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Research shows plant-based diets can support athletic performance

If you're thinking of cutting back on your meat consumption but are concerned about how it will affect your running performance, science says you've got (almost) nothing to worry about

A lot of people these days are considering switching to a more plant-based diet, whether it’s for health, environmental or ethical reasons. For runners who are concerned about performance, however, this decision may not always be quite so easy. If you’re worried about how eating less meat will affect your running results, you can relax. A recent guide published in the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal showed that a well-designed planted-based diet with some fortified foods can provide adequate nutrition to support both your health and your performance.

RELATED: Nutrition advice for vegetarian runners

Plant-based vs. vegan

The authors of the guide refer to a plant-based diet as one that is based on all or mostly plants, or where animal foods make up less than 10 to 20 per cent of total energy consumption. This differs from veganism, which they define as ” a justice movement and lifestyle that not only includes a strict PB diet, but also excludes the exploitation of animals in any form (e.g. clothing, entertainment).” In this way, not everyone who eats a plant-based diet are vegan, but all vegans consume a plant-based diet. Either way, the research shows it can be a sustainable way of eating for athletes.

Protein

This is the big question on most peoples’ minds when considering switching to a plant-based diet. The authors of the guide reviewed that available research about protein consumption and plant-based diets and concluded: “the amounts and proportions of amino acids consumed by vegetarians and vegans are typically more than sufficient to meet and exceed individual daily requirements, provided a reasonable variety of foods are consumed and energy intake needs are being met.” In other words, as long as you’re eating enough to support your level of activity and you’re not only eating the same few foods all the time, you’re likely getting enough protein.

The authors also address the idea of complete and incomplete protein and argue that the terms are misleading when it comes to plant-based protein sources. “Ingesting protein from a variety of plant foods, over a 24-hour period, supplies enough of all indispensable (essential) amino acids when energy requirements are being met,” they write. In addition, they include a helpful table that lists the top plant-based protein sources, with the top three being seitan, tempeh and edamame.

Iron and zinc

Iron is another big concern for plant-based athletes, and the authors admit that those who give up meat do have to be more intentional about consuming iron-rich foods. The research shows that plant-based athletes typically consume the same amount of iron as their meat-eating counterparts thanks to a higher consumption of whole grains and legumes, but because our bodies don’t absorb iron from those sources as well, recommendations for plant-based athletes are 1.8 times higher. For this reason, women should be getting 32 mg/day (versus 18 mg per day) and men should aim for 14 mg/day (versus 8 mg/day).

Plant-based sources of zinc are also harder for our bodies to absorb, so those who don’t eat meat may require 50 per cent more zinc than omnivores.

Vitamin B12, Calcium and vitamin D

The authors concluded that because of the low bioavailability of these nutrients in plant-based foods, athletes who don’t eat meat (or dairy, in the case of calcium) may need to include supplements in their diets to meet their daily needs. Of course, if you are considering supplementation, you should speak with a dietitian or doctor who can help you determine how much you need and point you in the right direction to make sure you’re using a high-quality product.

RELATED: 8 ways runners can make their meals healthier

The bottom line

As long as you put some thought and planning into it, a plant-based diet can be just as healthy for athletes as a diet that contains meat. If you’re considering switching to a plant-based diet but you’re worried you won’t get all the nutrients you need, talk to a dietitian who can help you come up with an action plan and set you up for success. You can also check out the entire guide, which contains an example of a meal plan, here.

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