A plant-based diet is not simply superior for the planet, animals and health in terms of prevention of disease and obesity. It’s also beneficial for our fitness and strength goals too.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet tend to fall into two main categories. The first are the benefits in avoiding diseases such as heart disease, cancers and diabetes, due to cholesterol and blood pressure reduction. The second are the benefits depicted in documentaries like The Game Changers, informing us we can still get ripped and perform at an elite level on a plant-based diet.
But these differences for athletes are sometimes marginal for the average person. What about the mum working out in the gym a couple times a week? Will she see a noticeable difference? Or the teenager giving the NHS Couch to 5K initiative a go? Will their pace pick up too if they drop the bacon? Yes!
For a variety of reasons, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused undeniable shifts in peoples’ eating patterns away from the consumption of red meat and animal products. For some, this will be a full shift into veganism, others not so much. One benefit these individuals should embrace is the improvements in their fitness and strength. Far from the common view - founded in misconceptions surrounding deficiencies - a plant based diet, and a whole food plant based especially, can be far superior in comparison to diets including meat and animal products.
As a qualified personal trainer and nutritional advisor, here are some of the top reasons I tell my clients why a vegan diet will help improve their fitness and performance, no matter what your go-to exercise style is:
A plant based diet has been shown countless times to unquestionably reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure. This is due mostly (although not entirely) to the decreased consumption of saturated fat, which allows for ‘bad cholesterol’ (LDL) plaques, and fatty acid deposits (termed atherosclerosis) to be broken down. But this isn’t just good for those suffering from high LDLs or hypertension, or those who have a risk of blood clots and heart attacks. A healthier heart increases your stroke volume and cardiac output, which is the amount of blood our hearts pump in one contraction and in one minute respectively. You may also find your resting heart rate drops too (60bpm is a good benchmark). How does this translate into exercise? It means more oxygen will get to your necessary muscles quicker, so they are likely to fatigue less quickly. You may also find your resting heart rate drops too.
Blood viscosity and blood flow
Closely linked to this is the reduced viscosity of the blood that occurs when people shift to a plant based diet. Blood viscosity refers to the thickness of the blood and thereby how easily it flows through the blood vessels (arteries, veins and capillaries). This is linked to the aforementioned low intake of saturated fat and cholesterol associated. What’s more, high-nitrate vegetables assist in the vasodilation (widening) of arteries, so more blood can then move around the body more efficiently. This means your heart doesn’t have to pump as fast when exercising in order to meet your energy needs. It will also mean your blood pressure is not going to spike to the same extent as meat eaters (or before) during exercise because your arteries are clearer. If you’re flexi-eating, it might be wise to avoid meat prior to a workout!
Those following a plant-based diet tend to decrease body fat quicker and have lower body fat overall. Certainly, this means people feel great, but it also improves their aerobic capacity too, since weight loss can improve VO2 max (the maximum volume of oxygen your body can utilise during exercise) by up to 15%. Carrying less body fat would also improve stamina and performance time for endurance runners. In fact, one study showed that after only four days of a plant-based diet, runners were able to shave off 6% of their 5k time.
The body’s currency for energy is called Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP for short. Regardless of the source of energy, in order for our wonderful bodies to walk, jump, dance and exist, all will be converted into ATP. As carbohydrates are a key component of a vegan diet, not only will your glycogen stores be sufficiently full to fuel your workout and provide the necessary synthesis for fat metabolism, but also the higher fibre content in your diet will ensure a steady release of glucose into the bloodstream, helping avoid a sugar crash and making sure you don’t use your protein reserves. To maximise your long endurance runs (over two hours), have a carbohydrate source before, during and after your workouts.
Although society is insistent on pushing protein as the utmost important macronutrient, it is a very inefficient source of energy. Those consuming high-protein diets (often in replacement for carbohydrates and healthy (poly- and mono- unsaturated fats) will risk burning out during exercise and may have to convert their muscle mass into energy due to insufficient glucose.
An animal product-based diet was shown to cause an inflammatory effect in the muscles, in comparison to a plant-based diet, with one study showing a 46% increase in inflammatory markers in a single month. People who partake in any exercise, especially ones that involve repeated action on certain joints such as running, are vulnerable to inflammation and injury, not to mention many free radicals. Removing this from your diet and adding in the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of a vegan diet might just see a reduction in injury risk and improved recovery after your workouts too.
Calcium is also needed for muscular contraction, but it is also vital for bone strength as many of us know. However, what perhaps Petits Filous doesn’t let us know is that although dairy is indeed a source of calcium, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and can actually increase our risk of bone fractures. If you’re doing strength training, weight-bearing exercises or swimming, to retain your bone density and avoid a hip fracture, maybe skip the dairy cheese.
Due to eating a broader variety of plants, a vegan is more likely to consume key minerals vital for muscle contractions and nerve impulses such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. For example, the same nitrate-rich plants assisting in vasodilation also improve the efficiency of a muscle contraction. One study showed an increase in weight lifted per repetition by 14%. Likewise, magnesium ensures that the muscles relax after contraction. Insufficient consumption can result in faster fatigue of muscle fibres or muscle spasms. If you’re going for a personal best or one-rep max, this translates into a better chance of success.
So there you have it, a Personal Trainer’s perspective on why a vegan diet will have you hitting your PBs in no time. Perhaps when our parents said “eat your vegetables'', they were actually on to something.