Updated: May 30, 2022
Guest post from Georgia State dietetic intern, Kara Moore
Plant-based eating has been gaining considerable popularity in recent years with a new study revealing that the number of Americans who self-identify as plant-based is up nearly 9.6 million over the last 15 years. This is a huge increase considering the Western world’s long-term reliance on meat and dairy in the diet. As a former competitive runner, I started to see the emergence of plant-based eating in the running world, especially when the movie, “The Game Changers,” was released. This inspiring movie focused on the advantages of a plant-based diet in high-level athletes and left many, including myself, wondering why they hadn’t considered this way of eating sooner. After watching the movie, I began researching veganism and buying cookbooks with a plan to incorporate more plant-based meals into my diet. I was always under the impression that a plant-based diet wasn’t possible while I was running at a high level because it wouldn’t provide me with adequate nutrients. But, boy, was I wrong! Because vegan diets are typically higher in carbohydrates and antioxidants, they have been shown to be advantageous for athletic performance, especially for endurance activities, like running.
Below you'll find six common myths around plant-based eating and why, if you're a runner, you should consider running on plants.
MYTH NUMBER ONE: Vegan runners can’t get enough protein to support the demands of their sport.
Contrary to the age old question, "how do you get your protein," you can get plenty of protein through plants alone. One of the main concerns of runners when considering going vegan is the high protein needs of the sport. Studies show that plant-based athletes can meet recommended protein intakes and a variety of plant-based foods can provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids. “Variety is the spice of life” applies to your diet too! A combination of plant-based protein sources throughout the day, such as beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, and whole grains, as well as adequate calories, can cover the bases for your protein needs.
MYTH NUMBER TWO: Your recovery from running will suffer on a vegan diet.
Eating a plant-based diet can actually improve recovery from running. In 2017, a meta-analysis of 18 studies found that consuming a vegetarian diet over a two-year period reduced serum concentrations of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, suggesting an anti-inflammatory effect from plant-based foods. Not to mention, the increased food and vegetable intake associated with a vegan diet is rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, which protect the body against the consequences of oxidative stress and reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress.
MYTH NUMBER THREE: Plant-based diets aren’t any better for you than an omnivorous diet.
Eating a plant-based diet has been shown, in numerous studies, to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, hypertension, cataracts, and dementia—just to name a few! Research shows that meat and dairy-centric diets don't do the same. In fact, research sides with dairy and meat contributing to the lifestyle diseases mentioned above.
MYTH NUMBER FOUR: Your performance will suffer on a vegan diet.
Truth: Eating a plant-based diet may actually help you run faster. Run faster while saving animals? Sign me up! One study that assessed performance measures in high-level vegetarian and omnivore athletes found that the female vegetarian athletes had significantly higher aerobic capacity when compared to the female omnivore athletes. Aerobic capacity is a measurement that is representative of the ability of the cardiovascular system to provide oxygen to working muscles and those muscles to extract oxygen for energy. The higher your aerobic capacity, the better your cardiovascular fitness. The result? Run faster for longer. Talk about an advantage!
MYTH NUMBER FIVE: You can’t get enough iron from foods without eating red meat.
Not true. You can get an adequate amount of iron through plants. Many plant foods such as legumes, leafy green vegetables and nuts (just to name a few) are excellent sources of iron on a plant-based diet. People who eat a plant-based diet also typically get enough iron due to the amount of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables which improves absorption of non-heme, or plant, iron. In a study examining the performance measures in endurance athletes, based on a 7-day diet recall they found that the plant-based athletes actually ended up consuming more iron than the omnivore athletes. Also, research shows that iron-deficiency anemia is no more common in vegans than it is in omnivores.
MYTH NUMBER SIX: You can’t get enough nutrients or vitamins from a vegan diet.
In fact, you get MORE nutrients on a plant based diet. Plants have two extremely important nutrients that meat and dairy don't have—fiber and phytonutrients. There are over 25,000 phytonutrients (phyto means plant). Dietary fiber is sub-optimal in more than 95 percent of people in the U.S. Fiber is only found in plants. It's critical for gut health and plays a huge role in fighting inflammation and preventing lifestyle diseases. A plant-based diet is chock-full of phytonutrients, many acting as antioxidants, which help protect the body against oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a natural physiological process that describes an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. Free radicals are produced during normal metabolic processes and are neutralized by antioxidants. In general, the body is able to maintain a balance between the two but in times of oxidative stress, like in strenuous exercise, free radical production exceeds antioxidant production. Running can cause a form of oxidative stress known as exercise-induced oxidative stress which makes it that much more important to consume food that helps protect your body. An important source of antioxidants in the body comes from your diet and a plant-based diet is rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ official position on plant-based diets for athletes states:
“To train and perform optimally, athletes of all levels — recreational to elite — should consume a diet composed of wholesome foods high in carbohydrate, low to moderate in fat, and adequate in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fluid. A vegan diet easily meets these needs and offers additional health and performance advantages.”
Are you running on plants? We'd love to hear how plants contribute to your performance!
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Hi! My name is Kara and I'm a student in Georgia State University's Coordinated Program for Dietetics. As a former D1 cross country & track athlete, I've seen firsthand the important role that nutrition can play in one's wellbeing. I'm so excited to be pursuing my passion and learning a lot on the way! When I'm not studying or working, you can find me rock climbing with my husband, hanging out with our two dogs, or running on some fun trails.