Everyone has a different idea of what a good diet is, and contradictory media headlines together with industry-funded ‘experts’ don’t make decision-making any easier. Let’s cut through the noise and see what nutrition science and experience say about what’s truly best for us.
What do yoga and sports nutrition have in common?
Yoga works with our physical and mental well-being & teaches us breathwork. But, it also touches on many other aspects of our lives, including what we eat. Is it relevant to modern life? It is! Perhaps, now more than ever, as scientific studies and a growing number of top athletes discover the key to the best diet is somewhat surprising – plants.
According to yogic wisdom, we should eat a mostly plant-based diet. This is also the conclusion of many studies examining the impact of our food choices on our health and athletic performance (1, 2, 3). In fact, plant-based diets are transforming the world of top athletes, having helped many Olympic competitors achieve their best!
“It’s a myth that muscles, strength, and endurance require the consumption of large quantities of animal-based foods. This myth began before anyone even talked about protein.”cARL LEWIS (oLYMPIC TRACK AND FIELD ATHLETE)
“It took me a while to really cope with the fact that I had been deceived. My performance was getting better [after cutting out meat and dairy] simply because I wasn’t doing harm to my body, so recovery was happening faster.”Kendrick Farris (Olympic weightlifter)
How does it work?
We are perfectly adapted to eating a plant-based diet (consisting entirely or almost entirely of plant foods) – and fueling our bodies with what they can digest and transform in the best possible way is the key to success. From an evolutionary point of view, animal foods were only ever an occasional source of energy. What really kept us going were plants (4, 5). A major change occurred when we started cooking and processing foods which made some nutrients better available. Gradually our digestive tracts shortened a little bit to accommodate for this. However, our stomachs are not acidic enough and guts are still way too long to cope with meat (allowing it to rot). So if we eat a meaty diet, it throws up a number of serious health issues.
It’s why diets like keto, Atkins, paleo or low-carb may work only in the short-term. Over time they lead to high blood pressure, blood cholesterol and heart problems, constipation, kidney fatigue, headaches, bad breath and even higher risk of cancer and premature death (6).
There’s a simple explanation for all this. Our bodies run on carbohydrates, breaking them down to single glucose molecules that fuel every single reaction in our cells. Trying to make the body run on a different fuel is just not going to work as well. Plants provide healthy (complex) carbs, alongside protein, essential fats, vitamins, minerals and a whole bunch of antioxidants and potent phytochemicals that protect our tissues from damage and help us recover after exercise.
Animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy) contain some protein, a whole lot of unhealthy saturated fats (7), little or no carbohydrates, a few vitamins and minerals, and a diverse mixture of toxic and cancer-causing compounds (8). No wonder then that diets based on animal foods increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular mortality – and because men eat more, the effect can be even bigger in a male body (9).
A comprehensive review of scientific studies from the last 60 years on diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver disorders and cancers came to the conclusion that plant-based diets contribute to good health, whilst diets based on animal foods seriously increase the risk of all the major diseases (10). When you’re active and training, you need to eat more and the more food you eat, the more dramatic the results can be – in both a good and a bad sense.
Fuel your performance
As an Athlete, you need energy that lasts and your best bet are healthy carbohydrates. That means complex carbs that release their energy slowly – wholegrains (wholemeal bread, pasta, brown rice, muesli/granola/oatmeal, buckwheat, quinoa), starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, root vegetables, squashes and pumpkins, peas, corn) and fruit (fresh and dried). This applies whether you’re training for strength, endurance or wanting to lose some weight, only quantities and timing differ (more on this in the next blog).
To keep your muscles nourished, good quality protein is a must. A regular person needs about 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight daily, endurance athletes 1.2-1.4 g and bodybuilders 1.6-2 g. Most of us already consume much more protein than we need. According to the largest study comparing various dietary patterns, vegans get 70% more protein than needed and meat-eaters about 90% more (11). Contrary to the marketing hype, animal foods are not the best protein source and even meat-eaters get more than half of their protein from plants (11).
It turns out plants have all the protein your body needs, including all the essential amino acids (protein building blocks). In case you’ve heard the old myth about combining plant foods to get all your amino acids – don’t believe it, it was busted a long time ago! (12, 13)
So what are the best plant-protein sources? Legumes (beans, lentils, garbanzo/chickpeas, soy) and products made from them, nuts and seeds, nut butters and whole grains! Who knew oats and wholemeal bread pack a protein punch? Plant-based protein powders can be a useful addition to your diet too as they contain a good quality protein with no nasty side-effects, unlike whey powders (14). But you don’t necessarily need them if you eat enough in a day.
Plant foods also provide a superb package of healthy fats – supplying you with all the essential unsaturated fats and only a minimum of saturated. Eating the right fats is crucial for your performance as saturated fat can seriously hinder blood circulation, meaning reduced blood supply to your muscles and impaired blood pressure regulation. On the other hand, unsaturated fats help the blood run smoothly and make the circulatory system incredibly efficient (15). To get the all-important omega-3 unsaturated fats, add some chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seed or walnuts to your daily regime.
Where plants really shine is their content of antioxidants, health-protective phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. The bright colors of fruit, vegetables, beans, and lentils are not just nice to look at. The pigments that create these colors have some pretty powerful disease-busting properties. These help you achieve faster recovery times after training (16).
Sounds too good and simple to be true? While we’re searching for that special formula that would transform our lives, sometimes we forget about the things that have always been here. There’s no magic pill to help you supercharge your body but there’s a whole world of fantastic whole foods that will help you achieve just that. This is how it works (1):
- Improved blood flow – a plant-based diet makes your blood vessels more elastic, blood-flow smoother and blood pressure lower. On top of that nitrates (natural vegetable compounds) help bring more oxygen into the muscles, improving your performance by as much as 22%! (17)
- Increased stamina – all the complex carbs help your muscles build up excellent glycogen stores whilst also providing sustained energy release, and at the same time the lack of hard-to-digest animal protein makes you less tired.
- Faster recovery – hundreds of plant antioxidants and health/boosting phytochemicals help faster recovery and lower systemic inflammation.
- Higher metabolic efficiency – you can digest plant foods (especially protein and fat) easier than animal foods so your body works better and has more energy to direct at building and repairing muscle.
- Improved blood sugar control – plant wholefoods help regulate blood sugar thanks to the complex carbs they contain, providing long-lasting energy, and they also keep your insulin sensitivity sharp, preventing type 2 diabetes (18).
“My clients see so many benefits to eating a plant-based diet that post-season, they don’t go back to eating as an omnivore or a carnivore.”Barbara Lewin, RDN, CSSD, LDN, a sports nutritionist who works with Olympic, NHL and NBA athletes
There are soo many top-level athletes that thrive on plant-based diets. Take Venus Williams, Carl Lewis, Meagan Duhamel, Dotsie Bausch, Alexey Voevoda, Kendrick Farris, Bryant Jennings, Scott Jurek, Lewis Hamilton, Morgan Mitchell, Griff Whalen, Patrik Baboumian & Arnold Schwarzenegger to name a few.
Got that gut feeling?
Our gut is literally full of bacteria – some good and some bad. What we eat determines which bacteria thrive and which don’t. It is now well-known that these bacteria have a huge influence on our immunity, levels of tissue inflammation and energy levels.
And yet again, there’s a clear distinction between animal and plant foods. Animal-based foods encourage the growth of flesh and fat-feasting bacteria producing toxic byproducts. On the other hand, plant-based foods promote fiber-munching bacteria that help us digest food (19). As a result, plant-based diets lead to lower levels of body inflammation and a stronger immune system (20, 21). This is great news but it gets even better!
Harmful gut bacteria have been linked to degenerative diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis – a painful joint condition – but a plant-based diet can entirely transform your bacterial populations and help you prevent this disease (22, 23). Even if you already suffer from it, you can reduce the symptoms through diet (24). What’s not to like?
What you eat has an immediate effect on your athletic performance. When you eat a meaty meal, your bloodstream is flooded with fats (even from ‘lean’ meat) and chemical compounds. Next, your gut gets an extra dose of bile to try to digest it all, the kidneys have to filter out sulphuric acid resulting from animal protein. Following this, your immune system produces more white blood cells to fight the perceived threat of foreign protein. All that naturally makes you tired – it makes your organs work really hard! Later on, as the meaty residue moves through the intestines, it starts to rot and encourages the toxic bacteria to thrive, potentially causing constipation if you have a low-fiber diet.
All that just to get some protein? Your body deserves better! Take a cup of black beans – for example – 15 grams of protein, a bunch of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and starchy carbs for energy, and only one gram of fat. Wrap the beans up in a couple of whole wheat tortillas, throw in some tomato and avocado slices, green leaves, a spoonful of tahini and your favorite spicy sauce – and you have a smashing lunch packing 30 grams of protein, half of your daily requirements of calcium and iron, over a third of zinc needs, most of B vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin K and a healthy dose of fiber.
Ancient warriors and superhuman runners
Roman gladiators, some of the strongest athletes in history, ate a plant-based diet to fuel their epic battles (25). The Tarahumara Indians from Mexico, known as the best ultra-endurance runners in the world, rely on plants to provide 95% of their energy. It’s no coincidence, plants are the best fuel we can find. Just ask Jon Venus what he eats in a day!
Any steps you make towards a plant-based diet will give you a great boost, it can be a couple of plant-based days a week or you can start with dinners – whatever you think you can stick with and soon you’ll see the results!
“I always say that eating a plant based diet is the secret weapon of enhanced athletic performance.”Rich Roll (Ultraman and Ironman triathlete)
How, why and what to eat, sample meal plan, pre- and post-workout tips and more!
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