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Plant-Based Diets Can Boost Performance, But for Women, Switching Isn’t Always Easy

A look at how gender roles have shaped traditional diets and what women stand to gain from breaking the mold.

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There is a nuance behind why people make the dietary decisions that they do. There are health considerations, training needs, family commitments, moral implications, emotional ties to certain meals and memories, and the amount of free time someone has to cook or plan. And for runners who choose to eat plant-based diets to improve heart health, performance, and recovery (as the case can be made in this Physicians Committee study published in the journal Nutrients), there also comes stigma that they have to battle.

In Netflix’s 2018 documentary about plant-based diets, Game Changers, sprinter Morgan Mitchell credits a vegan diet for boosting her performance. But Mitchell, who represented Australia at the 2016 Olympics, is one of only two female athletes featured, surrounded by 11 male runners, weightlifters, soldiers, fighters, and firemen. The film, produced by James Cameron of Titanic and Avatar fame, sought to change perceptions of meatless meals by examining how meat became the preferred source of protein and highlighting new research suggesting humans evolved to eat plants.  

“There is a sense of irony,” says Amber Summers, a registered dietician, “that originally, some women may have adopted a stereotypical men’s diet to drive endurance and strength and men are now switching to diets, or exploring plant-based diets, that have typically been more socially acceptable for women.”

Like the other female athlete in the film, cyclist Dotsie Bausch, Mitchell shares the doubts she had about abandoning an animal-based diet and the criticism she received. Even after the film was released, Mitchell was subject to criticism and body-shaming from local male fitness bloggers. 

While there may be, in some sense, more stigma against men adopting a plant-based diet compared to women, health datafrom studies on cardiovascular health to the safety of automobiles—has historically left women out of the picture. This can make it harder for female athletes to make an informed decision about what kind of diet is best for them.  

“You don’t have to be motivated to win races to explore the benefits of a plant-based diet, but all women should bring a critical eye to the film’s messages,” says Summers, who also has a Ph.D. in social and behavioral sciences and works at Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. She suggests viewers consider the sample of each study presented in the documentary. Over 50 studies are cited by the predominantly male health and anthropological experts

“Scientific research, especially in sports performance, is usually done with white, college-age males,” says Summers. “Most of the scientific resources examining what ‘peak performance’ means are typically applied to this group. There is not enough attention paid to what works best for [female] athletes. The research landscape is changing to become more inclusive, but women often take what’s been determined as ideal for men and try to incorporate it into their training routines.”

Until more female-focused research is conducted and published, Summers says the studies should be a starting point for women’s dietary decisions. From there, runners need to seek out specific studies that include diverse samples and educate themselves the best they can, beyond what has been the norm or what might work best for their male counterparts.

Part of Summers’ responsibility at Meatless Mondays Global, an initiative that includes nutritionists, chefs, and public health experts, is to address myths about nutrition that cross genders, like the ones brought to Mitchell’s attention in the filmthat a vegan diet can lead to drops in iron and B12 levels.  

Summers also promotes the mindset that small changes can make a big difference. “Women runners, like men, don’t need to cut out meat entirely.” It’s really about understanding there is a benefit to replacing meat with plant-based foods one day a week or,  if that’s not possible, one meal a day.

Summers’ colleague at Johns Hopkins, Dominick Shattuck, Ph.D. agrees that the choice for individuals and families goes beyond all or nothing. “What people often forget is that researchers make conclusions based on a large group of people, not an individual. A research study that shows changes in cholesterol or increased performance, is aggregate. That’s where the cookie cutter training plans are limited. Expectations should be adjusted to your body and experience,” says Shattuck. 

How Relationships Can Dictate Fueling

Shattuck acknowledges that the shift away from animal protein has become easier for everyone over the years. However, we can’t ignore the fact that there is a deeply rooted connection between meat and masculinity. 

Nutritional messaging tends to be different between the sexes because “the research shows that women are more likely to follow public health guidance,” says Shattuck. Although women are more likely to be vegetarian than men according to a 2019 Gallop poll, Shattuck says that does not mean it is easier for women to switch to plant-based meals. There are structural issues that can hold women back.

Shattuck draws experience from developing and researching reproductive health programs where men hold a greater share of decision-making power in heterosexual relationships. He has found that improvements in a couple’s communication about sensitive issues improves health for women and can benefit families as a whole. 

Many recreational women runners, especially those with partners who control resources and dictate the weekly grocery shopping or dinner menu, may have a steep hill to climb. In households where women shoulder the burden of cooking and cleaning, preparing a second meal (or a third for children) can keep them from their goal of integrating plant-based foods. 

“It takes a very skilled communicator to have a conversation with their partnerespecially if you have been doing things one way for a long timeabout trying a plant-based diet, or making any change in diet,” Shattuck says. 

Though men are notorious for ignoring their health, women interested in shifting their family to a plant-based diet could utilize a film like Game Changers as a first step toward communicating this interest. Capitalizing on icons of masculinity like MMA fighters and everyday heroes, like firefighters, may help to facilitate that desired change. This suggestion may come across as men hijacking opportunities for women but, as Shattuck says, it is not a zero sum game. 

And switching to plant-based meals can be a gateway to adopting other healthy behaviors, like reducing alcohol consumption or improving sleep habits. It can also be an entry point to addressing disparities in men and women’s health and help men take women’s health concerns more seriously. And eating meatless meals goes beyond benefits to specific genders, leading to improvements to the health of our planetmitigating climate change and driving sustainable and ethical animal farming.