Eating Ethically: for our performance and the environment

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What we eat and where it comes from has been coming under increasing scrutiny in recent years. In 2018, there were a number of high-profile studies that identified limiting our meat consumption as an important requirement in helping to tackle climate change. It is a trend that many appear to be switching to; from those consciously reducing their meat intake to a more sustainable level, to those who are cutting animal products out entirely and turning to a vegan diet.

More food outlets than ever before are catering towards plant-based diets and there is a plethora of information on veganism widely available online. Whilst this makes for a difficult picture to navigate, both nutritionally and morally, an environmentally conscious athlete can nonetheless make significant changes to their diet that can have both a positive environmental impact, and help improve performance and health. Here we explore some important factors to be aware of and get some key tips from our nutrition experts.

The environmental picture

It’s a difficult admission to make; but eating meat has a greater negative effect on our environment than a plant-based diet. Equally as the global population increases, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Land use for rearing animals is vast; clearing huge tracts of trees and wilderness in order to make way for livestock. The process is also highly polluting, releasing high amounts of methane from animal waste and fertilizers into the atmosphere and contributing to rising temperatures.

It’s difficult to understand just how much of a difference reducing our meat in-take could make. The picture is complex with a multitude of different factors. Yet one way of putting things in to perspective is to consider an extreme scenario: what might things look like if we all stopped eating meat completely? The answer is profound. A study released last year by the University of Oxford suggested that if, hypothetically, meat consumption was to be cut out completely, global farmland could be reduced by 75%, and an individual’s carbon foot print by up to 73%.

Of course not everyone will want to cut out meat from their diet. Animal products will likely remain a large part of everyday life and eating meat can be enjoyed in moderate quantities as part of a healthy, balanced diet. However, it is clear that we all need to do a bit more to reduce our meat intake and try to eat more plant-based foods that are sourced as locally as possible and seasonally available.

Benefits of a more plant-based diet

The good news is that, for athletes as well as the general public, there are definite health benefits associated with reducing meat consumption and increasing our intake of plant-based foods. Red meat and processed meats, in particular, are often high in salt and saturated fat, which can increase our risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which can have a negative impact on performance.

Recently, a paper published by the Lancet, highlighted that a poor diet is a contributing factor in 1 in every 5 deaths globally. A poor diet was characterised by too much salt and too little whole grains and fruit. It is widely acknowledged that we in the UK need to eat more fruit and vegetables, and athletes may particularly benefit from key plant compounds such as antioxidants.

In fact, plant-based food and lower levels of meat is already a common trend in athletes, especially ultra-endurance athletes. These athletes tend to be more health conscious individuals who focus on the nutritional benefit found by eating a healthy mix of fruit, vegetables, nuts and plant proteins with minimal meat consumption.

Fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grains are all important factors in plant-based diets.

Fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grains are all important factors in plant-based diets.

That said, we can all be doing more and the performance benefits of fruit, vegetables nuts and pulses on our health is significant. The nutrients and minerals found in fruit and vegetables are vitally important alongside protein for repairing the body after exercise and also maintaining resilience to illness and injury. Nuts in particular are not just an excellent source of protein, but each also provides a unique profile of vital vitamins and minerals; almonds are a great source of fibre and calcium, whilst cashews contain iron and zinc, and walnuts have vital omega-3 fatty acids.

Other benefits of reducing down meat and replacing with plant-based food is the reduction in cholesterol and saturated fat which can limit the ability of the cardiovascular system to move blood and oxygen around the body. Changing meat for other plant alternatives has been reported to improve an individual’s cardiovascular performance and in-turn their endurance.

What to watch out for

There is however potential for a poorly planned change to plant-based diets to cause issues itself. Vegetarian and vegan consumers need to be aware of how they can best obtain essential nutrients such as omega-3, iron, calcium, B12, and vitamin D.

Knowing good plant-based sources of these essential nutrients and planning meals to include them is key to a balanced plant-based diet. For example, tofu is an excellent source of calcium, vitamin C should be included with plant based sources of iron, and fortified dairy alternatives can help to increase intakes of vitamin B12 and calcium. Getting this information is best obtained through a registered dietitian or nutritionist, who can also provide a full assessment to identify nutritional deficiencies and help prevent complications that may negatively influence on health and performance.

Athletes should also plan their protein intake, especially after exercise to help repair damaged muscles. Meat contains a high amount of protein and excluding or reducing it without replacing it with a plant-based protein can negatively impact on recovery and performance. Plant proteins such as soy products, legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds and Quorn are good protein substitutes. A recent study by Exeter University showed that Quorn can promote protein synthesis to a greater extent than whey (found in dairy), which may help with muscle repair and recovery. Athletes should also watch out for replacing high protein meals for whey based shakes as post-exercise nutrition. The best option after exercise is still a well balanced meal providing a range of nutrients and vitamins.

Given the lower density of protein in plant based foods, athletes can find themselves consuming higher quantities of fibre in order to achieve the required protein levels they need. Quite apart from the practical issue of consuming higher quantities of food which can leave an individual feeling sluggish, high fibre diets can also hamper absorption rates in to the system.

It is worth keeping in mind as well that, for certain athletes, solely plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets may be entirely incompatible; whether due to an individual’s religious, health or social situation, or their gender. In such cases proper personalised nutritional advice should be sort to consider how best to incorporate the principles of reduced meat consumption in to one’s lifestyle.

How to do it

There is a huge amount of information on the internet about plant-based diets for athletes. However, with such a range of information – some good and some bad – it’s important to seek expert advice. A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help you develop a nutrition plan based on evidence from current research but is also personalised to your own situation, requirements and performance goals.

However, there are some general points that can be considered:

  • Set a long-term goal, e.g. a vegetarian diet or meat no more than 3 times per week, and set small, timely steps to help you reach you long-term goal.

  • Make one small change at a time and monitor how, or if, this affects your performance, both physically and mentally.

  • An intake in fibre should be done gradually to avoid gastrointestinal distress.

  • Ensure that any dietary changes are practiced and established well in advance of any races or key training sessions.

  • Consider if key nutrients are included in the diet and in optimum amounts or if dietary supplements are required, e.g. for vitamin D and omega 3. Make sure any supplements are Informed Sport approved if used during competition.

Beyond these starting considerations, further information is on-hand through our nutritional experts. They work alongside the rest of our clinicians to advise on a range of nutritional issues which can not only improve their performance, but also lead a healthier lifestyle and maintain a healthy diet alongside busy work schedules. Get in contact with us today.