Lately the one dietary/lifestyle change that has had more staying power than other fad diets and appears to be here to stay is the rise of a plant based diet. How much is the trend rising by exactly? And how does it affect athletic performances?
Even though not everyone following a plant based diet is a vegan, the rise of veganism means the means the rise of plant based diets. In the UK in 2019 1.16% of the population identified as vegan, compared with .46% in 2016 and .25% in 2015, this means that in the last four years there was an increase in the number of vegans by 364% and in the United States the number of people following a plant based diet has increased from .3 million in 2005 to 9.4 million in 2020, a whopping 3033% increase.
If we look at some athletes that have begun to follow a plant based diet and then look at how their performance has changed since they made it public knowledge, perhaps we can begin to understand the science behind the craze and exactly why professional athletes are turning away from traditional sources of protein to plant based ones.
Number one on our list is Venus Williams, Venus is arguably one of the best Tennis players to ever play the game female or male, you simply can’t argue with her track record of 7 grand slams, this would most likely have been more had she not been diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome which takes its toll on anyone let alone a professional athlete that needs to be on top of their game every time they take the court.
Venus adopted a raw plant based diet to minimise the effects of the disease and she has credited the diet with “helping me on the court to perform to the best of my abilities”, Venus managed to reach the Final of the Australian Open in 2017 six years after being diagnosed and was also 2012 Doubles Olympic Champion with her sister Serena.
Next up is Kyrie Irving, an NBA champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving noticed that when he had to play back to back games (without a nights rest) he would struggle and his shooting percentage was down 10% in the second game of a back to back.
He made the change to a plant based diet and said “My energy is up, my body feels amazing, it’s working out great so far.” His coach Brad Stevens said “he’s had great energy all year and his diet change has been a major part of that.”
Jermaine Defoe is a footballer that played well into his late 30’s and has credited a switch to a plant based diet as the reason he has been able to play so long and keep motivated and his energy high particularly towards the end of games.
He said “In terms of fitness and fatigue, towards the end of games I still feel good, the buzz is still there in training not just games and I want to play for as long as I can, I will keep doing the stuff that gives me the best opportunity to perform.”
Jermaine moved to Toronto in 2014 but after switching his diet and working on the nutritional and off field side of his game made a return to the Premier League with Sunderland and scored 34 goals in 87 games, a respectable tally for any player especially one at the age of 35.
The next name we are going to discuss is perhaps not a household name but is certainly one that does more than his fair share of gruelling workouts and has achieved success in his chosen field of Ultramarathons.
Scott Jurek has won 16 ultramarathon titles and holds a personal record of running 166 miles over a 24 hour period. Jurek made the decision to switch to plant based foods when he worked at a physical therapy school and saw all the defects and illnesses caused by what he believed to be excess meat and dairy consumption.
Jurek’s mother also suffers from multiple sclerosis and Jurek saw the opportunity to follow a plant based diet as something that would minimise his chances of suffering from the same disease.
Jurek credits his diet with making him feel stronger and better than he ever did before and it has increased his energy levels whilst ensuring lean muscle mass and being able to reduce his body fat percentage.
To summarize we can see from the examples illustrated above that a plant based diet is certainly a trend that is here to stay, the benefits to professional athletes has been immeasurable with Venus Williams being able to become an Olympic champion after her diagnosis and Scott Jurek being able to break records and personal bests in his ultramarathoning efforts.
It would appear that a plant based diet keeps energy levels high whilst also ensuring that the body can be healthier and fitter and help athletes to unlock their full potential.
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