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The rise of plant-based diets has taken the world by storm and has gained popularity amongst some of the most well-known athletes to celebrities to everyday people. Until recently, diets that exclude animal products were seen as fads to the mainstream media, and any references to veganism or vegetarianism were often negative. With the launch of Louie Psihoyos’ documentary “The Game Changers”, which recently premièred on Netflix during September of 2019, social media platforms have been flooded with a plethora of comments from people who intend on giving the plant-based diet a go. The question is:
Many people adhere to a plant-based diet due to its perceived health benefits and, in fact, there is sizeable literature to document a lower prevalence (up to 75% lower) of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease in plant-based dieters, as opposed to omnivores. To potentially extend the health benefits of this lifestyle, nutritional preferences are often centred around healthier options due to the amount of processed food that is not vegan or vegetarian friendly (just think of burgers, pizza, chocolate etc.) Thus, vegans and vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fibre in general. Evidence states that this leads to a whopping 10% to 20% decrease in all-cause mortality.
Beyond going meatless, it is necessary to evaluate the health benefits of different types of these plant-based diets. How does the health status of vegetarians differ from vegans? In multiple studies conducted, both vegans and vegetarians have reduced risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. However, vegans experienced greater risk-reduction for all those diseases.
So, is the key to plant-based dieting actually cutting out animal produce entirely? Not necessarily.
A common misconception of going plant-based is that it will provide those who adhere to the lifestyle with all the vital nutrients they need. Vegetarians and vegans, in particular, consume high amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts but their intake of vitamin B-12 is usually severely inadequate. Subnormal vitamin B-12 consumption is incredibly common, with about 50% to 70% of vegans or vegetarians struggling with the aforementioned deficiency.
The name “plant-based” is pretty self-explanatory but seems to be somewhat misleading to some. Its connotations are correlated to that of health and well-being, although with the increase of popularity in this community there is also an increase in size of the target market that well-known restaurants and fast food chains aim to cater for. These foods, despite being available options for plant-based eaters, hold a very low nutrient profile and will still lead to adverse effects if consumed in excess.
Furthermore, dietary protein is, unquestionably, essential in the human diet for growth, development and for maintaining health. Struggling to eat adequate amounts of protein through following a plant-based diet is a complete myth and is, in actual fact, completely doable.
However, it may be a lot harder for athletes to optimise their dietary needs going fully, or even partially, plant based. A certain amount of leucine is needed to optimise muscle protein synthesis (a process where rebuilding and repairing of the skeletal muscles takes place following tissue damage from weight training, triggering a hypertrophic response. In other words, it makes your muscles larger).
Leucine is an amino acid that helps with this recovery response and keeps the body from entering a catabolic condition. Plant-based sources of protein generally contain a much lower percentage of leucine than animal sources of protein. This means that you will have to eat more of the plant-based protein if you were vegan or vegetarian to reach the required amount of leucine (about 2.5g) to optimise muscle protein synthesis. This can be problematic for those who strive to achieve a certain level of size and condition in their physiques (namely, bodybuilders or speed performance athletes) due to the greater amount of food that can be hindering fat loss from lessening one’s calorie deficit or, in the case of speed athletes, putting on too much weight from excess eating just to reach a protein or leucine goal.
To sum up, going plant-based does have its benefits and multiple studies have shown evidence to support the link between a lower risk of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. It can also lead to a much healthier and slightly longer lifespan, although due to its popularity increasing exponentially, and more vegan and vegetarian “junk food” becoming available for the plant-based community to add to their arsenal, these figures are incredibly subjective to change.
Moreover, if you are an athlete, it is possible to manipulate your diet to fit your needs, although shying away from plant-based diets may not be the worst idea if you are trying to optimise muscle protein synthesis. As always, we recommend moderation and balance. However, if you decide to go completely one way or the other, be realistic about your goals and what may or may not be the most optimal way to achieve them taking into consideration your available dietary options and the impact it may have on your budget.
Authors: Callaghn Soligram and Amy Brammall
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