The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
On Exercise Performance and
the Need for More Research
Athletes are increasingly adopting plant-based diets and are touting the benefits from increased energy to decreased recovery time and more. These benefits may not be solely anecdotal; there is some emerging scientific evidence showing athletic performance benefits on a plant-based diet, but more research must be conducted to truly understand the benefits.
Plant-based diets like vegetarianism and veganism are not new. Plenty of research has been conducted showing the benefits to one’s health (i.e. increased lifespan, improved immune function, enhanced cardiovascular health and more) of adopting such a diet. However, what is new is an increased interest in studying the benefits of this diet on athletic performance. As such, there is somewhat limited information in the scientific literature.
Much of the literature revolves around nutrition recommendations for vegan athletes (i.e. recommendations regarding avoiding deficiencies etc.), but there is a research gap regarding how it impacts athletic performance. Thus, there is a need for more research and luckily, with the rise of vegan athletes, scientists may be able to close this research gap.
While sparse, there is some research suggesting enhanced athletic performance. David Rogerson cites three studies in his review entitled, “Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete” that shows either improved athletic performance or no difference in athletic performance. One study conducted in the 1900s showed increased strength and endurance in vegetarian athletes compared to omnivorous athletes. A study in 1970 showed no difference between thigh muscle width and pulmonary function between vegetarian and omnivorous athletes. A 1986 study compared vegetarian to omnivorous female Israeli athletes and found no difference in pulmonary function, endurance, limb circumferences, and other strength measures. The vegetarians also performed equally well compared to their omnivorous counterparts in athletic events of long duration. So, while there may not have been a difference according to these last two studies, the studies do show that a plant-based diet does not hinder performance as some might suggest.
In 2016, John Craddock, Yasmine Probst and Gregory Peoples conducted a review of the literature regarding plant-based diets and athletic performance. The review showed that a plant-based diet neither improved nor hindered athletic performance. However, only eight studies were found and reviewed and these studies differed greatly with regard to experimental design and aims/outcomes causing the researchers to state that further research is warranted.
However, there is some current research showing benefits. A recent 2016 study conducted by Heidi Lynch, Christopher Wharton and Carol Johnston at Arizona State University found improved VO2max in female vegetarian endurance athletes compared to their omnivorous counterparts meaning they had greater cardiorespiratory fitness/aerobic capacity. They also tested leg extension peak torque finding no difference between the groups suggesting that the two groups have comparable strength.
As more research is conducted, the reasons for increased athletic performance may be further clarified and elucidated. Some researchers have posited that plant-based diets may yield performance benefits due to the increased intake of antioxidants, micronutrients and carbohydrates which aids in training and enhances recovery. The increased antioxidants and phytochemicals may reduce oxidative stress caused by prolonged exercise and it may enhance immunity. The increased carbohydrate intake may lead to improved glycogen stores which may translate to improved performance. Another reason may be that plant-based diets have an alkaline effect on acid-base levels due to the high fruit and vegetable consumption and the low consumption of animal products. Intramuscular acidity can limit high-intensity exercise. Therefore, a plant-based diet may combat this acidity yielding performance benefits.
Clearly, there is a need for more research as the scientific evidence is mixed and it is sparse; however, the anecdotal performance benefits from a multitude of world-class athletes is quite compelling. Further, the health benefits alone are enough to suggest that we should consider shifting towards a plant-based diet.
Craddock, J.C., Probst, Y.C., & Peoples, G.E. (2016). Vegetarian and omnivorous nutrition-comparing physical performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 26, 212-220. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0231
Fuhrman, J., & Ferreri, D.M. (2010). “Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete.” Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(4), 233-241. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181e93a6f
Lynch, H., Wharton, C., & Johnston, C. (2016). Cardiorespiratory fitness and peak torque differences between vegetarians and omnivore endurance athletes: A cross-sectional study. Nutrients, 8(726), 1-11, doi: 10.3390/nu8110726
Rogerson, D. (2017). Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(36), 1-15, doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9
No matter the path you choose, keep one golden rule in mind...eat what makes you happy, feel good, and enables you to "Live Your Fullest Everyday!"
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