Is a plant-based diet better for runners?
Updated: Jul 31
Plant-based diets have seen a significant surge in popularity among runners in recent times. But is this dietary approach genuinely advantageous for those who hit the track, road and trail? In this blog, we'll delve deep into the rising trend of plant-based eating for runners, exploring its potential benefits for overall health, athletic performance and its positive impact on the environment and ethical considerations. Join for this journey as we explore essential nutrients in a plant-based diet and discover whether it holds the key to optimising your health and performance.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is a dietary pattern that primarily emphasises foods derived from plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and plant-based proteins. It involves limiting or excluding the consumption of animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood. While the degree of restriction may vary among individuals, the central focus is on consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods to obtain essential nutrients and support overall health.
Vegan diets: Completely plant-based, excluding all animal-derived products.
Vegetarian diets: Mainly plant-based, with variations like lacto-vegetarian (a plant-based diet, including dairy foods), ovo-vegetarian (a plant-based diet including eggs), lacto-ovo vegetarian (a plant-based diet including eggs and dairy) and pescetarian ( a plant-based diet including seafood).
Flexitarian diets: Primarily plant-based, with occasional inclusion of meat, fish, or poultry.
Whole-food plant-based diets: Focus on unprocessed plant foods, minimising processed and refined foods.
Raw vegan diets: Consist of uncooked and unprocessed plant-based foods.
Mediterranean-style plant-based diets: Primarily plant-based with moderate amounts of fish, poultry, dairy and eggs.
The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating: Yes folks, our very own dietary guidelines actually promote a mostly plant-based diet too!
What are the health benefits of plant-based diets for runners?
When compared to an animal-heavy diet, a well-planned plant-based diet, rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and seeds, has been associated with numerous health benefits for runners and the general population alike. Studies have shown that plant-based diets can:
reduce heart disease risk factors
improve blood glucose control
improve cholesterol profiles
decrease risk of several types of cancers
lower blood pressure
aid in weight management & enhance body composition
support a healthy gut microbiota composition
Beyond personal health advantages, adopting a plant-based diet offers significant environmental and ethical benefits. The livestock industry is responsible for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to plant-based eating can drastically reduce an individual's carbon footprint. For example, producing one kilogram of beef generates around 27kg of carbon dioxide, while producing one kilogram of tofu emits only 1.7kg of carbon dioxide. Additionally, plant-based diets require far less land and water resources compared to animal-based diets, helping to conserve precious natural habitats and protect biodiversity. By embracing plant-based diets, we not only improve our own health but also contribute to a more sustainable and compassionate future for our planet and all its inhabitants.
Do plant-based diets improve performance?
Plant-based diets offer numerous benefits for runners and can be just as effective as diets that include meat. Studies show that they don't compromise performance or strength; instead, they can boost endurance and aerobic capacity. Balanced plant meals provide all the essential amino acids needed for muscle repair, similar to meat. Adopting a plant-based diet positively impacts health and performance, with rich sources of vital vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains, while being low in unhealthy saturated fat. On the other hand, diets high in processed foods and meat, while low in plant-based foods, may have negative effects on health and performance. Embracing dietary factors like abundant carbohydrates, higher fibre and powerful phytochemicals can optimise performance for plant-based runners, fueling their journey with a nutrient-rich and sustainable approach.
What nutrients do I need to pay special attention to on a plant-based diet?
Although plant-based diets offer potential health, performance, environmental and ethical benefits, there is a risk of nutritional deficiencies if the diet is poorly planned. More restrictive plant-based diets, such as vegan diets, require the most careful planning. An Accredited Sports Dietitian can assess and provide guidance on your plant-based diet to support your health and performance goals. Nutrients that may be lacking in a plant-based diet include:
Protein: Plant-based foods like tempeh, tofu, lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds, and plant-based protein powder offer protein for muscle building. Combining different sources ensures sufficient amino acids intake. Soy, a plant-based protein, supports muscle mass gains and overall health.
Omega-3 fatty acids: The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Plant-based diets may lack EPA and DHA found in fish and seafood. Consuming nuts, seeds and plant oils rich in ALA can help and vegan-friendly algal supplements provide additional DHA.
Vitamin B12: Crucial for brain and nervous system health, vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal-based foods. Fortified breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast and plant milks are reliable plant-based sources. A vitamin B12 supplement should be considered by those on vegan diets if they do not have a reliable vitamin B12 intake from fortified foods.
Iron: Vital for oxygen transport and immune function, iron is found in both animal and plant foods. We do not absorb non-haem iron found in plant-based foods as efficiently as haem iron found in animal-sourced foods. Plant-based sources include whole grains, legumes and fortified foods. Runners may require higher iron intake from plant-based sources.
Zinc: Essential for metabolism and immune support, zinc from plant sources may be less easily absorbed than from meat. Vegetarians and vegans may need up to 50% more zinc and can find it in soy, legumes, grains, seeds, nuts and fortified cereals.
Calcium: Essential for bone health and muscle function, vegans should pay attention to calcium intake. Plant-based calcium sources include fortified plant milks and cereals, soy foods, leafy greens, broccoli, almonds and sesame seeds. Vitamin D enhances calcium absorption and can be obtained by most people in Australia through careful sun exposure. Vitamin D can also be found in mushrooms, margarine, fortified plant milks and cereals and supplements.
Selenium: Selenium plays an important role in immunity, reproduction and the metabolism of thyroid hormones. It’s naturally found in the soil but levels vary – hence the selenium content of plant foods varies accordingly.The best plant sources of selenium include brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, wholegrains, tofu, asparagus and mushrooms.
Iodine: Crucial for thyroid function, iodine is somewhat challenging to obtain from plant sources. Vegans can get iodine from iodised salt or supplements. Sea vegetables provide iodine, but caution is needed to avoid excessive intake.
It is also important to ensure that you are consuming enough calories to support your training and daily life. Sometimes the high fibre intake associated with a plant-based diet can leave you feeling full, making it difficult to consume enough calories. A high fibre diet can potentially impact the amount of calories absorbed from food, but the effect is likely to be small and varies among individuals. High fibre intake can also be a trigger for gut issues during and after running.
Should runners following a plant-based diet test for nutritional deficiencies?
While a well-designed plant-based diet can provide all essential nutrients, it's important to monitor nutritional status, especially for runners with specific dietary restrictions. If you are on a strict vegan diet, it’s recommended to do annual blood tests, including a complete blood count, vitamin B12, iron and ferritin, zinc, vitamin D and lipid profile. Regular testing can help identify any deficiencies and allow for adjustments to the diet, including the incorporation of nutrient-dense foods and supplements. Always consult with a healthcare provider or nutrition professional before taking supplements.
How do I know if a plant-based diet is working well for me?
If you're transitioning to a plant-based diet, pay attention to the following indicators to see if it's working well for you:
Gut: Look for less bloating, stomach pain and gas and more regular bowel movements.
Lungs: Observe if there's less mucus during or after exercise, improved breathing and fewer allergy symptoms.
Energy levels and recovery: Notice if you experience faster recovery, increased energy and improved warm-up times.
Mood: Keep an eye out for a clearer mind, better concentration and an overall improved sense of well-being.
Soreness and stiffness: Observe if you experience less soreness, inflammation and joint stiffness.
A well-designed plant-based diet, with fortified foods and optional supplements, can provide all essential nutrients for runners, supporting health and performance. It's easy and exciting to follow a plant-based diet with plenty of options now available. Regardless of dietary choices, athletes should carefully plan their nutrition strategies. The benefits of plant-based diets are supported by growing evidence and should be embraced in the sporting world. Choosing a plant-based diet as a runner can improve health, body composition and performance while promoting sustainability and compassion. Embrace this nutrient-rich approach to fuel your running journey and make a positive impact on yourself and the environment.
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