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Why More And More Athletes Are Turning Vegan?

vegan diet for athletes

A well vocalized statement by Ultramarathon runner, Scott Jurek is “Don’t be afraid of learning about new ways of eating that are different from what you’re used to. Enjoy discovering new flavors and foods, as well as preparing meals to share with people you care about.”

The legacy of plant-based diets lies in the history of human evolution. The dietary pattern shifted from time to time according to the availability of foods, physical activity, sometimes due to philosophical reasons as well and many other factors.

The plant-based diet has been followed from centuries. Pythagoreans were the first one to refrain from animal-based diets in order to expect longevity and some other philosophical reasons also.

The other influential figures who succeeded the vegetarianism culture were Indian emperor Ashoka, Japanese emperor Tenmu, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and few more in a row.

So, we have seen the trend of following plant-based diet from a historical perspective. Now, in the life race of the 21st century myriad dietary regimes have been coming up in society like very trending Keto-diet, paleo diet, Atkins diet, DASH diet, etc.

We always follow “what we see” and “What is in trend” on digital media as it is the most convenient platform to acquire all the diet-related guidance. However, every diet has their own pros and cons so always follow a diet with proper guidance.

Further, in present scenario where we all were locked in our houses due to the spread of corona virus, the digital media has become a really big platform for fitness. Many of the athletes used this platform to vocalize their diets and routine. 

There are many influential figures namely, Patrick Boboumian, Scott Jurek, Tom Brady who follow a plant-based diet or vegan diet and these elite athletes are the shining stars in their sports. Besides, our Indian sportspersons are also adopting a vegan regimen, for example, Sunil Chhetri (Captain of Indian Football team) has quoted in his interview that he was also turned to vegan diet which supported both recovery and digestion.

Another one is Indian cricketer, Virat Kohli, who had also switched to a semi-vegan diet. Therefore, influential figures quoted above eradicated the notion that animal foods are superior for athletes or for building big muscles. Alongside, above mentioned influential figures also showed the healing effects of vegan diet in their interviews or documentaries such as ‘The game changer’.

So, now in this article, we have highlighted the beneficial effects of vegan diet or plant based diets in detail and with their respective reasons as well.

Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety

Vegan diet for healthy heart

In a review article it was manifested that endurance athletes are more susceptible to atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction. The shreds of scientific evidence have shown that plant-based diet have cardio-protective effects and promote leaner body composition by decreasing body fat, stimulate glycogen build up as they are high in carbohydrates.

They have a tendency to minimize the viscosity of the blood, improves flexibility of the artery and endothelial functioning which in turn, improves the blood flow, and enhances the provision of oxygen to tissues.

They are copious source of antioxidants and phytochemicals which have the ability to reverse atherosclerosis and reduce the inflammatory markers generated due to oxidative stress. Thus, plant based diet has potential to enhance the athletic performance and hasten the recovery period as well (Barnard et al, 2019).

Research has also suggested that diets high in saturated fat and trans fatty acids are the major contributors to cause arterial damage and cardiovascular diseases. Animal-based diets particularly, dairy products and meats are the chief sources of saturated fat so, diet abstain from animal foods could ameliorate the lipid profile of plasma and have the potential to manage dyslipidemia (wang et al, 2015).

Additionally, studies have also depicted that vegan diets found to be successful in decreasing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, accelerate the potassium level in the blood, reduces risk of obesity, and type-2 diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity. Hence, the protect body from atherosclerotic damage (Yokoyama et al, 2014; Barnard et al, 2005).

Reduce the risk of inflammation and obesity

Pooled data from various studies showed that individuals stick to a vegetarian diet for a minimum of 2 years had a lower level of serum high sensitivity C-reactive protein and high level of interleukin-6 as compared to omnivores (Haghighatdoost et al, 2017).

A study by Holt et al (2009) has also shown the advantageous effect of consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts in reducing the serum inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha.

These inflammatory markers are found to be associated with inflammation, obesity, heart diseases, insulin resistance, and other metabolic syndrome.

Excellent source of antioxidants

High to moderate-intensity exercise increases the oxygen level in working muscles which produces free radicals mainly, reactive oxygen species or reactive nitrogen species thus, results in exercise-induced oxidative stress (Kelkar et al, 2008).

There are several factors like elevated temperature, increase in metabolic rate, increased uptake of oxygen molecules by active muscle fibers, lowering of pH in cellular muscles while doing exercise could possibly be associated with increased production of free-radicals (Powers & Jackson, 2008).

These reactive species may create oxidative stress conditions in active muscles which cause damage to various cellular molecules like DNA, proteins, lipids etc. and in turn result in cells and tissue damage (Fulle et al, 2004). Hence may lead to muscle soreness, muscle damages, muscle fatigue and reduces physical performance.

Therefore, athletes or fitness enthusiast have to boosts their antioxidant defense mechanisms to counteract exercise-induced oxidative damage. So for that purpose, vegan diets including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts are pooled sources of antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, flavonoids, phenols, quercetin, and other polyphenols which have a tendency to scavenges these free radicles or neutralize the oxygen radicals.

A study also shows that blueberry supplementation i.e. 150g/day could predictably useful in reducing the free radicals in athletes in a hot environment.

Protein rich

Plant based proteins

Protein requirement of athletes differs according to intensity or type of their sport. So, it is assumed that vegan diets or plant based proteins are insufficient in accomplishing the protein requirements and as their protein quality is inferior compared to animal proteins because of this reason fitness enthusiasts focused on animal proteins.

However, a well-structured vegan diet might meet all your protein requirements. There are certain plant protein sources that contain all essential amino acids particularly, pseudo cereals i.e. quinoa, amaranth seeds, and buckwheat. These cereals consist of all essential amino acids and also provide other micronutrients in sufficient quantity.

Apart from this, the incorporation of legumes, pulses, sprouts in your meal also adds fiber to your diet which has additional beneficial effects. 

Promotes Gut Microbiota

Diet also influences the growth of microorganism in the gut which has a direct or indirect impact on human health. Studies have also found a strong relationship between gut microbiota and diabetes, cancer, allergic reactions, other metabolic syndrome or cognitive impairment (Nie et al, 2018).

Plant foods which include onion, chicory, banana, asparagus, and artichoke are a good source of fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). These FOS are primarily fermented by bifido bacteria thus, act as prebiotic. Moreover, scientific evidence have indicated that the gut microflora of vegans is different from omnivores however, similar to vegetarians (Glick-Bauer&Yeh, 2014).

Vegan diet provides dietary fibers in ample amount and encourages the growth of beneficial microbiota in the intestinal tract.

Ayurvedic herbs

Inclusion of herbs like ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Terminalia arjuna could presumably enhance the speed, muscular strength of lower limb, neuromuscular coordination, ameliorate endurance, and reduce blood pressure (Sandhu et al, 2010).

Conclusion

A well-constructed vegan diet found to be beneficial in improving athletic performance. So, the diet should be planned according to nutrient requirements that specific sports required.

Diet high in red meat specifically nitrate cured meat contains a carcinogenic compound (nitrosamines) which increases the risk of bowel cancer or other cancers. In the case of fish especially, large fish are contaminated with heavy metals i.e. mercury which in turn, closely associated with neurological damage.

However an unplanned vegan diet may lead to nutritional deficiencies. Henceforth, it is important to consider all the parameters while designing vegan diets.

Further reading

  1. Barnard, N. D., Goldman, D. M., Loomis, J. F., Kahleova, H., Levin, S. M., Neabore, S., &Batts, T. C. (2019). Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients11(1), 130.
  2. Barnard, N. D., Scialli, A. R., Turner-McGrievy, G., Lanou, A. J., & Glass, J. (2005). The effects of a low-fat, plant-based dietary intervention on body weight, metabolism, and insulin sensitivity. The American journal of medicine118(9), 991–997.
  3. Fulle, S., Protasi, F., Di Tano, G., Pietrangelo, T., Beltramin, A., Boncompagni, S., ...&Fanò, G. (2004). The contribution of reactive oxygen species to sarcopenia and muscle ageing. Experimental gerontology39(1), 17-24.
  4. Glick-Bauer, M., &Yeh, M. C. (2014). The health advantage of a vegan diet: exploring the gut microbiota connection. Nutrients6(11), 4822-4838.
  5. Haghighatdoost, F., Bellissimo, N., de Zepetnek, J. O. T., &Rouhani, M. H. (2017). Association of vegetarian diet with inflammatory biomarkers: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Public Health Nutrition20(15), 2713-2721.
  6. Holt EM, Steffen LM, Moran A, Basu S, Steinberger J, Ross JA, Hong CP, Sinaiko AR. Fruit and vegetable consumption and its relation to markers of inflammation and oxidative stress in adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Mar;109(3):414-21. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.11.036. PMID: 19248856; PMCID: PMC2676354.
  7. Kelkar, G., Subhadra, K., &Chengappa, R. K. (2008). Effect of antioxidant supplementation on hematological parameters, oxidative stress and performance of Indian athletes. Journal of Human Ecology24(3), 209-213.
  8. Nie, Y., Luo, F., & Lin, Q. (2018). Dietary nutrition and gut microflora: A promising target for treating diseases. Trends in Food Science & Technology75, 72-80.
  9. Powers, S. K., & Jackson, M. J. (2008). Exercise-induced oxidative stress: cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiological reviews88(4), 1243–1276.
  10. Sandhu, J. S., Shah, B., Shenoy, S., Chauhan, S., Lavekar, G. S., &Padhi, M. M. (2010). Effects of Withaniasomnifera (Ashwagandha) and Terminaliaarjuna (Arjuna) on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults. International journal of Ayurveda research1(3), 144–149. https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-7788.72485
  11. Wang, F., Zheng, J., Yang, B., Jiang, J., Fu, Y., & Li, D. (2015). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of the American Heart Association4(10), e002408.
  12. Yokoyama, Y., Nishimura, K., Barnard, N. D., Takegami, M., Watanabe, M., Sekikawa, A., Okamura, T., & Miyamoto, Y. (2014). Vegetarian diets and blood pressure: a meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine174(4), 577–587.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neha Saingh

 

Neha Singh, Msc(Hon.) Food and Nutrition

Neha is a sports nutritionist who loves to write on topics related to nutrition and encourage healthy eating for a wholesome lifestyle.

 

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