Plant-based protein sources are becoming increasingly popular; and here’s why…

Do you struggle to fully recover between training sessions? Do you feel sluggish before and during races or hard training sessions? Is it taking you longer to recuperate from injury than expected?

If so, have you ever stopped to consider that your choice of protein might be a contributing factor?

Changing the protein game

A new Netflix documentary film titled The Game Changers has thrust the debate around plant versus animal protein into the mainstream.

The doccie follows James Wilks, an elite Special Forces trainer and The Ultimate Fighter winner as he travels the world on a quest to uncover the optimal diet for human performance and recovery from injury.

It’s billed as a “shocking new documentary that will change the way you look at meat”, but the film is not without controversy. The intense vilification of animal products throughout the film fails at providing viewers with objective insights and balanced reporting from a broad array of experts.

Other major criticisms include:

  • The film’s references to limited, poorly constructed and incomplete studies or those with small sample sizes, cherry picking facts to justify claims.
  • Vested interests many producers hold in the plant-based food and supplement industries.

While many experts across the medical, dietetics, nutritional science and journalistic fields have subsequently denounced the film as pro-plant propaganda and vegan hype, it’s naïve to simply dismiss every point raised in the documentary due to its biased slant.

Fighting inflammation

Phrases like “a predominantly plant-based diet”, got us thinking… Could we benefit from the faster recovery reported by some of the plant-only elite athletes profiled in the documentary, while reserving animal proteins like dairy, eggs and meat for more strategic times of the day or week?

One study, which was conducted on over 2,000 members of the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort, assessed associations between dietary protein and changes in biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress over the long-term.

The findings, which were published in May 2019 in the Current Developments in Nutrition journal, found that “dietary protein, particularly from plant sources, may be associated with beneficial changes in the inflammatory burden in aging populations.”

Granted, an “aging population” is hardly related to high-performing athletes, but it warrants a closer look at the claims that animal protein may promote inflammation.

Meat’s inflammatory compounds

Animal products naturally contain compounds that are associated with inflammation, whether they were commercially farmed or organically reared. The way we cook meat can also increase the food’s inflammatory profile.

The proteins we eat can also impact our gut, suggests research published in 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

Researchers from the Institute of Microbiology of the CAS in Prague found that diets rich in animal protein “exacerbates acute dextran sulfate sodium (DSS)-induced colitis (in mice), while a diet rich in plant protein does not.” Click here to read the study.

Colitis is an inflammatory condition linked with irritable bowel syndrome and the research data showed that the interactions between dietary animal protein and gut microbiota “increase sensitivity to intestinal inflammation by promoting pro-inflammatory response of monocytes.”

While this type of inflammation might not directly impact an athlete’s recovery potential, it can negatively affect nutrient absorption.

This would certainly slow down the recovery process and could lead to nutrient deficiencies over time, which certainly impact on athletic performance.


The bottom line

Of course, not all inflammation is bad, and meat is certainly not solely to blame for the harmful chronic systemic inflammation many of us experience today.

Recovery can be compromised by:

  • Consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars.
  • Manufactured trans fats and unbalanced (in terms of their omega-3-to-6 ratios) vegetable and seed oils.
  • Various environmental toxins, an overblown immune response and overtraining.

We should therefore limit the inflammatory response as much as possible, focusing on a combined and balanced approach to protein consumption.

As a 2004 study titled ‘Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarian Athletes’ by Susan Barr and Candice Rideout, states “well-planned, appropriately supplemented vegetarian diets appear to effectively support athletic performance.” It’s important to note that ‘vegetarian’ diets can include dairy and eggs.

As such, consuming a meal or supplement that contain various plant proteins to deliver a complete amino acid profile immediately following intense training could help to control the natural inflammatory response that accompanies exercise. This could help you recover quicker between training sessions.

Raw Sports feature image

However, there is no need to eliminate animal protein from your diet. Reserving meals and supplements that contain animal protein for later on in the day or evening would ensure athletes still benefit from important vitamins and minerals contained in animal foods, such as iron, vitamin B12, calcium and zinc.

And while we can conceivably get all the amino acids our bodies require from plants, we have to eat a considerably greater volume of food to realise the same benefits derived from animal protein sources.

Questions also remain whether a diet free from all forms of animal proteins is, in fact, healthy over the long-term.

As always, rigorous science and common sense, rather than dogma and emotions should guide your protein choices and inform the times at which you consume them to construct a well-balanced approach for optimal recovery and performance.