Sticking to a mainly plant-based Mediterranean diet could do wonders for our ability to exercise.
The Mediterranean diet offers a range of benefits, from cardioprotective effects to staving off chronic disease. As a result, researchers are increasingly pointing out that this diet may be the key to a long, healthy life.
The Mediterranean diet — which is typically rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, and allows moderate consumption of fish, dairy, and red wine — contains various compounds that boost athletic performance.
Many of the foods in the Mediterranean diet contain antioxidants and nitrates and have anti-inflammatory and alkalizing properties. So, does this mean that by sticking to this diet, a person will experience improved endurance and exercise performance?
A team of researchers at Saint Louis University (SLU) in Missouri also wondered about this and set out to investigate. Edward Weiss, Ph.D., who is a professor of nutrition and dietetics at SLU led the new study.
Mediterranean diet could make you faster
Prof. Weiss and colleagues recruited seven women and four men who were “recreationally active.” After 4 days of following the predominantly plant-based diet, the researchers asked the participants to run 5 kilometers (km) on a treadmill.
Nine to 16 days later, the researchers asked the same participants to follow a Western diet for another 4 days and take the 5 km treadmill test again. A Western diet is typically “characterized by an overconsumption and reduced variety of refined sugars, salt, and saturated fat.”
The researchers also wanted to test the effects that these two diets would have on anaerobic, or muscle-strengthening exercise. So, they asked the participants to take a cycle test, a vertical jump test, and a handgrip test at the same time points throughout the study.
Overall, the study found that people were 6 percent faster in the 5 km treadmill run after following the Mediterranean diet than they were after adhering to a Western diet.
This improvement occurred even though the participants’ heart rates were about the same and they felt just as tired on both occasions. By contrast, the diets did not have any effect on performance in anaerobic exercise. Prof. Weiss and colleagues conclude:
“Our findings extend existing evidence of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet by showing that this diet is also effective for improving endurance exercise performance in as little as 4 days.”
“Many individual nutrients in the Mediterranean diet improve exercise performance immediately or within a few days,” explains Prof. Weiss. “Therefore, it makes sense that a whole dietary pattern that includes these nutrients is also quick to improve performance.”
“However, these benefits were also quickly lost when switching to the Western diet, highlighting the importance of long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet,” the author reports.
“This study provides evidence that a diet that is known to be good for health is also good for exercise performance,” concludes Prof. Weiss. “Like the general population, athletes and other exercise enthusiasts commonly eat unhealth[ful] diets. Now they have an additional incentive to eat [healthfully].”