Thursday, February 17, 2011
A Plant- Based Diet for Ultra Performance and Superior Health?
More and more we are starting to see the pitfalls of the “standard American diet”. It is no coincidence that it bears the acronym S.A.D……well, because it is nothing less than sad. Most of us don’t even know that most of the things that we are putting in to our mouths (and more sadly our kids’) aren’t even really food. The bulk of our diet is made in factories from refined white flour, partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup. It is then packaged in colorful little boxes with enticing pictures on the front and at a fraction of the cost of “real” food. By real food I mean those things our creator intended for us to eat, like beautiful, multicolored fruits and vegetables. The average per-person vegetable consumption is 0-2 servings per week. And we wonder why as a nation our health is failing. The foods we were intended to eat infuse our cells with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Not only do these components contribute to optimum health, but they give us long-lasting, sustained energy by way of slowly released energy. This equates to nice, even blood glucose levels. Simple carbohydrate sources such as the ones we have all come to accept as the foundation of our diets (bagels, bread, pasta, crackers) have a more profound effect on glucose levels. Upon consumption there is a nice rise in blood sugar and energy, but hours later there is often a compensatory crash in energy levels. The blood sugar crashes from all of that insulin released as the body tries to deal with the big onslaught of fast digesting carbs.
One of the biggest pushes toward a high processed carb diet is in the endurance exercise community. Just about every book and magazine geared toward running or cycling touts the necessity of obtaining the vast majority of calories from starchy carb sources. It is often recommended that 50% or MORE of the daily calories should be from carbs, that they are the body’s preferred fuel source. Many participants even supplement further with fast digesting sugar-based gels and liquids during their activity.
We have to step back and ask ourselves, is this approach really the best? Even more importantly, is it the most beneficial to our health? Could we just be plain wrong? Endurance athletes are notorious for “bonking”, which in layman’s terms is running out of gas during an event. If all these processed carbs are so wonderful for sustained energy, why are we needing sports drinks and gels to get us through, and why are overtraining and overuse injuries so prevalent? Let’s take a look at it from another angle.
The Tarahumara are a tribe of Indians living in Northwestern Mexico. Running is a part of their daily life, not only as a lifestyle but as a necessity. They live in a very rugged and treacherous terrain with deep canyons and lots of vegetation. It is not unusual for the average tribe member to log between 50 and 80 miles every day at a marathon pace. The land makes it impossible to travel by horse or wagon, so they run from place to place to complete their daily tasks. The interesting part is that they are keeping up this frenetic pace on a plant-based diet. No bagels, no sports goo, no big bowls of cereal. Their diet is roughly 80% plants (squash, beans, corn), 10% fat and a measly 10% protein from the special occasion when they get some fish, mice or goat. Even more fascinating is that they run incredible distances and still feel great. One tribe member was said to have ran six hundred miles in five days to deliver an important message. When they ran in the 1928 marathon, they blew through the course and exclaimed “Too short! Too short!”
Scientists have done many tests and studies on the Tarahumara to see if they have some genetic propensity toward better endurance. Everything keeps coming back to the fact that they are products of conditioning not heredity. Their extreme, almost vegetarian diet translates into an unnaturally low pulse rate and blood pressure. These things (along with a high-antioxidant diet) are also attributed to generalized well being, better energy, and a reduced risk of disease.
There seems to be such controversy over eating a plant-based diet. Many people view it as extreme, when in fact it is actually where our culinary roots are. Prior to the factory age we had to grow, hunt and forage for our sustenance. Have we gotten so far from where we are supposed to be in regards to our diet that we are sabotaging ourselves? Why are we continually pumping more and more man-made carbs into our systems in the quest for sustained energy when really some beans and vegetables would do the trick? Nutrition science is always behind due to the old-school doctrine of the U.S.D.A., and people are given these antiquated RDA guidelines to follow which may not necessarily lead them to optimum health. I still think we are closer than ever to a revolution. More and more athletes are coming out, and very vocally about their switch to a vegetarian or even vegan diet. They are raving about how much better their performance is, and how they are no longer just surviving, but thriving!