Why All Athletes Should Eat Plant-Based Diets

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Enhance athletic performance with diet.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Intro: Plant-based diets are gaining popularity among athletes. In this video, find out why folks are drawn to plant-based diets for athletic performance and recovery.

Consumer interest in eating plant-based has surged over the last few years, and athletes are no exception. While in the past, meat was seen as an irreplaceable performance-enhancing food, today the trend is developing in the opposite direction, thanks in part to documentaries like The Game Changers, for which I was honored to play a role as scientific advisor.

Several high-profile athletes, from heavyweight champion boxers to tennis players, have tried fueling with plants. Athletes have increasingly been adopting plant-based diets––not only for the related health benefits, but for perceived improvements in endurance performance. In fact, even by 2016, there were reports of up to a third of ultra-endurance runners, for example, shunning meat.

Increasing plant-based foods may boost vasodilatory—meaning artery-dilating, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties of the diet, which can lead to improved blood flow, reduced oxidative stress and inflammation, and thus, theoretically enhance endurance performance, reduce muscle damage, and speed recovery. Exercise itself can release free radicals that can also lead to muscle fatigue, reduced athletic performance, and impaired recovery, but the antioxidants concentrated in plant foods can help extinguish them. Here’s the level of oxidative stress before and after running for a few hours: a doubling of this oxidative stress marker, but that’s without blueberries. Eat a cup and a half of blueberries an hour before the run, and you can significantly blunt the stress. No wonder that eating even a cup of blueberries may improve exercise performance, whereas eating meat could actually make things worse.

Same with inflammation. Shifting to a dietary pattern with more plants and less animal-sourced food has been shown to attenuate inflammation. A systematic review and meta-analysis comparing common biomarkers of inflammation found that meat-free diets appeared to be favorable in all cases. And not just inflammation, but immune status. Having a strong immune system is important for athletes, especially endurance athletes, as they are often immunocompromised, which increases risk of upper respiratory tract infection. After a marathon, there can be about six-fold higher odds of coming down with an infection, and after an ultramarathon as many as 68 percent fall ill within the ensuing two weeks. But hey, a better immune system could translate into less illness––which means more time spent training for the plant-based athlete, though this has yet to be studied directly.

We also know there’s an ergogenic, meaning performance-enhancing, effect to nitrates, and nitrates in the bloodstream of vegetarians is about 20 percent higher, and in vegans 40 percent higher, likely due to their eating more nitrate-rich vegetables such as beets, spinach, and other greens.

And then there are all the health benefits that could boost performance in the long term. It is well-documented that plant-based diets reduce the risk of chronic illness, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cancer, and all-cause mortality––meaning living a significantly longer life.

But do high-performing athletes really need cardiovascular protection? Surprisingly, and that’s why I did this video, endurance athletes may have more advanced atherosclerosis and more heart muscle damage, compared with sedentary individuals. Male athletes had a higher prevalence of atherosclerotic plaques in their coronary arteries compared with sedentary males. A higher prevalence of high coronary artery calcium (11.3 percent v 0 percent), a greater number of atherosclerotic plaques (44.3 percent v 22.2 percent) including multivessel plaques, and a greater proportion squeezing off blood flow more than 50 percent.

Marathon runners, found to have increased total atherosclerotic plaque volume—calcified plaques, non-calcified plaques. Paradoxically, worse atherosclerosis in their coronary arteries, which may then translate into more damage to the heart muscle itself—three times more than matched sedentary individuals. They are running the risk of coronary events. It’s the kind of heart damage you see after heart attacks. But wait, why? Why do studies show that well-trained athletes are at significant risk for atherosclerosis and heart damage? It may not be that they’re overstressing their heart with movement, but rather overstressing their heart with saturated fat and cholesterol. Endurance athletes can eat 5, 6, 7,000 calories a day. So, if you’re eating twice the Big Macs, no wonder your poor hearts are getting hammered.

That’s where plant-based diets come in––the only diet shown to be able to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients. Yeah, such diets may also contribute to improved performance and accelerated recovery, but most importantly, will allow you to recover and maintain your long-term health. Athletic performance suffers, when you’re dead.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Intro: Plant-based diets are gaining popularity among athletes. In this video, find out why folks are drawn to plant-based diets for athletic performance and recovery.

Consumer interest in eating plant-based has surged over the last few years, and athletes are no exception. While in the past, meat was seen as an irreplaceable performance-enhancing food, today the trend is developing in the opposite direction, thanks in part to documentaries like The Game Changers, for which I was honored to play a role as scientific advisor.

Several high-profile athletes, from heavyweight champion boxers to tennis players, have tried fueling with plants. Athletes have increasingly been adopting plant-based diets––not only for the related health benefits, but for perceived improvements in endurance performance. In fact, even by 2016, there were reports of up to a third of ultra-endurance runners, for example, shunning meat.

Increasing plant-based foods may boost vasodilatory—meaning artery-dilating, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties of the diet, which can lead to improved blood flow, reduced oxidative stress and inflammation, and thus, theoretically enhance endurance performance, reduce muscle damage, and speed recovery. Exercise itself can release free radicals that can also lead to muscle fatigue, reduced athletic performance, and impaired recovery, but the antioxidants concentrated in plant foods can help extinguish them. Here’s the level of oxidative stress before and after running for a few hours: a doubling of this oxidative stress marker, but that’s without blueberries. Eat a cup and a half of blueberries an hour before the run, and you can significantly blunt the stress. No wonder that eating even a cup of blueberries may improve exercise performance, whereas eating meat could actually make things worse.

Same with inflammation. Shifting to a dietary pattern with more plants and less animal-sourced food has been shown to attenuate inflammation. A systematic review and meta-analysis comparing common biomarkers of inflammation found that meat-free diets appeared to be favorable in all cases. And not just inflammation, but immune status. Having a strong immune system is important for athletes, especially endurance athletes, as they are often immunocompromised, which increases risk of upper respiratory tract infection. After a marathon, there can be about six-fold higher odds of coming down with an infection, and after an ultramarathon as many as 68 percent fall ill within the ensuing two weeks. But hey, a better immune system could translate into less illness––which means more time spent training for the plant-based athlete, though this has yet to be studied directly.

We also know there’s an ergogenic, meaning performance-enhancing, effect to nitrates, and nitrates in the bloodstream of vegetarians is about 20 percent higher, and in vegans 40 percent higher, likely due to their eating more nitrate-rich vegetables such as beets, spinach, and other greens.

And then there are all the health benefits that could boost performance in the long term. It is well-documented that plant-based diets reduce the risk of chronic illness, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cancer, and all-cause mortality––meaning living a significantly longer life.

But do high-performing athletes really need cardiovascular protection? Surprisingly, and that’s why I did this video, endurance athletes may have more advanced atherosclerosis and more heart muscle damage, compared with sedentary individuals. Male athletes had a higher prevalence of atherosclerotic plaques in their coronary arteries compared with sedentary males. A higher prevalence of high coronary artery calcium (11.3 percent v 0 percent), a greater number of atherosclerotic plaques (44.3 percent v 22.2 percent) including multivessel plaques, and a greater proportion squeezing off blood flow more than 50 percent.

Marathon runners, found to have increased total atherosclerotic plaque volume—calcified plaques, non-calcified plaques. Paradoxically, worse atherosclerosis in their coronary arteries, which may then translate into more damage to the heart muscle itself—three times more than matched sedentary individuals. They are running the risk of coronary events. It’s the kind of heart damage you see after heart attacks. But wait, why? Why do studies show that well-trained athletes are at significant risk for atherosclerosis and heart damage? It may not be that they’re overstressing their heart with movement, but rather overstressing their heart with saturated fat and cholesterol. Endurance athletes can eat 5, 6, 7,000 calories a day. So, if you’re eating twice the Big Macs, no wonder your poor hearts are getting hammered.

That’s where plant-based diets come in––the only diet shown to be able to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients. Yeah, such diets may also contribute to improved performance and accelerated recovery, but most importantly, will allow you to recover and maintain your long-term health. Athletic performance suffers, when you’re dead.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Doctor's Note

If you’re interested, check out my previous videos on athletes:

After this video came out, I released a new one you might be interested in: Do Alkaline Diets Help Athletic Performance?

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here. Read our important information about translations here.

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