Elite Athletes Are Turning to a Plant-Based Diet – Should You?

Elite Athletes Are Turning to a Plant-Based Diet – Should You?

It seems like every day there is a new diet taking over the world. From attracting us by promising we will lose those extra few pounds to showing us how certain practices are harmful to the environment, there is a wide variety of guides on what food we should be eating and how we should be preparing it. It can be very easy to get caught up in these diets, which are more often than not harmful to our overall wellbeing.

As these diet trends come and go, it can be difficult for ordinary people to settle on one approach. This is why we often look up to those who seem to know more than us about these topics. For example, elite athletes that have a team of nutritionists around them appear to be good role models, seeing as how their body is instrumental in them achieving great results.

So, what is it that top-notch sportspeople are eating? An increasing number of elite athletes are turning to a plant-based diet. But, what is that exactly and can it work for non-athletes as well? Keep on reading to learn more about what a plant-based diet is, its benefits, and how you can follow in the footsteps of the world’s top sports professionals.

Is there a difference between a vegan and a plant-based diet?

First of all, we should define what a plant-based diet is. Moreover, is it the same as a vegan diet?

Opting for a plant-based diet does not mean that you are a vegan or a vegetarian. If you choose to be plant-based, it usually refers only to your diet, meaning that you will eat food that mostly or entirely comes from plants. However, it does not mean that you will not eat meat or certain animal-derived products on occasion.

On the other hand, veganism reaches beyond one’s diet and also describes an individual’s lifestyle. For instance, as a vegan, you will avoid using, consuming, and exploiting animals as much as possible. This means that you will not purchase any items that have been made from animals or tested on them, including clothing, shoes, accessories, personal care products, and potentially even medication.

Keep in mind that you can be both vegan and plant-based. You can also start off as one thing and along the way realize that another approach works better for you.

Which elite athletes have implemented a plant-based diet?

So, which world-famous athletes have started following a plant-based diet?

For example, we have Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one male tennis player. More than 12 years ago, he opted for the plant-based approach in order to enhance his performance. Djokovic said that eating meat was hard on his digestion and that he now prefers foods that don’t need a lot of digestion.

Another tennis great that has become plant-based is Venus Williams. The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion claims that veganism helped her overcome an auto-immune disease that was diagnosed back in 2011.

Formula 1 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton is also crediting his plant-based diet for the success he has experienced. He replaced animal products and processed foods with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grain. He is also aiming to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

NBA player Chris Paul, Mike Tyson, David Haye, Arnold Schwarzenegger, professional rock climber Steph Davis, surfer Tia Blanco, Olympic snowboard gold medalist Hannah Teter, ultra-marathoner Matt Frazier, and many more top athletes have all decided to become vegan or plant-based. It has in no way been detrimental to their success; as a matter of fact, they all claim it actually made them better at what they do.

How can you follow in their footsteps?

While it’s always recommended to first consult with your physician and nutritionist before you make a big change, there are some athlete-recommended tips that you can try out.

For instance, Djokovic begins his day with hot water and lemon, celery juice, and some supplements while Williams likes a protein shake or smoothie for breakfast. So, start your day off like a champion by making a vegan protein powder shake. Other breakfast ideas include tofu scramble, homemade oatmeal bars, burritos with eggs, peppers, and salsa, and dairy-free yogurt.

Just because you are cutting down on meat, it doesn’t mean that your lunch options are lacking. For example, you can make a tomato soup with oyster crackers, a veggie burger, a quinoa bowl with carrots and sweet potatoes, and avocado toast. You can easily make a black bean wrap. What you need for this tasty and filling meal is one and a half cup of sprouted and cooked beans, one avocado, one carrot, two tomatoes, one cob of corn, some kale, a few sticks of celery, some persimmons, and coriander. The dressing is also easy to make and you can wrap everything in a leaf of lettuce.

Dinner can be anything from soup to salad to pizza. Recipes abound and you will surely not have any problems when it comes to making tasty meals that will keep you full until breakfast. For instance, prepare a vegan broccoli soup or a vegan Caesar salad.

We often see snacks as a bad thing but if you work on developing your relationship with food, you will realize that eating and fueling your body is nothing to feel bad about. Just reach for some healthier alternatives like fresh and dried fruit, veggie chips, roasted chickpeas, green juices, and popcorn.

There are also athletes like Tia Blanco and Steph Davis that prefer whole, plant-based foods. To eat like them, you can go for grain-based breakfasts like muesli and oatmeal and protein-rich dinners such as gluten-free ramen or lentil soup as well as veggie bowls full of sweet potatoes, corn, hummus, guacamole, and healthy chips.

However, don’t be too hard on yourself, as even Venus Williams admits that she eats donuts on occasion and Blanco says that on cheat days she treats herself to cupcakes.

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

Now that you are a bit more familiar with what a plant-based diet entails, we should also talk about the benefits you could experience if you choose to opt for this approach to eating.

It can help you lose and maintain weight

If you’re looking to lose some weight, this is the diet for you. Eating more plants is a great way to shred a few pounds as veggies and whole grains are digested more slowly and fruits are full of fiber and antioxidants. What is more, cutting back on meat can help you maintain a healthy weight, according to UK studies.

It boosts your immune system

You are surely aware of how important your immune system is for staying healthy and fighting off various diseases. Well, plants have vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that are all essential for the optimal functioning of the immune system.

It reduces inflammation

Something else that the essential nutrients found in plants can help with is fighting inflammation. Antioxidants and phytochemicals also help neutralize toxins from viruses, bacteria, processed food, and pollution. As prolonged inflammation can be detrimental to your body’s cells and tissue and lead to chronic inflammatory disease, heart disease, and cancer, you want a diet that can remove these free radicals that throw your body off balance.

It can reduce blood pressure

Studies have shown that having a plant-based diet can help with reducing your risk of various health issues such as high blood pressure. For instance, a 2016 Journal of Hypertension study concluded that there is a 34% lower risk of developing hypertension among vegetarians.

It lowers the risk of diabetes

Another health issue that a plant-based diet can prevent is type 2 diabetes. Since fatty tissue can lead to insulin resistance, lowering the intake of saturated fats found in animal foods can result in a lower risk of developing diabetes. Moreover, plants are high in fiber and antioxidants, which helps regulate blood sugar.

It decreases heart disease risk

What is more, if you have a family history of heart disease or any other risk factor, you can significantly benefit from this type of diet. A 2018 review from the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases states that a vegan diet can reverse coronary heart disease and a vegetarian diet can lower the risk of it by 40%.

It lowers cholesterol

High levels of cholesterol can restrict blood flow and result in a heart attack, heart disease, or stroke. However, if you move away from a diet that is full of animal products toward a plant-based one, you can lower the level of bad cholesterol by up to 15%. Some sources say that a strict vegan diet can lower it by as much as 25%.

It minimizes the risk of stroke

Then, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and obesity can all increase the risk of stroke. It can also be high if you smoke, drink, or use drugs. We already mentioned how a plant-based diet can help with all the risk factors, so it’s easy to see how you can prevent a stroke. Increase your intake of fruits and veggies to lower the risk by up to 21%.

It reduces the risk of cancer

Yet another reason why you should go meat-free is the 2012 research that found that you will be at a lower risk of cancer. Vegetarians have an 18% lower risk as opposed to non-vegetarians. This is accredited to the immune-boosting properties of this diet.

It protects your brain

A plant-based diet is also good if you’re looking to protect your brain. An analysis published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience concluded that an increased intake of fruits and veggies can reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment by 20%. Polyphenols and antioxidants, which fruits and vegetables are rich in, can protect your cells from damage by cleaning up free radicals.

It keeps you looking young

While it cannot reverse the aging process, a plant-based diet can help promote healthy cellular aging. Eating plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains and avoiding highly processed foods as well as those high in sugar and salt is important for preventing chronic health conditions.

It helps you live longer

When you take all of the above-listed benefits of eating a plant-based diet into account, it’s easy to see how it can help you live longer. By preventing various diseases, it actually lowers the risk of premature death by 25 percent.

It’s good for the environment

Finally, opting for a plant-based diet will not only help you but it will protect the environment as well. Did you know that producing animal protein takes 100 times more water and 11 times more fossil energy than producing plant protein? With that in mind, doesn’t cutting down on meat sound great?

Is a plant-based diet lacking in any way?

As is the case with everything, you surely want to know if there are any downsides to eating a plant-based diet. Well, while this approach sounds like it’s always healthy, it is not the case. Yes, you could be eating healthily if you stick to fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and other sources of protein. On the other hand, not all vegan choices are healthy. For instance, there is vegan fast-food as well as other plant-based food that is full of added sugars and refined grains, none of which are a healthy alternative.

It’s also good to keep in mind that, depending on what you eat, you could be faced with certain nutrient deficiencies. For example, you could have lower blood levels of iron, you might not be getting enough calcium, you could be low in vitamin B12, and you might not get enough protein.

Finally, it is vital that you remember that there isn’t a single solution that works for everyone. Just because this approach worked for an elite athlete, it doesn’t mean that your body will appreciate it as well. So, take it slow and go one step at a time.

As you can see, a plant-based diet has its pros and cons. If you’re thinking about whether you should follow in the footsteps of famous athletes, remember to do your research properly and consult with your doctor to see whether this diet would do your body good.

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