Over the last few months, I have seen significant growth in the number of people in my life making a switch to a plant-based diet. Two people close to me made a switch because of some health issues, and it has been really good for them, life-saving even. Some of the basic concepts of a plant-based diet is eating whole foods like vegetables, fruits, and grains while avoiding meat and highly processed foods. By doing this, you reduce inflammation in the body by detoxing it from a cellular level. In many cases, this is the reason people switch to a plant-based diet. However, is this a diet for someone who does not need it for significant health, medical or moral reasons?
Self admittedly, I did not know much about the Plant-Based diet before this, and the desire to know more is the reason for this blog. As I read more, I realized that it is not much different than what I practice for myself along with hundreds of thousands of other CrossFitters around the world. Greg Glassman, CEO, and founder of CrossFit puts that your diet should consist of, “Meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keeping intake levels that support exercise but not body fat.” If we were to remove the first word from that sentence it would be what I have come to learn is the “Plant-Based Diet.”
So if the main reason for eating plant-based is to reduce inflammation and the only difference between plant based and the “CrossFit” diet is meat, then meat must be the common denominator when it comes to inflammation in the body?
So from here, I needed to do some more research on meat and its inflammation properties. What I found was that red meat (beef, pork), as well as processed meats (cold cuts, sausage), were the main meats that caused the majority of inflammation. I also read that too much animal products can cause inflammation, but there is not an exact measurement for what is “too much,” and someone would have to have their blood tested after consuming an amount of animal product to see if it metabolized into arachidonic acid (inflammation causer). However, referring back to what Greg Glassman said, “Keep intake levels that support exercise but not body fat” should be a useful measurement of how much animal products you should be consuming each day.
Reading more about inflammation, I learned that meat is not the only cause of inflammation in the body based on typical food consumption. Most people experience inflammation from sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and wheat (gluten) because these are consumed more often and in higher amounts than animal products in a regular diet. Add in other commonly consumed foods that cause inflammation like lectin protein (beans, legumes), lactose (dairy) and alcohol then there are more inflammation causes in our other foods we eat than the animal protein we consume. So is the bulk of our bodies inflammation caused by animal protein or is it the other foods we are consuming?
I think with a five-minute scan of a few articles on plant-based dieting and meat causing inflammation one could assume that both could cause your body to have an abnormal amount of inflammation.
So from an exercise standpoint, can you eat enough protein on a plant-based diet to support exercise? The short answer is no. While a plant-based diet can help with weight loss and total body inflammation, it is very tough to get enough protein.
If you are exercising on a regular basis, lifting weights and cardio or “CrossFit” you need at the very least sixty percent of your body weight in grams of protein. (a 100lb person needs 60g of protein). This ensures that your body will keep itself from eating your current muscles instead of fat. To build muscle, you would need to eat at least your body weight in grams of protein each day. There are some alternatives that you can resort to on the plant-based diet, but most are processed foods or supplements, and no matter what plant-based alternatives you are eating for protein, none will have the proper amino acid profiles you need. Processed foods are defeating the “anti-inflammatory” part of the diet and supplements are designed to “supplement” your current diet not be a staple of it.
Protein is the staple of a diet that is going to allow you to burn fat, recover from workouts, and build lean muscle. Without enough of it, you are merely wasting workouts. I am sure there are examples of high-level athletes that are on “plant-based,” but those are few and far between (and probably have someone making their meals). Most likely they were not always that way and developed a base while eating animal protein.
So after my light research, I still plan to consume animal proteins to maintain my goals and lifestyle. My suggestion to anyone who also consumes animal protein is to buy quality products while avoiding red meat and processed meats. Grass-fed, free-range or fish products not from a package or caught by you are the best possible choices when making your selection. These do cost more, but if they are helping you reach your goals then do it! How much you should eat of them should follow along with the prescription given by Coach Greg Glassman.
If you do plant-based dieting for major health issues or moral reasons I am all for it. Again, I have seen how it has helped people in my family, but I do believe if you are a healthy, exercising individual maintaining the CrossFit diet will help you as well if not more.
I think you can keep your body’s inflammation low with this type of dieting while maintaining a low body fat percentage and also recover from tough workouts. By eating enough protein you will allow your body to recover and look like Maurice Greene rather than Roger Bannister. Both are great and many would take either but in my opinion, one is more desirable than the other.