By Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Over the past year and a half I have been extolling the benefits of a plant based diet. The science behind plant-based eating is so strong that now even elite athletes are converting.
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.
Meat-free athletes — including tennis champion Venus Williams, Olympic skater Meagan Duhamel, ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, Formula 1’s Lewis Hamilton and Derrick Morgan of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans — have already proven the performance-boosting power of a plant-based diet. Now, “Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports,” a new scientific review published in the journal Nutrients adds further evidence that plant-based athletes benefit from improvements in heart health, performance and recovery.
Plant-based diet shown to reverse coronary plaque
The report comes on the heels of studies that have found that endurance athletes have a higher-than-average risk for diseases of the heart, including atherosclerosis and myocardial damage. According to one study, 44 percent of middle-aged and older endurance runners and cyclists had coronary plaques, which can increase heart disease risk. A low-fat, plant-based diet is the most effective dietary pattern clinically shown to reverse plaque. Such a diet also addresses other key factors such as elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight, as well as diabetes.
“It’s no wonder that more and more athletes are racing to a vegan diet,” says review co-author James Loomis, M.D., M.B.A., medical director for the Barnard Medical Center. “Whether you’re training for a couch-to-5K or an Ironman Triathlon, a plant-based diet is a powerful tool for improving athletic performance and recovery.” Dr. Loomis, who is currently training for an Ironman Triathlon, is also featured in The Game Changers, a documentary on vegan athletes scheduled to be released in 2019. He also served as team internist for the St. Louis Rams and the St. Louis Cardinals.
The researchers also find that a plant-based diet boosts athletic performance and recovery by increasing blood flow and tissue oxygenation and reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. A varied diet of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, along with a vitamin B12 supplement, provides all of the necessarynutrients an endurance athlete needs, including protein, calcium, and iron.
Plant-based diets allow for lean meat
Going plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean you have to totally eliminate meat. Our definition of a plant-based diet allows for modest amounts of fish and lean meat. But more importantly, choosing a diet heavy in fruits and veggies may help ward off chronic diseases and keep you svelte in years to come.
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 public service announcement 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.
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.”
If plant-based eating benefits world class athletes, maybe all of us can learn from them.