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Should cyclists adopt a plant-based diet?

Emma Cole
2 May 2022

Plant-based diets are growing in popularity but can they work for cyclists? We examine the science

Fuelling is a crucial part of any cyclist’s training plan and ride, and with plant-based diets becoming more widespread in sport and society overall, we take a detailed look at whether plants really can power cyclists.

From benefits such as improved cardiovascular health, reduced inflammation, and better micronutrient intake to issues with ultra-processed food, bloating and the need for supplements, the discussion around plant-based diets is multifaceted.

Cyclists such as 2021 Paris-Roubaix winner Lizzie Deignan (Trek Segafredo), and the fastest woman to cycle around the world, Jenny Graham, follow a predominantly plant-based diet whilst former Lotto Soudal rider Adam Hansen has spoken widely about his veganism.


Plant-based diets for cyclists explored


What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet is any diet which focusses consistently on foods primarily from plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes and beans.

There are different interpretations as to what plant-based eating looks like. Some people include eggs and dairy, known as a vegetarian diet, others will include small amounts of fish and meat, a flexitarian diet and finally there are those who don’t eat any animal derived products, vegans. The key is that most of the diet comes from plants.



The growth of plant-based diets

According to Vantage Market Research, the total global plant-based food market is estimated to reach $78.95 billion (£62.52 billion) by 2028, up from USD 40.21 billion (£31.84 billion) in 2021.

The report puts this growth down to increases of obesity, diabetes and lactose intolerance which sees people move to a plant-based diet.

Of note is that organisations are adapting to this shift. FTSE 100 company Unilever announced in 2021 it aims to have €1bn-a-year plant-based foods business by 2028, fast-food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King have released and widely publicised their plant-based offerings, whilst Nestle’s recent financial results showed continued growth and momentum for its plant-based products.

Environmental reasons and easy digestion are other factors.

‘I think the biggest driver of plant-based products is sustainability as people are becoming more environmentally conscious,’ explains Tom Stancliffe, co-founder of TRIBE, a plant performance nutrition brand which launched in 2015.

‘Often plant-based products are high in fibre and made from natural ingredients which means they can sit in your gut better.’

Image credit: Alessandro Pianalto / EyeEm via Getty 

Documentaries such as Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy and the Game Changers, which focus on the ethical and environmental reasons to go plant-based, have also been instrumental in the diet’s growth.

‘Since the release of the documentary the Game Changers more and more athletes are adopting a plant-based diet, even if not a fully vegan diet,’ says Dr Leila Dehghan, MD, MSc, ANutr, education lead and nutritionist at Plant Based Health Professionals.

‘While some athletes may choose a vegan diet to fight climate change and/or prevent animal exploitation, the health benefits of a plant-based diet are the main incentive for hardcore meat-eaters to go plant-based.

‘Cyclists can not only fuel but also boost their cycling performance on a plant-based diet.’

Benefits of a plant-based diet

Improved cardiovascular health

Plant based diets are often associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

A 2019 study by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that diets higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in a general population.

‘A plant-based diet helps improve lung thickness, so obviously thins the blood, which means you have better circulation,’ explains Rob Hobson, registered nutritionist and head of Healthspan.

‘This means more oxygen gets to the muscles which is great for performance when you're cycling.’

Reduces inflammation

A study by Frontier Nutrition in 2019 found that a plant-based diet can help reduce inflammation and joint pain, positively affecting people with rheumatoid arthritis.

This means it can also be beneficial for cyclists.

‘Exercise such as cycling is an inflammatory event and results in oxidative stress and high inflammation’, explains Dr. Dehghan.

‘A diet made of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes is rich in antioxidants and can reduce post-exercise oxidative stress and inflammation.

‘This in return speeds up recovery and allows athletes to avoid injury which means that athletes can train more often and gain a competitive edge.’

High in carbohydrates

Image credt: Helen Camarco via Getty 

Another benefit of a plant-based diet is the level of carbohydrate it typically contains.

‘A plant-based diet is naturally rich in carbohydrates which is of advantage to cyclists,’ says Dr Leila Dehghan.

‘To meet their high energy requirements, endurance athletes need to include more calorie-dense plant foods in their diet such as nuts and seeds, quinoa, legumes and sweet potatoes.’

‘A carbohydrate-rich diet optimises blood sugar levels and provides energy to sustain athletes through hours of training which makes it ideal for long rides.’

As Hobson puts it: ‘It is all about carbs and carbs are vegan so it doesn’t really matter.’

Better micronutrients intake

Nigel Mitchell, author of the Plant-Based cyclist cookbook points out that a plant-based diet may help people get the nutrients they might be missing in an omnivore diet, particularly micronutrients.

These refer to water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, macrominerals and trace minerals, such as manganese and zinc.

‘A plant-based diet encourages people to eat a more varied, micronutrient dense diet,’ says Mitchell.

‘But the only real performance benefits come if a person's diet before going plant based was missing key micronutrients due to only eating a limited range of fruits and vegetables.

‘Micronutrients impact recovery, so the performance boosting side is actually from getting the ingredients you need to recover that you might not have been getting before.’



Issues with a plant-based diet

Despite these benefits, there can also be some downsides to moving to a plant-based diet, namely with the rapid growth of ultra-processed plant-based foods which can lead to people adopting an unhealthy diet.

Ultra-processed plant-based foods

Image credit: Ian Forsyth via Getty 

‘There’s been a massive rise in ultra-processed plant-based foods and my personal opinion is that there’s a place for things like this, but people need to understand how these foods fit within their wider diet and how they can go about making alternatives,’ argues Mitchell.

Recent research [by the Journal of Nutrition] has shown that there’s been an increase in energy consumption from ultra-processed foods, and the biggest rise is in the plant-based group.

‘When people follow diets high in processed food it has negative health results and leads to an increase in bodyweight, regardless of this processed food being vegan or not.’

Hobson agrees with this sentiment adding that it is wrong to assume that being plant-based equates to being really healthy.

‘The idea that vegans have the perfect diet just doesn’t really work and it doesn't necessarily mean a vegan diet is going to increase your performance just by going vegan,’ says Hobson.

‘It is easy to be an unhealthy vegan. I've met so many vegetarians who just eat cheese and pasta.’

Amino acids

Another issue typically associated with a plant-based diet is the potential lack of protein.

‘You should be able to get enough protein on a vegan diet but I think you just need to be really careful where you get it from,’ says Hobson.

‘Some vegan proteins such as nuts, seeds and grains, don't have all the essential amino acids, and one of the most important for muscle repair is amino acid called leucine.

‘It triggers muscle protein synthesis and that's most important when you finish training so you need to make sure you are getting the right amino acids.’

High leucine foods include chicken, beef, pork, tofu, canned beans and eggs.

‘There are nice little food synergies to think about as well. If you have protein with a carbohydrate the effect of insulin helps drive the amino acids up into muscles,’ adds Hobson.

Bloating

Switching from a meat-heavy diet to a plant-based diet increases the fibre intake significantly which promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria, but this also produces gas as a by-product which can lead to bloating.

‘If you suddenly have a really high fibre breakfast and you go for a ride and you start getting really bloated, it's going to be very uncomfortable on the bike,’ says Hobson.

‘If you are susceptible to this, you may need to time your meals around your training to try and avoid that affect.’

For Mitchell, the key is to wait for the body to adapt.

‘This is particularly interesting because bloating when going plant-based usually only occurs because people have improved their diet’, explains Mitchell.

‘My advice would be to stick with it and see if the bloating reduces over a few weeks.

‘It's important to note that there’s potential for people who have IBS to struggle with bloating more than others, in which case they need to look at reducing fibre a little bit or consider a FODMAP diet.’

A FODMAP diet is low in certain sugars that may cause intestinal distress.

For Dr Dehghan it is important to gradually increase fibre intake in order to minimise bloating and she suggests the following:

  1. Add legumes gradually – start with smaller red lentils and give your gut bacteria time to adjust to the increased fibre in your diet
  2. Soak beans and lentils overnight and discard the water before cooking
  3. Choose cooked vegetables over raw vegetables as cooking makes them easier to digest
  4. Chew your food thoroughly but make sure not to gulp air while swallowing
  5. Ginger, cumin, basil, fennel, peppermint and chamomile can help relieve bloating
  6. Drink enough water to avoid dehydration and constipation because fibre requires water to work properly
  7. Avoid processed foods

Low calorie diet

Finally, plant-based diets are typically lower in calories than omnivore diets and can lead to some cyclists suffering from low energy. In turn, this also can lead some athletes to use going plant-based to hide an eating disorder.

‘One of the problems with the vegan diets tends to be quite low in calories so it's really important that vegans are getting enough energy in their diet,’ says Hobson.

‘This low-calorie effect means that veganism can be a way for athletes to disguise an eating disorder.

‘Amongst athletes eating disorders are quite rife so it’s important for coaches to be aware of especially if an athlete all of a suddenly wants to go vegan.’

Supplements

As mentioned earlier, there are a few essential nutrients that plant-based cyclists need to be aware of and make an effort to ensure adequate intake.

  • Vitamin B12
  • Omega-3
  • Iodine
  • Calcium
  • Iron

‘Vitamin B12 cannot be obtained from plant foods and must be taken as a supplement,’ explains Dr Dehghan,

‘To obtain the daily omega-3 fat requirements plant-based cyclists can choose to either take an algae-based supplement or consume a daily source of ALA omega-3 fatty acids such as flaxseeds, chia seeds or walnuts.

‘Iodine can either be obtained from a non-seaweed supplement or fortified plant milks.’

‘Age and gender is also a really important consideration as female masters athletes need to think about taking calcium because of the menopause’, adds Hobson.

‘Calcium is really important for bone health and bone mineral density, and it can be missing from the vegan diet.

‘Female athletes also need to ensure adequate iron intake as they tend to have lower iron levels than men.’

How do plant-based diets fare in the peloton?

Image credit: Dario Belingheri via Getty 

Fibre is a key talking point for riders during a race and the team’s chefs are conscious of this.

‘During hard races like the classics the riders tend to skip salads and raw vegetables,’ explains Bram Lippens, Trek-Segafredo chef.

‘They still have steamed or oven-baked vegetables but not as much as during training camps when we serve more vegetables.’

When creating meals for the whole team, Lippens finds easy swaps for the plant-based riders.

‘For the vegetarian riders it’s only the protein that we need to change.

‘Breakfast doesn’t need to change much, we serve porridge, yoghurts, fresh bread and omelettes and for intense races there is also pasta and rice available at breakfast.

‘For dinner, instead of chicken they often ask for mozzarella, burrata, goat’s cheese or an omelette and we also add in things like tofu, chickpeas and lentils but during the races it’s easier to digest the low-fat cheeses.’

Image credit: PhotoAlto/Neville Mountford-Hoare via Getty

What’s more, with the rise of plant-based products globally, there doesn’t seem to be an issue sourcing ingredients.

‘There isn’t one country which is bad for plant-based products because plant-based diets are growing everywhere. Every year it becomes easier to get plant-based supplies,’ says Mirko Sut, Trek Segafredo Chef.

And what do the chefs recommend as the best plant-based meal?

‘For pre-ride, rice pudding with plant-based milk, or oatmeal but it just depends on the quantity of fibre you want to eat and how long or hard the race is,’ says Sut.

‘For post-ride, I would say some rice with a protein such as tofu and some beans.’

‘Chilli sin carne which is packed full of lentils, beans and rice,’ adds Lippens.

So is the future plant powered for cyclists?

Evidently following a plant-based diet could have some significant health and performance benefits but also needs careful consideration.

‘I believe that we are going to see more and more people following more plant-based diets but I don’t think every athlete will be plant-based by any means,’ says Mitchell.

For Hobson, it’s a similar picture but he throws caution to the wind.

‘I think it's a minority which is growing in popularity. And you only have to look at some of the athletes who are turning to a more plant-based approach and they seem to getting some great results.

‘But let's not forget that they have coaches, trainers, chefs, and nutritionists cluttering every aspect of their diet.’

Main image: Stuart Franklin via Getty 

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