-based diets could see improvements in their heart health, performance and recovery, suggests a new review of studies published online Thursday in the journal Nutrients.

First, researchers looked at evidence of traditional dietary shortcomings and negative health effects in athletes. Next, they summarized potential benefits of plant-based diets on athletes' heart health, recovery and performance.

Vegan diets, which include no animal products whatsoever, were the main focus of the review, researchers noted. However, benefits also appeared from vegetarian diets, which allow dairy products such as milk and eggs.

Review authors included Dr. James Loomis, medical director for the Barnard Medical Center in the District of Columbia and a former team internist for the NFL's St. Louis Rams (now the Los Angeles Rams) and the MLB's St. Louis Cardinals.

The review cited a 2017 study on coronary plaque buildup in older endurance cyclists and runners. Another study found that fewer than half of its Ironman triathlete participants were meeting the recommended carbohydrate intake for endurance athletes. Carbohydrate is the primary energy source during high- and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, authors noted. Endurance, both right before athletic events and in the long term, is enhanced by higher carb intake, they added. Starting a plant-based diet rich in grains, legumes and root veggies can boost an athlete's intake of healthy carbs.

Other studies in the review showed increased artery plaque or heart-muscle damage in U.S. men and German runners who competed in multiple marathons, compared to sedentary study participants. "Athletes are not immune to atherosclerosis or cardiac events," authors wrote. "Surprisingly, endurance athletes may have more advanced sclerosis and [heart muscle] damage, compared with sedentary individuals, even as they age." What the studies did not show, researchers continued, was whether these changes are consequences of the athletic activity itself, or the type of food, such as animal products, used to fuel it.

It's possible that, low-fat, vegan diets have properties that could help protect vulnerable athletes from heart disease risk factors and improve their performance, researchers suggested. Such diets can help reverse plaque, improve high blood cholesterol, and reduce high blood pressure, excess weight and diabetes risk.

Following a plant-based diet may help athletes in these physiological ways:

  • Lowering body fat and promoting leaner body composition.
  • Improving glycogen storage in muscle cells through higher carbs found in grains, legumes and root veggies, for greater endurance.
  • Increasing blood flow and oxygen to the body's tissues.
  • Reducing oxidative damage by combating free radicals with antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies.
  • Decreasing inflammation and speeding the body's recovery after intensive training.
  • Protecting the heart from risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol for safer competition.

However, although the new review finds potential health benefits to athletes from vegan or vegetarian diets, it does not make a direct cause-and-effect connection from plant-based diets to improved athletic performance.

Vegan Over Vegetarian?

A strictly vegan diet may seem intimidating for lifelong meat-eaters, who might find a vegetarian diet more doable, even as the dairy debate continues.

"Eating healthfully is a spectrum," says Susan Levin, a specialist in sports dietetics, director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and a co-author of the new review. "You can kind of go for the gold or you can go for the bronze. There are issues with dairy consumption that are not ideal for health."

Vegan diets are moving increasingly mainstream for professional athletes, Levin says, a trend which provided the impetus for the study. "We had known about maybe extreme athletes doing it, meaning people who run ultramarathons or triathletes; typically very lean people and endurance athletes, adopting vegan diets," she says. "And it made a lot of sense to them in terms of their reported recovery, leanness (and) just basic endurance."

Researchers were intrigued as athletes in a wide range of sports announced they were following vegan diets to boost performance. Professional athletes who have gone public about going vegan, at least during training, include tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, several members of pro football's Tennessee Titans, arm wrestler Rob Bigwood and Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton.

You don't have to be a professional athlete to benefit from a plant-based diet, Levin emphasizes. Among her patients, she counsels people who run marathons or enter Ironman competitions for fun. With their low-fat, healthy carbohydrate, high-fiber content, plant-based diets boost the body's metabolism.

"When you eat carbs, your post-meal burn is significantly higher than when you eat a standard American diet," Levin says. "And when you lower body fat, you have a higher aerobic capacity. So you'll be able to outperform someone with a lower aerobic capacity – that can even be in the absence of weight loss."

Exercise produces oxidative stress in the body, Levin explains. "Compared with meat-eaters, people on vegan diets consume more antioxidants: vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene." Onions, garlics and leeks – members of the allium vegetable group – also have antioxidant properties, she notes.

Guidelines for Athletes

"The more intense the training – the duration, intensity and time – the more important diet is," says Enette Larson-Meyer, a professor in the Human Nutrition and Food Program at the University of Wyoming. That holds true whether athletes are doing heavy training as part of a college program or for recreational purposes, such as competing in a triathlon, marathon or even a 10K race, she says.

Larson-Meyer points to the position paper: "Nutrition and Athletic Performance," a joint effort from three expert groups published in 2016. These comprehensive guidelines spell out strategies with types, amounts and timing of food, fluid and supplement intake for optimal health and performance across different training and competitive sport scenarios.

"A vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate containing high intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, phytochemicals and antioxidants," concluded authors from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American College of Sports Medicine and Dietitians of Canada. However, they added that current research is lacking regarding the influence of long-term vegetarianism on athletic performance.

Larson-Meyer, author of the 2006 book "Vegetarian Sports Nutrition," addresses concerns about the ability of vegetarian or vegan diets to meet protein requirements for athletes. "For somebody who's doing more strength training and a lot of hard training, where they're building up a lot of muscle – and that can even be lean muscle – (that requirement) is higher in protein, about twice what it would be (for a) sedentary person," she says.

"Overall, beyond that, we really recommend a diet based on minimally processed grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts and dairy products, if they desire to eat that, and then, a source of protein," Larson-Meyer adds. "Meat certainly serves as a source of protein – we all know that – (as do) dairy products. But it's not necessary to have that as your protein source."

When advising athletes to help them meet nutritional guidelines, Larson-Meyer says, giving them a foundation for healthy eating is the focus. She might work with people on the USDA's MyPlate eating plan, for instance, or someone following a Mediterranean diet. While both plans allow some lean meat, they largely promote plant-based meals with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds.

Helping athletes on plant-based diets is nothing new for Larson-Meyer, who says, "I've been vegetarian so long that I have a hard time working with athletes who are not at least semi-vegetarian."

Plant-Based Training Meal in a Bowl

Bausch continues to follow a whole-food based diet focused on legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and veggies. She recommends making what she calls a "trough bowl" as a simple pre- or post-workout meal.

Here's a sample of how to layer a bowl from bottom to top for a nutritious training meal. Choose your bowl size depending on how many calories you need.

  • Grain layer: Quinoa, brown rice or bulgur wheat.
  • Bean or legume layer: High-fiber, high-protein, satiating lentils or chickpeas.
  • Greens layer: Kale, spinach or romaine.
  • Nuts and seeds: Flax, pumpkin or chia seeds, walnuts.
  • Fruit: Avocados, berries.
  • Sauce: Spiced as preferred.
  • Topping: Grilled tempeh or sautéed tofu.

Meat alternatives can help people making the transition to plant-based diets, Bausch notes. The plant-based Beyond Burger or Field Roast grain meat sausages are available options.

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