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Plant-based diets, athletes and what we can learn from them

By Larry Carroll

When you’re an elite athlete, the only thing that approaches your workout in terms of importance is what you put into your body. Like any human being, food nourishes, sustains and on some occasions delights you. But more so than most people, you depend on food to build muscle, stave off injury and allow you to perform at peak capacity. 

More and more these days, athletes are coming forward with revelations of embracing a plant-based lifestyle. And with many of them, it’s hard to argue that any other sort of diet could make them better at their respective sports: tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, Olympian weightlifter (and holder of the U.S. record in the clean and jerk) Kendrick Farris, NBA all-star Kyrie Irving, world champion surfer Tia Blanco and more. 

Plant-based diets, athletes and what we can learn from them.

Then there’s Scott Jurek. Considered one of the greatest runners of all time, the 46-year-old Minnesota native has won the Hardrock Hundred, the Badwater (twice), the Western States 100 (7 straight years) and more – and has been on a plant-based diet since 1999. In 2012, Jurek published “Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultra-Marathon Greatness,” an autobiography which concludes each chapter with one of his favorite vegan recipes.

Anecdotally speaking, athletes quickly notice a difference in their bodies after switching over to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle – and most of what they notice appears to be good. 

“I wasn’t feeling as inflamed, creaky or sore, or just kind of blah in the morning,” Olympic medal cyclist Dotsie Bausch told US News recently (Athletes Can Thrive on Plant-Based Diets), looking back on her switch. “I was bouncing out of bed – I felt ready to go. I was more energized.” 

Plant-based diets, athletes and what we can learn from them.

“I think it’s a great lifestyle for long-term stability,” Venus Williams, who credits veganism with overcoming the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome, told Shape magazine ( A Venus Williams Interview That’s Not About Tennis ). “You also have to look at everything else in your regimen, what you’re putting into your body, like supplements. I’m always learning and I’m hoping to perfect my system.”

Accordingly, Venus made headlines earlier this year (Venus Williams said her raw vegan diet was unsustainable, so she now eats potatoes and lentils too) when she revealed that her raw food-diet aspirations had proven difficult to sustain over long periods of time, leading to an amended diet that includes such foods as  potatoes, rice and lentils. “Sometimes you just need something more substantial — some rice, some potatoes — after a workout,” she reasoned. 

According to a series of studies published in the journal Nutrients ( Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports )

Plant-based diets, athletes and what we can learn from them.

“The effect of plant-based diets on cardiovascular risk factors, particularly plasma lipid concentrations, body weight, and blood pressure, and, as part of a healthful lifestyle, reversing existing atherosclerotic lesions, may provide a substantial measure of cardiovascular protection. In addition, plant-based diets may offer performance advantages. They have consistently been shown to reduce body fat, leading to a leaner body composition. Because plants are typically high in carbohydrate, they foster effective glycogen storage. By reducing blood viscosity and improving arterial flexibility and endothelial function, they may be expected to improve vascular flow and tissue oxygenation. Because many vegetables, fruits, and other plant-based foods are rich in antioxidants, they help reduce oxidative stress. Diets emphasizing plant foods have also been shown to reduce indicators of inflammation. These features of plant-based diets may present safety and performance advantages for endurance athletes.” 

Bausch, for her part, certainly agrees with the recovery advantages. “When you recover faster, you can handle more load … 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, where do you start? According to “Forks Over Knives” ( Top Tips for Plant-Based Athletes ), you need to train yourself much like in athletics – but to avoid all animal products, processed foods, oils and refined carbohydrates. Many athletes worry about where they’ll get their protein, but the human body only requires 5 to 10 percent of its caloric intake to be protein, so simply maintaining adequate caloric intake will often satisfy that need. You’re also likely to get all your essential amino acids. 

Plant-based diets, athletes and what we can learn from them.

In a gradual manner, a plant-based athlete needs to transition to a diet of calorically-dense whole plant foods, starchy vegetables and fruits for fuel. Rather than large meals, it is wiser to eat many smaller ones per day. It’s also crucial to keep close tabs on weight, looking to the Harris-Benedict calculator “Calculate Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) online (Harris Benedict Equation) ” to determine caloric needs and  BMR (basal metabolic rate). 

Naturally, you want to consult with your physician before embracing any radical change to your diet. But the keyword here is exactly that: naturally. Athletes who embrace the plant-based lifestyle and are able to make it work to report all kinds of benefits from putting all-natural foods into their bodies. Ultimately, it’s a matter of having an open mind, a compliant palate, and training appropriately. 

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