When we talk about diets, we can go for hours. As CrossFit athletes concerned with our bodies and health, nutrition is a topic that has our full attention. We need the right fuel to power our training. Eating the right balance of carbs, protein and fat at the right time can help with our energy levels and recovery. 

Diets are a nutrition program designed to improve your health. There are diets that are based on scientific facts, others that are more a cultural transfer of knowledge and finally others that exist in the sphere of myth. The last ones are the most dangerous. Many of these are made to lose weight (and usually shill a product) with no focus on actually being healthy. Are you familiar with the “28-Day Weight Loss Diet” or even “A Plan to Lose 10 Pounds in Just One Week”? Stay away from these “headline”diets.

Recently, there was a release of a new food documentary on Netflix that seems to have a lot of people talking. This documentary discusses the plant-based diet approach and sells it as the miracle diet. But what really is a plant-based diet? Is there scientific evidence supporting plant-based diets? And how will this diet help the performance of athletes? Well, there is a lot of misleading information out there so let’s try to look at the facts.

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Peeling back the concept of a Plant-based diet

According to the Harvard health blog, a plant-based or plant-forward diet focus on foods primarily from plants. It doesn’t mean only eating fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, beans, and even meat or dairy! This approach limits or avoids animal products by changing the way you think about meat. You can still have animal products on your plate but in smaller amounts. With this diet, you will see meat as a garnish instead of a centerpiece. So a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

This other definition says that a healthy, plant-based diet aims to maximize consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods while minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods (including dairy products and eggs). It encourages lots of vegetables (cooked or raw), fruits, beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, seeds, and nuts (in smaller amounts) and is generally low in fat. Also, this other study recommends that a plant-based diet should allow animal products such as egg whites and skim milk in small amounts for preventing diseases

In summary, a plant-based diet consists of favoring plants, fruits and whole grains, and avoiding animal products but not eliminating them from your diet. Sounds feasible and, more importantly, sustainable in the long-term. It’s not a totally restrictive diet. A plant-based diet can help educate you to choose more whole foods from plant sources (with the possibility of including grass-fed meat and dairy) than processed foods. It’s more like a food-learning experience that leads to a healthy outcome. 

The look of a plant-based meal

What does a truly healthy plant-based meal look like? The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate is a helpful visual guide created by nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health. You will find that a healthy plate should consist of proper portions of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy protein, and healthy oils.

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What is the evidence that plant-based diet is healthy? 

All the definitions mentioned above sound pretty good, but really, where is the proof that this kind of diet is better than others? For answering this, we are going to take a look into the results of health studies. I’ll let you dig around people’s’ experiences with this diet. Maybe after reading this article, you can run a little survey of your own among other CrossFitters who are following a plant-based diet. Don’t forget to share this information with the Barbell Beauties FB group. We can all learn from that!

How will this diet help the performance of athletes?

We can all agree that the previous evidence shows that there are a lot of benefits associated with plant-based diets. But, for us dedicated CrossFitters, the most important question remains unsolved. Can we get enough proteins and calories to maintain and improve our performance? Is this approach beneficial for high-intensity athletes? 

There are not a lot of publications concerning high-intensity athletes, but In this article researchers tried to figure out the ability of plant-based diets to reduce risk and affect performance of endurance athletes. Here a summary:

  • Even athletes are at risk for heart disease: In one study, 44 percent of endurance cyclists and runners had coronary plaques. A plant-based diet keeps athletes’ hearts strong by reversing plaque, bringing down blood pressure and cholesterol, and reducing weight.
  • Meat consumption and high cholesterol levels exacerbate inflammation, which can result in pain and impair athletic performance and recovery. Studies show that a plant-based diet may have an anti-inflammatory effect.
  • A plant-based diet, which is low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol, helps improve blood viscosity, or thickness. That helps more oxygen reach the muscles, which improves athletic performance.
  • Plant-based diets improve arterial flexibility and diameter, leading to better blood flow. One study found that even a single high-fat meal, including sausage and egg muffins, impaired arterial function for several hours.
  • Compared with meat-eaters, people eating a plant-based diet get more antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals. Free radicals lead to muscle fatigue, reduced athletic performance, and impaired recovery.
  • Plant-based diets, which are typically low in fat and high in fiber, can reduce body fat. Reduced body fat is associated with increased aerobic capacity—or the ability to use oxygen to fuel exercise. Studies show that athletes on a plant-based diet increase their VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen they can use during intense exercise—leading to better endurance.

However, the Nutrition HeartBeat organization, which offers education in sports nutrition for all types of athletes (strength and power and endurance sports), uses a plant-based approach, but recommends that athletes should pay special attention to: 

  • Protein can be a problem, especially isolated protein sources.  When most of your protein comes from beans and grains, you have to eat a significant amount of those beans and grains to get adequate protein.  Also, if an athlete needs more protein, they’re often dependent on supplements.
  • Iron deficiency can be a massive problem, especially for pre-menopausal women and endurance athletes. The most absorbable form of iron is attached to a heme molecule and is found in animal foods.  That leaves non-heme iron, which can be blocked from absorption by a variety of plant compounds. Absorption rates of plant iron sources are very low.
  • Calcium and vitamin D are necessary for strong bones. It’s recommended to consume about 8 servings of calcium every day. It’s possible to get calcium from leafy green vegetables, but oxalates, compounds found in some leafy green vegetables, can inhibit absorption of calcium. Beet greens, swiss chard, rhubarb, and spinach are high in calcium but also high in oxalates. The calcium in other leafy greens, such as collards, kale, and mustard greens, is very well absorbed.
  • Vitamin B-12 is a crucial B vitamin. It is needed for nerve tissue health, brain function, and the production of red blood cells. Vitamin B-12 is found exclusively in animal products and nutritional yeast. People who don’t eat meat, such as vegans, can obtain vitamin B-12 in supplement form.

What about CrossFitters? 

These two competitive CrossFitters: Dani Sidell and Jeremy Reijnders are disciples of a plant-based diet. Sidell participated in 2018 Regionals in the team division for the mid-Atlantic and Reijnders was crowned the Fittest Man in the Netherlands.

However, in this interview, Sidell admits that her lifting PRs have decreased slightly since she started a plant-based diet, she says she’s leaner, faster, and better at gymnastics, all while eating about 1,000 fewer calories per day. Both athletes say they have more energy, are more clear-headed, and recover more quickly—Reijnders so much so that, just six weeks in, he was able to add another day of training per week. And since he started this diet (November of 2015), he’s gained five pounds of muscle mass.

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Photo Credit: dani_sidell

Reijnders advice to other CrossFitters who want to start this diet, to follow Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen checklist. Dr. Gregers provides science-based free updates on healthy eating, with new videos and articles uploaded every day.

CONCLUSION

All in all, whether you’re looking to lose weight or boost your overall health and performance, try to find diets that are supported by research. Remember that a healthy diet doesn’t need to be daunting. Start with small changes, for example, replace white rice with brown rice or other whole grains, and white bread with whole-grain bread. Choose oatmeal instead of processed cereal and water instead of juice drinks.

The most important thing in nutrition is the quality of the food. In this article, we have learned that reducing animal products and adding plant foods doesn’t necessarily lead to a healthier diet. It’s about balance and making the right choices for your lifestyle. Favor healthy plant foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and healthy oils from high-quality sources. Stay away from fruit juices, refined grains (pasta, white rice, and processed breads and cereals), potatoes (French fries and potato chips), and sugar-sweetened beverages and processed red meat (cold cuts, sausage, bacon, and hot dogs).

At Barbell Beauties, we believe in a food-first approach, that good nutrition is MORE important than fitness/athletic training. We also believe that food should make you feel good – mind, body and soul – and it is the optimal way to fuel your performance as an athlete.


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