Vegan and vegetarian diets are getting more popular in the last couple of years, especially amongst runners and athletes. Some famous athletes are known to follow vegan diets; the famous ultra-runner Scott Jurek, and many others. People often wonder if following a vegetarian diet would be right for them and sustainable especially as a runner or athlete.
Different types of vegetarian diets:
Flexitarian (semi-vegetarian)– Avoid all red meat but will eat small amount of fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
Pesco-vegetarian– Will eat fish, dairy, eggs.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian– Will not eat meat but will eat eggs and dairy.
Ovo-vegetarian– Will not eat meat or dairy but will eat eggs.
Vegan– Will not eat any animal products.
Most people switch to a vegetarian diet for health reasons such as weight loss, or to reduce certain health risks. Others do it for environment protection, or ethically opposed to consuming living creatures, or some people just do not like the taste of animal products. Regardless of the reason, it seems like vegetarian diets are getting more popular throughout the world. And lately, especially amongst runners.
Health benefits of vegetarian diets:
Lower risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain cancers. Vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fiber, contain less saturated fat and cholesterol, and include more heart- healthy unsaturated fats. Vegetarians eat more fruits and vegetables which contribute to higher levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients.
As a runner, the reason to switch to a vegetarian diet shouldn’t be only to improve your performance level.
The reason why runners and athletes tend to feel better and stronger and some do see an increase in their running performance, is that a vegetarian diet tends to be healthier. It is very important to follow a vegetarian diet that is high in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and to focus on healthy macronutrients balance (protein, carbs, healthy fat). In order to get the right amount of micronutrients and fiber, plant-based diets have to include unrefined foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans. Some research has shown that runners who do follow a nutrient dense plant-based diet tend to improve their performance. For people in general, the benefits include overall health benefits and weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, improved immune function, a lower risk of chronic diseases, and a longer lifespan.
Benefits of a plant-based diet for runners:
- Improvement in cardiovascular health: It is related to the high antioxidant level of plant foods. Oxidative damage can cause coronary heart disease as well as post-exercise muscle soreness and delayed recovery. By increasing our intake of antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can help reverse oxidative stress and provide cardiovascular protection.
- More energy: Plant-based foods don’t require as much energy to process as meat and dairy.
- Improved kidney function: A plant-based diet can improve kidney function which is crucial for long-distance runners.
- Reduced inflammation: After just 6 weeks of following a plant-based diet, runners saw a big improvement in their inflammation. Even though inflammation is part of the healing process, too much inflammation can result in chronic pain and swelling.
- A healthy and strong immune system: For runners and athletes a strong immune system is crucial. Hard training suppresses the immune system, which can lead to frequent illnesses that will affect training quality and volume. To maintain a strong immune system a plant-based diet needs to include brightly colored foods, as well as foods high in micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids (seeds like flax, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, hemp and chia).
- Lower Cholesterol: Reduces the risk of clogged arteries which can cause heart attacks, and strokes.
- Increased fiber intake: It helps the body absorb important nutrients from the food we eat.
For runners following a plant-based diet, it is very important to not only focus on the food intake but as well as the food your body might be lacking, especially protein and micronutrients. Some vitamins and minerals tend to be lower on vegetarian diets, that is why it is highly recommended for runners to add some key supplements that often get depleted especially for endurance runners. The same goes for protein, runners and athletes need higher amounts of protein to maintain healthy muscles and recovery. To make sure a plant-based diet includes foods high in protein is essential, being organized with a plant-based diet is also very important.
Key supplements for runners:
Vitamin D, B12, vitamin C, calcium, zinc, multi-vitamin and magnesium.
Plant-based high protein foods:
- Tofu and tempeh
- Soy milk or yogurt
- Beans and lentils
- Whole wheat pasta, oats, wild rice, quinoa, sprouted grain bread
- Seeds: sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, hemp
- Nuts: almonds, cashews, pine nuts
- Broccoli, bok choi, spinach, swiss chard, asparagus, kale
When switching to a plant-based diet, it is important and much easier to gradually change your diet, and will be less of a shock to your system. Instead of going straight to a strict vegan diet, gradually remove animal products to allow your body to adjust to all the changes. For a healthy plant-based diet also make sure you avoid processed foods, saturated fats and high sugar foods as well. Focus on a healthy balance of nutrients from a variety of foods.