Can a Vegan Diet Make Me a Better Athlete?
What Are Top Athletes Eating?
The 2016 Olympics have come and gone, but they may have gotten some of us inspired to become more fit or make lifestyle changes to increase our own athletic performance.
An in-depth look at what athletes are doing both off the field and in the kitchen may shed light on how you can become a better athlete or just a healthier individual. As a registered dietitian, I have seen a big trend for top athletes to transition to a plant-based diet in the past decade. What is a plant-based diet? It's a diet that is primarily based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and tubers (root vegetables). It excludes meat, dairy products, eggs and highly refined foods like processed oils, refined sugars and bleached flour.
Which Athletes Eat This Diet?
- Take Team USA's only qualifying male weightlifter, Kendrick Farris, for example. Since transitioning to a vegan diet two years ago, Farris was able to move up a weight class and set a new record by lifting 800 lbs at the Olympics.
- As an endurance athlete and ultra-marathon runner, Scott Jurek has competed in and won countless ultra marathons and set the thru-record for the Appalachian Trail last year. Scott has consumed a plant-based diet for 17 years and attributes his quick recovery times, lack of inflammation, and overall speed to his diet.
- Rich Roll has been named one of the fittest men by Men's Magazine, competed in many triathlons, and has become an outspoken advocate for the benefits of a plant-based diet for athletes.
Can You Make the Change?
Transitioning to a plant-based diet can seem hard at first because it goes against the grain of the typical American (Western) diet. Here are some easy tips or swaps you can make to take your primary diet from acidic to alkaline:
- Swap in beans or lentils for the protein portion of your meal
- Drink coconut milk instead of dairy milk
- Bolster your meals with green-leafy vegetables
- Consume fruit for dessert instead of other sugar sweetened snacks
- Swap in coconut oil in place of butter in recipes
- Consume more starchy vegetables instead of processed grains
How Does it Help?
The typical American (Western) diet is acidic. Some of the typically consumed acid forming foods include meats, dairy, processed foods, and soda. Conversely, a plant-based diet is alkaline-forming and packed with higher nutrient density (naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants). Some of the high-alkaline foods include: dark green leafy vegetables, avocados, peppers, tomatoes, seeds, coconut milks and oils, and grains like quinoa.
A theory behind why a plant-based diet may be so helpful in athletes can be summed up through the concept of pH balance. The pH spectrum can go from 1-very acidic to 14-the most alkaline. The body is constantly trying to maintain a pH between 7.35-7.45. It’s important you understand that foods you eat will not change the pH of your blood. Your body has safety mechanisms in place to ensure you never deviate from the healthy pH range. But, when you consume high alkaline foods your body can effortlessly maintain it’s optimal pH.
High intensity workouts or fitness activities can also cause stress and inflammation in the body (lactic acid is an example of an exercise-induced acid in the body). When you consume high acidity foods or induce stress on the body through physical activity, the body must buffer these acids to maintain homeostasis. In a high-intensity athlete, alkaline foods can decrease the body’s workload because foods ingested are closer to the optimal pH level. A shorter recovery time can mean stronger training with less soreness and inflammation.
Schwalfenberg GK. The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health? Journal of Environmental and Public Health.
Sears B, Ricordi C. Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition as a Pharmacological Approach to Treat Obesity. Journal of Obesity. 2011;2011:431985.