There was a time when humans went through cycles of plenty and fasting. Presently, western society has been living off a food industry of plenty, one that is a well-oiled machine that provides consumers with instantaneous food products catered to our every need. While this may be great, the food industry is having a significantly negative impact on our health.
Some quick health facts
Here are a few statistics on the prevalence of obesity and hypertension. According to the 2014 Canadian Community Health Survey, over five million adults have obesity. The same survey in 2015 found that one in every three adults in Canada has obesity. Estimates suggest that 31.1 per cent of adults (1.39 billion) worldwide had hypertension in 2010 (Nature Reviews, 2020). (Hypertension is a precursor to several cardiovascular diseases).
How the western diet connects to rising numbers
A key factor in such clinical presentations is due to the western diet. This is why, in recent years, vegetarian and vegan diets have gotten so much attention from researchers and policymakers. One of the biggest outcomes of all this interest was Canada’s updated Food Guide in 2019. Unlike the 2007 guide, it moved away from food groups and explained how to distribute proportions. It also openly recommended that citizens consume more plant-based proteins.
This update came due to an observation of heavy meat consumption and low vegetable consumption. According to the USDA, almost 90 per cent of Americans do not reach the recommended servings of vegetables per day (five to nine servings).
Why are numerous studies coming out encouraging a decrease in meat consumption?
It is not that eating meat is bad. It is that the majority of meat you find in the aisles at your local grocery store is processed – pumped with preservatives. As well, the metabolism of meat elicits a profound inflammatory response within the body. It is this, and several other processes, that harm the general population, a population that is sedentary.
What does this have to do with triathletes, a population that doesn’t have an issue with accumulating physical activity? Actually, a lot. Besides the general health benefits of reducing our meat consumption (not suggesting you have to be a vegetarian), some benefits will improve the way your body functions. Especially when considering athletic performance.
Six performance benefits of adopting a plant-based diet
A review published in Nutrients (2019), came up with six performance and cardiovascular benefits of adopting a plant-based diet for endurance athletes.
- Plaque, blood pressure and cholesterol: Even athletes are at risk for heart disease. In one study, 44 per cent of endurance cyclists and runners had coronary plaques. Adopting a plant-based diet keeps athletes’ hearts strong by reversing plaque, bringing down blood pressure and cholesterol, and reducing weight.
- Inflammation: Meat consumption and high cholesterol levels exacerbate inflammation, which can result in pain and impair athletic performance and recovery. Studies show that a plant-based diet may have an anti-inflammatory effect. While a western diet, high in processed carbs and meats elicits an inflammatory response.
- Oxygen transportation: A plant-based diet, which is low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol, helps improve blood viscosity or thickness. This improves oxygen transportation from lungs to blood to tissues via blood vessels. The more oxygen that is extracted from the lungs, the more oxygen is delivered to the site of muscle tissues, the more oxygen available to be used by muscles. This is a critical factor in endurance performance, the more effectively oxygen can be transported the more efficient the aerobic system becomes.
- Blood vessels: Plant-based diets improve arterial flexibility and diameter, leading to better blood flow. One study found that even a single high-fat meal, including sausage and egg McMuffins, impaired arterial function for several hours. Therefore, as elaborated on in point three, oxygenated blood transportation is greater improved.
- Antioxidants and muscle fatigue: Plant-based diets are a rich source of antioxidants. Compared with meat-eaters, people eating a plant-based diet get more antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals. Free radicals lead to muscle fatigue, reduced athletic performance, and impaired recovery.
- The link between body fat and VO2 max: Plant-based diets, which are typically low in fat and high in fibre, can reduce body fat. Reduced body fat is associated with increased aerobic capacity—or the ability to use oxygen to fuel exercise. Studies show that athletes on a plant-based diet increase their VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen they can use during intense exercise—leading to better endurance.
Not a believer?
More and more athletes are reducing and cutting out meat from their diets. Lionel Sanders – in his YouTube videos – has been openly transparent about his diet. In videos over the past year, he has referenced the goal of reducing meat consumption – for health and ethical reasons. Scott Jurek, a highly accomplished American ultramarathoner, is an advocate for plant-based alternatives, not solely for performance gains, but the long term benefits.
Understandably, for some, solely getting protein from a plant-based diet isn’t practical. While you may not fully adopt a plant-based diet, simply substituting meat for plant alternatives throughout the week elicits several benefits.