Myth Busting: You can’t be fit on a Plant-Based Diet

Written by Elly McGuinness

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There are many paths to optimal fitness and health. The definition of what it means to be “fit” is also greatly subjective and will hold various meanings for different people.

You may have heard someone saying “You can’t be fit on a plant-based diet”. This statement could be a reflection of a personal experience they’ve had when making adjustments in their nutrition. Or maybe it’s related to some sort of perception that a plant-based diet doesn’t contain enough protein.

Let’s take a look at the statement “You can’t be fit on a plant-based diet” and bust this myth once and for all.

What does it mean to be “fit”?

The Cambridge Dictionary offers a definition of the adjective form of the word “fit”, as pertaining to health:

“In good health, esp. as a result of exercise; strong”

The definition itself is rather subjective since the definitions of “good health” and “strong” can vary greatly between people. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion whether someone is in good health or not, and sometimes underlying health problems are present without signs or symptoms.

So for simplicity, and to “fit” with the purpose of this website, let’s discuss whether a plant-based diet can assist you with fitness-based goals such as:

  • Improving strength by lifting heavier weights or progressing to more advanced forms of exercise
  • The ability to improve cardiovascular (heart and lung) fitness
  • Improving other components of fitness such as agility and power
  • Helping you with your fitness in a holistic sense such as workout preparation and recovery

What is a plant-based diet?

“Plant-based” has been a bit of a ‘buzz word’ in recent years. It’s often interpreted as meaning an exclusively vegan diet.

However, someone that eats meat could still consider themselves as being on a “plant-based diet”, or rather, having “plant-based days”, if the majority of their food choices are centred on foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, spices, and legumes.

Just like the word “fit” is somewhat subjective, the definition of “plant-based” can also vary, and is often open to interpretation. There is not a defined percentage of what should be considered as a plant-based diet. The book, The Blue Zones – by Dan Buettner, contained studies that show that there are 5 ‘blue zones’ in the world where people have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else. They found that these areas typically followed a 95 to 100 percent, unprocessed plant-based diet.

The Mediterranean diet, for example, is predominantly plant-based. The majority focus is on plant-based whole foods. It is also supplemented with small amounts of fish, chicken, and dairy products (and very little or no red meat). Many studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can improve a number of health markers.

Mediterranean diet-plant based diet

Does a plant-based diet provide the necessary nutrition for a healthy body?

When approached sensibly, opting for whole foods over processed ones, and tweaked for individual requirements, a plant-based diet will provide you with the necessary nutrition for improving and optimising your fitness and health in general.

Many professional athletes are 100% plant-based. Venus Williams – Tennis, Kendrick Farris – Olympic Weight Lifting, Scott Jurek – Ultra Running, Novak Djokovic – Tennis, and Lewis Hamilton – Formula 1. To name but a few.

The main nutritional components that play a role in helping you to get fitter and healthier are:

Macronutrients (primarily protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water)

For a healthy lifestyle, and especially a fitness-focused lifestyle, protein sources are important to help the body recover and repair. Carbohydrates provide much-needed fuel. Fats are essential for things like healthy cells and absorbing fat-soluble vitamins.

Micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients

Vitamins and minerals are essential for a healthy immune system and help optimize a huge number of functions in the body. Phytonutrients such as flavonoids and carotenoids can also help support the health of the body in a number of ways.

All of these nutritional components can be obtained from a plant-based diet. Protein is often the main concern regarding the myth “You can’t get fit on a plant-based” diet. Plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes contain much-needed protein for muscle recovery and repair. Carbohydrates are certainly not lacking in plant-based foods, and healthy fats can be found in foods such as nuts, seeds, and avocados.

Plant-based foods also contain vitamins and minerals and are the best source of phytonutrients – natural chemicals produced by plants, that help prevent disease and keep your body working properly.

Tips to help you ensure you’re getting fitter and healthier on a plant-based diet

  • Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods to help you cover all your nutritional bases. “Eating the rainbow” can be a good approach to help ensure you’re getting the range of vitamins and minerals you need
  • Adjust your macronutrient intake to suit your personal needs. For example, you might choose more protein-rich plant-based food sources if you’re working on muscle growth
  • Consult with a nutritionist and supplement if needed. For example a B12 supplement will probably be required if you’re eating an exclusively vegan diet
  • Have you heard the phrase ‘Junk Food Vegan’? There are a growing number of highly processed vegan foods out there. Crisps, sweets, cakes, and so on. You could argue that most of these derived from ‘plants’, however, to ensure that you are benefiting from everything a plant-based diet has to offer, make sure that you eat these foods as infrequently as possible
  • Ensure that any changes you make to your diet are small changes. Your body might not respond well to big adjustments, especially if you’ve suddenly changed your macronutrient profile significantly

Do you consider yourself to eat a plant-based diet? What does this mean for you? Have you noticed any benefits from switching to more of a plant-based diet? Please comment below!

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