Since high school, I have always been active in a variety of sports, from cross-country to basketball. Although my lack of natural talent prevented me from pursuing athletics at a Division I level, I’ve spent several years trying to wring out every last drop of my athletic potential. Since I started college, that trend has only continued. In my sophomore year, I hopped on a bicycle to begin training for the Little 500, a team-based bicycle race each spring which draws crowds of over 15,000. My schedule quickly became hectic, trying to squeeze endurance rides and road races between chemistry labs and biology exams. For most of college, I’ve been training more than ten hours a week for just one day in April. I was devouring any information which might help me stimulate even the slightest boost in my performance and give me an advantage. Podcasts, articles, and YouTube videos by accomplished cyclists were my sources of choice.
Earlier this year, a friend recommended I watch a documentary called The Game Changers on Netflix. It details UFC Fighter James Wilks’s journey to recover from injury and achieve better athletic performance through adopting a plant-based diet. In the film, Wilks travels the world to interview a diverse group of elite athletes who adhere to vegan diets including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scott Jurek (Ultrarunning), and Derrick Morgan (NFL). “Could going vegan give me a similar edge on my competition?” I figured it was worth a shot.Many of the athletes in the film reported a noticeable improvement in their performance and ability to recover after switching from an omnivorous diet. Some of the athletes’ improvements were so great that their competitors accused them of doping (Psihoyos, “The Game Changers”). Immediately I asked myself, “Could going vegan give me a similar edge on my competition?” I figured it was worth a shot.
I spent three weeks cooking meals from instructional videos, monitoring my nutritional intake, and eating more vegetables than I ever had in my life. I continued my training, paying special attention to my performance in my most challenging workouts. At the end of three weeks, however, I failed to notice any substantial difference in my fitness and ability to sustain higher intensities on the bike. Feeling somewhat disappointed, I wondered whether the claims made in The Game Changers were exaggerated to some degree.
After some research into the business interests of producers of The Game Changers, a list which included names like NBA star Chris Paul and director James Cameron, I identified some potential conflicts of interest. Paul, for instance, is a member of an athlete ownership group of Beyond Meat, a plant-based burger and sausage producer which stands to gain from more consumers adopting plant-based diets (Wohl, 2019). Paul has even appeared in commercials for the company with his son, using appeals to pathos and themes of family to promote Beyond Meat’s products. Cameron and his wife founded Saskatchewan-based Verdient Foods, a growing processor of pea, lentil, and fava bean proteins (Webber, 2018). Although Paul and Cameron might just be putting their money behind products they believe in, their investments have created a situation where overstating the benefits of a vegan diet in their film could potentially result in a considerable payout for both. Had I just been deceived by propaganda?
I thought back to the blog posts and articles not only about veganism for athletes but Paleo and Ketogenic diets as well. These diets have huge internet followings, as evidenced by forum communities on Reddit and other platforms, each with several hundred thousand members. Following these trends, many new food manufacturers are popping up, filling needs for plant-based meat alternatives or dairy-free protein powders. I wondered if the industry and commodification surrounding supposedly healthier nutrition could potentially be clouding the facts. This led me to the question: is there any scientific merit for veganism to serve as a springboard to improved athletic performance?
Plants to Fuel Performance?
A comprehensive review of academic studies pertaining to plant-based diets and sports performance found that vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous endurance athletes had similar levels of performance on tests of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max, a measure of aerobic fitness), time to exhaustion on an endurance ramp test, and maximum voluntary contraction; they found these results were evident across many separate experiments. In other words, choice of diet made little to no difference in performance of endurance athletes, if it was one high in quality, whole foods. In strength and power athletes however, one of the main differences between vegans and omnivores is in levels of muscle creatine. Muscle creatine is crucial for maximal-force muscle contractions like those which take place in sports like weightlifting and American Football (Lynch, Johnston, & Wharton, 2018). Typically, athletes consuming meat present with higher levels of creatine, but creatine supplementation for vegan athletes usually remedies this gap. This study also found that vegetarians and vegans receiving a creatine supplement demonstrated greater increases in total creatine, lean body mass, and total work performed during weighted leg extension trials compared to omnivores receiving creatine supplementation (Lynch, Johnston, & Wharton, 2018). This suggests that strength athletes consuming plant-based diets could be more receptive to creatine supplementation as compared to omnivores.
Other studies comparing strength athletes found no significant differences in measures of power output, oxygen uptake, and muscle metabolite levels between the two test groups while participating in rigorous resistance training programs. …the adoption of plant-based diets alone is unlikely to significantly elevate athletic performance. The similarities between the two groups across many experiments contribute to the authors’ verdict: “Based on currently available literature, it is unlikely that plant-based diets provide advantages, but do not suffer from disadvantages, compared to omnivorous diets for strength, anaerobic, or aerobic exercise performance (Lynch, Johnston, & Wharton, 2018).” Simply put, while there might be some supplementation advantages, the adoption of plant-based diets alone is unlikely to significantly elevate athletic performance.
However, what surprised most were the findings in the same article of how the adoption of plant-based diets can reduce the risk of developing chronic and potentially life-threatening diseases over the lifespan. There is an abundance of observational data that show that individuals on plant-based diets have better cardiovascular outcomes later in life compared to those who consume meat. Vegans also demonstrate the reduced incidence of cancers, decreased the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and lower all-cause mortality, which often manifests as longer life expectancy. Their more positive outcomes are most likely related to lower average BMI (body mass index, a health measure derived from weight and height), blood pressure, cholesterol, and uric acid measurements as compared to omnivores throughout the lifespan. In addition, interventional studies where habitual omnivores were switched to vegan diets for a short period of time found significant reductions in inflammation markers and blood pressure medication usage. However, it is difficult to confirm these relationships in the absence of double-blind randomized experiments, with an observation period of several years (Lynch, Johnston, & Wharton, 2018). Reducing or eliminating consumption of animal products appeared to be advantageous in delaying the onset of man’s most frequent killer: chronic disease. It is common to think, because of their active lifestyles, athletes are immune to these silent killers like heart disease and hypertension. In our increasingly fitness-crazed culture, the best athletes are often viewed as some of the healthiest people in the world. I was shocked to find that fitness culture’s strong emphasis on relentlessly pushing harder and farther to achieve fitness goals might be misguided.
The Athletic Heart
Lennard Zinn, a former member of the US national cycling team, was riding hard one day up Flagstaff Mountain, on a route he had done a hundred times before. Unfortunately, on this day his ride would not end with the cool, winding descent down the mountain. Instead, halfway up the mountain, his heart rate spiked from 155 to 218 beats per minute, and he collapsed. Upon examination at the hospital, he was instructed to back off his training and to wear electrodes and a telemetric EKG unit to measure his heart’s electrical activity whenever he rode. This way, doctors would be able to monitor his heart activity remotely and intervene if a more disastrous event was imminent. Similar episodes continued to occur and during one of them, Zinn’s heart stopped for a few seconds. Later that year, Zinn received his diagnosis, multifocal atrial tachycardia (MAT), a condition characterized by irregularly elevated heartrate which is commonly seen in individuals with, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary artery disease, and diabetes (Case, 2015).
Dr. John Mandrola, the cardiologist who treated Zinn’s heart condition, shared some insight on some of the contributing factors to the development of MAT in athlete’s hearts. These athletes “have a high cardiac output, their heart is exposed to high volume, high pressure, intense electrical and adrenaline stimulation, but then they also develop slow heart rates.” The constant acceleration and deceleration of the heart rate, for hours each day, can exact a huge toll on the health of the heart’s muscle fibers over the course of a lifetime. Although most athletes do not possess the typical risk factors for heart rhythm problems: high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, the cumulative effect of years of intense stress on the heart during endurance sports can be detrimental.
I hope to continue running and cycling well into my adult life, so this information left me feeling uncertain. Could chasing my own athletic goals and pushing my limits lead to significant health problems down the road? Even if I shifted my focus to other sports, woulIs there something all athletes could do to prevent heart conditions from developing while still remaining active?d similar problems arise? Is there something all athletes could do to prevent heart conditions from developing while still remaining active?
Food as Medicine
I came across some studies which found aging endurance athletes may have more advanced cardiovascular damage and atherosclerosis, a disease characterized by the collection of fatty plaques on arterial walls, as compared with sedentary individuals. A UK study found that 44% of middle-to-old-aged cyclists and runners had coronary plaques compared with only 22% in the sedentary control group. A similar study of 50 well-trained runners who had completed 25 consecutive Twin Cities Marathons found increased total plaque volume compared with the sedentary control group. These studies consider the effects of exercise over the lifespan; however, they do not consider diet’s role in the development of disease. The main contributors to atherosclerosis are elevated blood pressure, irregular lipid (fat) profiles, and obesity. Animal products, rich in saturated fat, tend to worsen lipid profiles, while the inclusion of soluble fiber and soy protein in the diet tend to improve them. Vegan diets are also associated with reduced body fat and blood pressure (Barnard, et al., 2019).
Can we definitively say that a plant-based diet, if adopted 30 years ago, would have prevented Zinn’s disease from progressing? “It is difficult to know for sure, primarily because the problems with the athletic heart are related to a lifetime of stress on our most important muscle. And based on current research, the possible benefits of a plant-based diet would require several years to manifest,” says Mandrola. As these diets continue to grow in popularity, more research, specifically studies where participants implement these diets over decades, should lead to more reliable information about the composition of diet most conducive to long, healthy lives. Rather than serving as a gateway for improved performance, it seems more likely that the application of plant-based diets in athletes could help to support a lifelong pursuit of physical activity.
Barnard, N., Goldman, D., Loomis, J., Kahleova, H., Levin, S., Neabore, S., & Batts, T. (2019). Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients, 11(1), 130. doi: 10.3390/nu11010130
Case, C. (2015, August 6). Cycling to Extremes: Cardiac issues a concern for endurance athletes. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/sports/endurance/story/_/id/13386980/velonews-endurance-athletes-damaging-their-hearts.
Lynch, H., Johnston, C., & Wharton, C. (2018). Plant-Based Diets: Considerations for Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance. Nutrients, 10(12), 1841. doi: 10.3390/nu10121841
The Game Changers. (2019).
Webber, J. (2018, December 15). James Cameron Participates in $140 Million Vegan Protein Investment. Retrieved from https://www.livekindly.co/filmmaker-james-cameron-vegan-pea-protein-investment-ingredion/.
Wohl, J. (2019, February 20). Beyond Meat campaign stars investor and NBA star Kyrie Irving. Retrieved from https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/meat-campaign-stars-investor-kyrie-irving.