3 Myths about Plant-based Eating for Athletes – Good News!

by Jackson Long

3 myths about athletic nutrition you might want to know.

Chances are, you’ve heard about the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet to the environment, the welfare of animals and even long-term health. Maybe you’ve also heard your athletic performance will suffer if you cut out meat and animal products.

Well, this paradigm is being shattered across athletic disciplines. From ultra-endurance racers to NFL linebackers, more and more athletes are learning about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle for health and, yes, even athletic performance and recovery. In fact, a scientific review published in the journal Nutrients earlier this year adds further evidence that athletes from professionals to weekend warriors can thrive on a plant-based diet.

According to a 2019 scientific review, Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports, plant-based eating can improve the health and performance of endurance athletes by:

  • Reducing body fat
  • Fostering effective glycogen storage
  • Improving vascular flow and tissue oxygenation
  • Providing high-levels of antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress
  • Minimizing inflammation in the body

Yet a plethora of myths and misconceptions about the nutritional adequacy of plant-based eating for athletes still exists. Of these, let’s break down 3 myths.

Myth #1: Animal protein is highly superior to plant protein.
This is perhaps the one myth to rule them all, and one that has established itself deeply within the culture of athletes. Protein has become synonymous with health and strength, and animal protein — particularly red meat — is ingrained in our society as a powerfully masculine symbol. Yet most people, even athletes, aren’t even sure how much protein they need on a daily basis, or what protein actually is.

Protein is a chain of amino acids, naturally occurring organic compounds that are the second largest component of human muscles. We require nine specific “essential amino acids” in our diet. These aren’t unique to animal protein; in fact, the animals themselves get them from the plants they eat. The reason meat and eggs and other animal-sourced protein is considered higher quality or “complete” stems from a higher ratio of these essential amino acids. But as long as we’re eating a varied diet that matches our energy needs, we’ll get all the essential amino acids we need throughout the day, even if we’re only eating plants.

In addition, there’s been a recent push to redefine what protein quality really means. After all, protein is just a single nutrient within food. Unless we’re only consuming protein powder, the foods we eat also contain other nutrients. What does your protein come packaged with? In the case of meat and animal products, it includes saturated fat and cholesterol, along with other nasty stuff such as antibiotics, hormones and GMOs if you’re eating industrial meat. With plant-based sources of protein, like beans or nuts and seeds, you get fiber and a plethora of vitamins and nutrients.

Athletes require about 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per day per kilogram of body weight, a value that can be met by a well-planned plant-based diet when calories are matched to exercise expenditure.

Myth #2: Plant-based diets are exorbitantly expensive.
Goji berries, raw protein powder, and $15 smoothies from Whole Foods? Like any diet, eating plant-based exists on a spectrum of cost. Yet a common myth is that in order to fulfill our nutrient requirements on such a diet, we must shop exclusively at health food stores and load up on pricey supplements. In fact, some of the healthiest, most nutritionally dense foods for athletes are some of the most affordable: think beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, seasonal vegetables, sweet potatoes, and greens. I like to think of food as one of the most important investments one can make for their health and athletic performance, and it’s certainly less expensive than the latest running watch.

Nutrient density is one of the major benefits of a plant-based diet, especially for athletes who are pushing the capacities of their bodies to the brink in training and racing. Another pro tip for saving money and boosting the quality of food is to buy locally grown seasonal produce, which is often cost-effective but offers more nutrition per dollar. Find it at our local farmers markets, retail outlets such as Atkinsons’ Market and NourishMe, online at Kraay’s Market & Garden, or through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm share.

Myth #3: You must sacrifice performance in order to care about the environment, the welfare of animals, and long-term health.

I’ve met many athletes that say “I would stop eating meat for environmental reasons, but I’m concerned I’ll become deficient and sacrifice my performance.” This is simply false. The beauty of a plant-based diet is that it can be a lifestyle choice to be more environmentally sustainable, opt-out of the cruel and antiquated industrial animal agriculture system, and promote health and prevent disease, all without sacrificing performance. In fact, optimal plant-based diets can be incredibly nutrient and calorie dense, fueling even the most demanding athletic pursuits. For example, a bunch of the Tennessee Titans NFL team switched to a plant-based diet a couple of years ago, and made it to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

Sport can very often be an inherently selfish endeavor, yet many of us also seek to minimize our environmental impact. To me, this is the most compelling reason to choose plant-based eating. There’s strong evidence that industrialized animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, and is a leading cause of rainforest deforestation, agricultural land and freshwater use, among other impacts. Athletes who spend time outdoors should be concerned about these effects, which directly affect our training playgrounds.

Bottom line: Unless you choose quality over quantity when it comes to meat, eggs and dairy from a healthy and well-managed pastured livestock operation, plant-based may be a better environmental choice.

What we choose to eat is a vote for the things we believe in. With plant-based eating, you can support your health, environmental well-being, animal well-fare, and athetic performance. The same breakfast that can fuel a long run in the Sawtooths also can reduce your carbon footprint, while rooted in compassion toward living creatures and a commitment to a long and healthy life. Hopefully, by challenging the 3 myths presented here (and others!), you can enhance your performance and feel your best.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jackson Long is a performance nutritionist specializing in plant-based nutrition for athletes. Jackson holds a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Physiology and a master’s degree in Applied Nutrition. A lifelong endurance athlete, he also coaches the SVSEF Nordic team and hosts the sports nutrition and lifestyle-focused podcast, In The Flow. Learn more at intheflownutrition.com.

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