Meals that take a whole-foods, plant-based approach to diet—we’re talking vegan, vegetarian, and in some cases, Paleo and Whole 30—are trending right now, especially for athletes. A plant-based diet contains good carbs, which keep you fueled throughout your day, and improve recovery, dietitians say. “Plant-based eating has started to become more of a trend among elite athletes who otherwise were more determined to follow a high-protein diet, partly because they see how this diet has helped them with recovery and overall improvement in health,” says Rebecca Goodrich, MS, RDN, LDN. Remember that quality, unrefined carbs are your friends, particularly before a race. “Plant-based diets contain high-carbohydrate food sources such as whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables, which are the primary sources of energy used during aerobic physical activity,” Goodrich says.
To get it right, dietitians explain, you can’t try to get your nutrients, especially protein, from processed plant-based foods, for one, and it’s all about creating a colorful balance of foods on your plate. “Aim to eat a variety of different fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein sources (like lentils, beans, and tofu) because that's how you'll get the most nutrients out of them. You'll also get all of your essential amino acids that way,” says plant-based dietitian-nutritionist Meredith Price, MS, RD, CDN. And, Price adds, if you’re going vegan and eliminating animal products altogether, remember to take a Vitamin B-12 supplement—it can’t be found adequately in plants, and you want to make sure that all the essential nutrients you need are still a part of your diet.
Essential Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Besides the fact that a diet high in carbs and protein from plant sources can give you more sustained energy throughout your workouts, eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal products can be better for the environment, and most importantly, help keep your heart, gut, metabolism, and mental health in the best possible shape. Read on for more health benefits of eating a plant-based diet.
1. Plant-Based Eating Can Help You Maintain a Healthy Weight
While we’re not claiming any one food or diet to be a “miracle weight loss” trick, a balanced diet filled with more plant foods, less processed foods, and frequent exercise (if you’re a Spartan, even better) can help you maintain a healthy weight and metabolism. “Studies have shown positive outcomes from eating a plant-based diet, such as lowered BMI and serum glucose levels, which can affect the development of metabolic syndrome and Type II Diabetes,” Goodrich says.
And just because you are eating a majority plant-based diet doesn’t mean you have to swear off meat completely. Many meats tend to be higher in saturated fat (like fatty beef, lamb, pork, and poultry with skin) which is associated with higher BMI, so they should be eaten in moderation while you focus on protein from plant sources.
2. It May Help Your Blood Pressure, Cholesterol and Heart Health Stay Normal
Research shows that plant-based eating can prevent heart damage or coronary artery disease in endurance athletes, as well as keep blood pressure and cholesterol lower. (Animal products like meat and eggs are especially high in cholesterol, and saturated fat of course). Those who eat vegetarian or vegan may be at more of an advantage when it comes to a reduced risk of heart disease than those who do eat meat and other animal products. “Many studies that have compared omnivores, vegetarians and vegans have shown lower instances of heart disease and diabetes among those who follow a plant-based diet,” Price says. In fact, one study found that eating vegetarian could reduce your risk for coronary heart disease by up to 40 percent.
3. It Can Potentially Prevent Diabetes
Studies have also proven that plant-heavy diets can not only stave off Type II Diabetes but also can help manage Type II diabetes in diabetic patients. This is because the unrefined carbohydrates in a plant-based diet, as opposed to refined grains like white bread and sugary processed foods, help keep blood sugar at normal levels. Just stick with the good carbs: legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
4. It’s a Source of Antioxidants
Most plants, especially dark, leafy greens, berries, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are rich in various antioxidants, which still need to be studied more to determine their potential cancer-fighting abilities, according to dietitians, but pack some major health benefits. “Antioxidants ‘quench’ free radicals, which come from any high inflammatory encounters, like inflammatory foods: many animal products, trans fats, sugary foods, and simple carbs, or things like sun damage or radiation,” says Amanda Baker Lemein, MS, RD, LDN. “The antioxidants found in these foods can essentially help stop free radicals from causing cellular damage, which can lead to anything from aging skin or other skin damage to cancer,” Baker Lemein adds.
5. You Can Up Your Fiber Intake
The more plants you have in your diet, the more fiber you’ll consume, which has a number of positives. First, you’ll be fuller for longer and have more energy—exactly what elite athletes need from their diets. “Plant-based diets tend to be higher in fiber, which helps bulk up our stomachs and leaves us satiated,” Price says. High-fiber foods can also decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, Baker Lemein adds.
6. You’ll Experience Better Gut Health
With more fiber in the diet from a diet rich in plant-based food choices comes better gut health, which stems from an overall healthier gut microbiome, Price explains. Prebiotics, one type of dietary fiber found in foods like asparagus, onions, leeks, and bananas, feed probiotics, the good bacteria that exist in the gut, helping it process food more smoothly. And the better your digestion is moving, the better you’ll feel after you eat and during your workouts.
7. It May Help Improve Your Mental Health, Too
Studies show that the healthier your gut microbiome is, the better your mental health will be. Gut health and mental health are more linked than you would think—inflammation in the gut, which could result from a diet high in refined, processed foods, is linked to anxiety and depression in many people. This is because some neurotransmitters like serotonin, one of the mood-boosting hormones we have in our body, are released in the gut. We need that fiber from plant foods to fuel the probiotics in our microbiome and keep everything afloat within our digestive system and our central nervous system too.
Price mentions that her clients have experienced less brain fog and fewer “food comas” after switching to more plant-heavy eating. Also, there could be a positive memory connection to eating a Mediterranean, plant-based diet, she says: “There have been some great studies done on diet and the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s—it appears that a more plant-based diet is protective against these cognitive diseases as well.”
The bottom line is that there’s a strong correlation between the fiber content in plant foods, good digestion, and feeling more energized. “I also think that because people start eating more fiber when they eat more plant-based foods, they feel better digestively and therefore feel less lethargic or depleted of energy as they might with a typical Western diet,” Baker Lemein says. The amount of energy that you’ll have to get you through your next race is enough of an incentive alone to go plant-based.