Have you seen 2018 critically acclaimed Netflix documentary “The Game Changers?” Presented and executive produced by James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lewis Hamilton, Chris Paul, Jackie Chan, and Novak Djokovic, it’s a revolutionary film that follows the journey of James Wilks, a UFC athlete and elite Special Forces trainer as he travels the world—meeting visionary scientists, top athletes, and everyday heroes—to discover the optimal diet for human performance and health. Informative and eye-opening, it suggests that a plant-based diet does enhance athletic performance, faster injury recovery, and overall health in a variety of professional sports. With top athletes from tennis, boxing, cycling, football, rugby, track and field among many others adopting the diet, this provides such a straightforward and accessible means for many to consider that having a plant-based diet is the key behind the success and high performance of their favorite elite athletes.
A plant-based diet
can help provide your body with all of the nutrients it needs for training and competition
Making healthy choices compatible with the diet
There are five different plant-based eating patterns: lacto-ovo vegetarian (no meat or fish, consumes eggs and dairy), lacto vegetarian (no eggs, meat, or fish but consumes dairy), flexitarian (consumes fish and meat intermittently), pescatarian (consumes fish), and vegan (completely no foods from animal sources, even honey). Whichever kind of plant-based eater you are, according to David C. Nieman, an expert on athletes and diet studies, director of the Human Performance Laboratory - Appalachian State University, North Carolina, and professor of health and exercise science, “All kinds of diets (including meat-eating diets) are compatible with performance.” The hook though is to make wise and healthy choices that are compatible with the kind of diet you’re following to make your diet work efficiently whether for health or athletic performance. Nieman, a marathon runner and a vegetarian himself adds that while he understands the reasons why many athletes are adopting a plant-based diet, it doesn’t make someone a better athlete. A plant-based diet is going to help only if someone was previously on a high-fat and low-carb diet since moving plant-based will provide more carbohydrates than before. Only then would they see significant improvements in endurance, but not on the level of sports skills. To make a plant-based diet work for an athlete, it must have a strong ground sourced from a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes, says Barbara Lewin, a sports nutritionist.
The three areas of how diets affect athletes
While many top athletes vouch for the benefits of going plant-based, it’s always a case-to-case basis. So, to get a better overall sense of how diets affect athletes, Nieman suggests looking at these three areas: long-term, acute, and post-workout/race/competition recovery. Long-term health is a given, but what you eat every day and during the 3 days before a competition are both incredibly important affecting your health and total performance. Nieman advises having a high-carb diet from dried fruit and grains, normal quantities of protein, and low in fat and fiber 3 days before a sporting event to give you good energy. Some examples are as simple as a banana with water; toast spread with cashew yogurt or almond and drizzled with berries; and a smoothie with any nut milk, banana, and berries. As for post-competition recovery or what is called metabolic recovery, he recommends fruits like blueberry, pear, and banana to support your body in returning to its stable state. However, he argues the idea that a plant-based diet makes recovery faster. Lewin on the other hand believes that the anti-inflammatory benefits of antioxidant-rich plant-based foods have a significant impact on lessening inflammation due to oxidative stress and free radicals produced from high levels of intensity workout.