When it comes to staying active, there’s one thing many ignore: Their diet. Ultimately no amount of technique or training can do as much to help you get fit and stay fit as what you put in your mouth, according to a sports doctor who works with pro athletes. Lucy Danziger of the Beet explored why athletes should consider a plant-based diet.

Consider a Plant-Based Diet

When muscles are pushed to their limit, micro-tears are formed. This creates the opportunity for your muscles to build back stronger. Sometimes, this can be useful for reaching your strength goals, but it can also cause problems. Micro-tears cause inflammation, which will slow down recovery and add extra strain to your muscles. Because of this, sports injuries can happen due to the pain and ruptures that form.

If you are the kind of driven person who is prone to doing too much too soon in an effort to get back in shape, says Dr. Rand McClain, then your best friend is a plant-based diet that avoids animal products and dairy (both of which have been proven to cause inflammation in studies) and concentrates on eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes. You will get plenty of protein, explains McClain, who is a restorative osteopathic doctor for professional athletes. Instead of overdoing it at the gym, we should be piling our plates with natural whole foods that are minimally or not processed, and get our protein from the same place animals do: plants.

“I went plant-based for a full year in an effort to see how it would affect my body,” McClain explained as he sat in his house in California, tanned from biking outdoors all season. He found out that as he ramped up his daily workouts, the mostly vegan diet helped him increase his endurance, shorten his recovery times, and lowered joint inflammation. He now recommends that any athlete try it, if he or she is dealing with a nagging injury or has ever had to curtail a workout due to joint pain or inflammation, which can be both a symptom and a cause of injuries.

Stop Working Out Harder, Just Eat Smarter, Says This Sports Doctor

You train and you train and you train, but if you don’t see results, and you’re not getting faster, stronger, or leaner, or see the specific fitness gains you’re sweating for, Dr. McClain says you need to change what you’re doing. By just continuing to work out harder, you’re more likely to get an injury. He has seen athletes work hard and not achieve their goals, which is where a plant-based diet comes in.

“One day you get injured with a pulled muscle or tweaked hamstring, a strained sciatic nerve,” he says. For one reason or another, you have to change what you’re doing and you end up in a doctor’s office. If you’re lucky he or she will suggest that you change the way you’re working out, and your diet.

New research shows that short, “bite-sized” bursts of activity are now believed to be the most effective way to burn fat without having to work out for hours, according to a study done on cyclists. When this form of exercise was practiced, their fat-burning stayed up, 30 percent higher than sedentary study subjects. This lasted a full day later. The problem with these short bursts of intensity is the micro-tears that follow. Because of this, diet is imperative. Consider a low-inflammation diet, rich in fiber and whole foods, while lower in animal products such as processed meat and dairy. According to Dr. McClain, doing this will increase your endurance, strength, and overall performance.

The Benefits

“The Game Changers documentary showed how plant-based proteins can fuel a faster, stronger, more super-charged body, but a year and more later, the message is reaching more and more amateur and professional athletes, and I keep hearing from people who want to try it.” McClain, who is Chief Medical Officer of LCR Health (Live Cell Research) explains that to get the body’s cells to function at their best and build strong muscles through quick recovery times going all or mostly plant-based is worth it. He tells athletes to try it for a week, a month or even a year (as he did) and see what the results are on endurance, strength, and recovery times. He bets that you will see a difference in performance.

This type of plant-based diet leads to other positives—you are at a lower risk of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain (hormonally related) cancers.

“Choosing plant-based foods and avoiding meat and dairy can help support healthy weight loss and fitness goals by boosting the effects of exercise and lower inflammation in the body, which is an underlying cause and symptom of injuries and joint pain,” he said.

7 Reasons Athletes Should Eat a Plant-Based Diet, According to a Sports Doctor:

Reason 1: It fights inflammation and speeds up recovery time

Your body can recover faster from hard sessions because of the antioxidants in plant-based diets. When we look at nutrients in the body, we have to look at: What is the mechanism of action, do we have the ingredient identified, and can we extract it? We know that vitamin C does better when taken in fruit, and as we start identifying the synergies of C and rosehip for instance and we also know that these are powerful antioxidants that fight inflammation and help in the repair of cells. After a tough workout, your muscles are damaged and release free radicals, or electrons, which are like the sand in the oyster that stimulates the pearl. Antioxidants come in, and quench the free radicals, blocking the damage so that taking antioxidants right after a workout will help repair the damage.

Reason 2: Food tastes better, so you eat healthier, more veggies

When I went vegan I tasted things differently and started cooking vegetables in a whole new way. I didn’t realize you could do so many good things with vegetables. Mom was very forward-thinking but she still insisted on buying frozen peas, and I never thought I liked peas until I met my wife and we had fresh peas. It was a new experience. My wife is shucking peas as we speak. What I learned is that you can make vegetables taste great and for a lot of us, growing up in the south, you cooked them to death and then you loaded them up with sugar, salt, and fat, to make them taste good but now I realize that what tastes good is fresh ingredients cooked to bring out their flavor, not mask it.

Reason 3. You can eat as many whole plant foods as you want and not gain weight

I went vegan for a full year and for me, it worked. But since I am built, and all of the athletic things I do, I had to eat all day long to keep up my calories. So that was an interesting change. I love eating, so actually, it was not that bad. If you love to eat all day, go plant-based!

Dr. Dean Ornish did wonders to educate us about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for heart health. But I tell athletes, as we saw in The Game Changers, if what you want is to build up your endurance and power, then you should try switching to a fully vegan diet. Even if you don’t tell yourself: I am never eating meat again, give yourself a time period and try a plant-based diet.

Reason 4. You are healthier and gain more endurance, strength, and lean muscle

Even if you are not a professional athlete, what we’re discovering is that for the average person the larger number of plants in the diet is ideal. That is based on observation over a lifetime in medicine. I got into medicine — I had an interest in nutrition since I was 11. I started to read the work of famed nutritionist Adelle Davis. Reading that you could change your health by eating better, and I wanted to be a doctor.

Reason 5. You can skip the over-the-counter pain-killers

Taking curcumin instead of Advil is as powerful an antiinflammatory as any drug. NSAID’s are the most over-used over-the-counter painkillers that people take. But they can achieve this same effect naturally with curcumin. For inflammation, curcumin is my go-to. I use the marina from then a gram in the morning and a gram at night. I’ve seen people abusing Advil and of course, NSAIDs are the number one cause of peptic ulcers and within three weeks of using curcumin instead. They are off the NSAIDs.

Turmeric is a great source but it’s hard for the body to extract it, so by the time it gets all the way to the colon it is working, so it’s more effective to take two 500 milligram capsules in the morning and two at night.

Reason 6: Your energy levels will go through the roof, and fatigue will drop

A major noticeable plus is that when your first go vegan your energy will go through the roof. That happened and my inflammation decreased. Those two things go hand-in-hand. If you are inflamed–and you may not realize that you are until you go off dairy and meat–you’ll feel sore, have aches and pains, and that leads to poor sleep and feeling sluggish all day, and so you’ll want to take a nap, and feel tired all the time. When you get off animal products you have so much energy you won’t believe it. You get a lot done.

Reason 7: You’ll be able to lose weight if that’s your goal, and get plenty of protein

Your eating strategy should align with your goal. What is your goal? Why are you unhappy with your results in the gym? If you’ve been trying to lose weight, or you want to get strong but still want to lose fat, and your diet is not working then ask yourself, am I getting enough exercise and rest? Pea protein is always an option if you want to supplement, but it’s so much better to eat your lentils and beans, and grains. You won’t need to add powders.

There are plenty of ways to get protein from a plant-based diet: Seeds, nuts, and legumes. If you just need a recovery snack peanut butter is a high protein food. Nuts are fatty, but the majority of the macro in nuts is healthy fat but also protein. When you try going plant-based you realize you can get what you need and you’re not going to be lacking protein.

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