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Oatmeal with brown sugar. // Photo by Mariah Wilson.

Plant-based diets for performance

By Kent Wong, February 3 2010 —

Whether you’re a varsity athlete or a weekend warrior, you know that nutrition and rest are the foundation that your training relies upon. Unfortunately, current attitudes and perceptions of plant protein are mired in falsehoods pushed by big industries that want to keep the status quo in animal proteins due to financial greed. I want to shed some light on a plant-based diet for performance and general health, along with the numerous advantages it can offer. I am not here to convince you to go vegan or vegetarian, but you certainly need to consider shifting your protein sources to more plant sources. This is extremely important for athletes as you are consuming more protein.

Regardless of your activity, when working out, oxidative stress occurs and muscle tissue break down happens. You then grab your recovery drink or refuel with a meal and then rest. Protein helps build and repair tissues and is involved in aiding your body creating and maintaining various chemicals. This is a cycle all athletes adhere to and depending on your sport, your protein and overall dietary needs will vary. Unfortunately, you’re doing damage to your body by refueling using only animal protein. Heme iron is found in all animal proteins and can catalyze the formation of free radicals. If you didn’t know, free radicals can damage cells and/or your DNA, and could cause cancer. Unlike their plant counterparts, animal protein doesn’t come with the included bonus of fiber, complex carbohydrates and antioxidants. Many plant foods also contain amino acids so you’re not missing out on anything by shifting to plant sources. The complex carbohydrates are also superior in resupplying your body’s storage of glycogen — your internal battery. Bottom line is that you’re poisoning yourself and missing out on numerous health benefits by sticking to animal protein. Lastly, you might be wondering what the professional athletes eat. The consensus is now plant. Tom Brady, with six NFL Superbowls under his belt, consumes an 80 per cent plant, 20 per cent lean meat diet — those rings don’t lie. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan have produced a documentary on this topic as well, and they fully support a plant-based diet.

What perceivable benefits can a shift to a plant diet bring? As a long-distance runner and cyclist, I regularly track my body mass and VO2 — maximal oxygen uptake — as health metrics. A more plant-based protein diet can help you in obtaining leaner body mass as your intake in saturated fats will drop. Eliminating excess body fat will boost your endurance and reduce any metabolic risks you may have. Second, carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for humans in moderate to high aerobic exercise. Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “carb loading,” where athletes will eat a plate of pasta, for example, before an event to aid them. This is stockpiling the body’s glycogen storage — think of it as a fuel tank. Studies show that a consistent diet that has ample carbohydrates will help keep proper glycogen levels, and most athletes lack the necessary carbohydrate baseline. Plant proteins will help you fill in the gap for complex carbs. Third is your blood viscosity and tissue oxygenation — this is where your VO2 comes into play with your diet. You need to remember that blood flow depends on arterial flexibility and healthy arteries. You can’t have healthy arteries if they’re filled up with plaque. And for lifters, science shows that saturated fat will impair your vasodilation — widening of the vessels. In bro-science talk, this impedes your ability to get the pump. So, too many steaks and burgers are hurting you in the gym. Popeye was onto something with the spinach after all — well, maybe if it was lentils. Finally, you have reduced inflammation and more antioxidant activity. You’re less likely to have joint symptoms from your preferred choice of sport and long-term living benefits, too. Osteoarthritis and other types of arthritis are simply manifestations of inflammation. Guess what reduces inflammation? A plant-rich diet!

I want to talk more on artery health since cardio-related diseases are so prevalent in the developed world. Athletes are not immune to atherosclerosis — plaque build up in your arteries — and myocardial damage — damage to your heart muscle — which could lead to cardiac events, like heart attacks. Even more shocking is that endurance athletes are more likely to be at risk for such conditions. In a study for coronary plaque, 44 per cent of active cyclists and runners had coronary plaque compared to only 22 per cent of the sedentary controls. Sitting on your butt watching Netflix sounds appealing now, doesn’t it? By sticking to an animal-only source, you lose the benefits of the protection of dietary fiber and antioxidants and exacerbating these issues due to activity. A performance lifestyle requires a performance diet backed by science.

 What if you’re not an athlete or weekend warrior? No need for plant protein then, right? Wrong. Arterial changes happen as early as in utero. From the Journal of Nutrients, they found that most American children aged 10–14 had fatty streaks in coronary arteries. Autopsies of young American soldiers in the Iraq war showed that 8.5 per cent had coronary atherosclerosis. By age 20, approximately 10 per cent of the population in developed nations have plaque lesions. But all is not lost. In the same study, it was shown that a balanced diet and a more plant-based diet could alleviate these conditions.

So, how can you start? I would recommend small changes at first. You can start by adding protein rich lentils and whole grains in your diet. Cut out the heavily refined foods. You’ll feel fuller and less lethargic, too. For breakfast, two slices of whole grain toast and a cup of oatmeal is over 22 grams of protein. For those cold winter days, a lentil curry or soup can soothe the soul and supply you with 18 grams of protein per cup. You’ll feel better and age better all while avoiding nasty health-related issues with a heavy animal-based diet.

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