Plant Based Athletes on the Rise

On September 16, the documentary Gamechangers debuted. It is currently the best selling documentary of all time on iTunes. The film is directed by Oscar-winner Louie Psihoyos and produced by Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, and Chris Paul. It tells the story of James Wilks, an elite Special Forces trainer and The Ultimate Fighter winner, as he travels the world on a quest to uncover the best diet for human performance. What he discovers permanently changes his understanding of nutrition and calls into question whether an animal based diet is sufficient for a high performing athlete. 

So what is it about a plant based diet that makes it so powerful? 

For one, plants provide optimal fuel. Diets built around meat provide dietary fat at the expense of carbohydrates, and unlike carbohydrates, fat cannot produce energy fast enough to meet the demands of intense exercise. Protein is also a highly inefficient source for energy, wasting 20 to 30 percent of each calorie as heat. Despite the misconception that carbs make you fat, unrefined carbohydrates found in plants are consistently associated with decreased body fat, making plant foods the ideal choice for an athlete. 

Second, plants increase blood flow to deliver oxygen and vital nutrients throughout the body. Research has shown that just two hours after eating a heavy animal-based meal, arteries can constrict by 40 percent, whereas plants open our arteries due to the nitrates that allow muscles to contract more efficiently, sparing energy reserves and accomplishing more with the same amount of effort. 

Third, plants improve the speed of recovery. A common obstacle all athletes face is inflammation. Extensive research shows that animal-based diets form pro-inflammatory compounds like bacterial endotoxins, trimethylamine N-oxide, and nitrosamines. A single hamburger can increase inflammation by 70 percent. Plants, however, naturally contain anti-inflammatory compounds along with 64 times the antioxidant content. This explains why switching to a plant based diet can help reduce measures of inflammation by 29 percent in just three weeks. 

Lastly, plants provide abundant protein. The largest study comparing the nutrient intake of meat-eaters with plant-eaters shows that on average, a plant-eater gets 70 percent more protein than required compared to meat eaters. All plants contain the essential amino acids in varying proportions. Common sources of protein include tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, quinoa, and chickpeas. The underlying problem with animal protein is that it is packaged with  highly inflammatory compounds, and has no fiber and few antioxidants. It is no coincidence that the strongest animals on this planet – elephants, rhinos, horses, and gorillas – are all herbivores.

Han Zaw, an athlete who has been doing cross country for the past two years and track for three years, believes that “Nutrition is very important, especially in running. You really feel what you eat when you run.” After presenting him with the information, I asked him whether he would be willing to try a plant based regime for two weeks. He said he would “if the meals were planned out and provided.” His response highlights a common issue: the majority of the population isn’t informed about various plant food or how to even cook meals, making it difficult to switch to a plant based diet. Today, there are many sources that provide plant based meal guides and easy substitutions including the gamechangers website itself.   

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