Plant-Based vs. Meat-Based Diets: Pros & Cons for Endurance Athletes

Best diet for endurance athletes

Plant-based diets, vegetarianism and veganism, are nothing new. Recently, however, there has been a surge in popularity surrounding the carnivore diet – the polar opposite of veganism. This isn’t necessarily new, but previously it was only seen occasionally in National Geographic specials. What’s the deal? How could people get things so horribly wrong?

Well part of me is inclined to think this is just part of the “natural” polarization between people over just about every topic possible nowadays, and the carnivore diet is just in spite of vegans. Then some people I knew well started to try it, perhaps just part of personal inquiry. What the carnivore diet is actually viewed as is an extreme variant of paleo and low-carb – debatably keto depending on the meat selection. Here’s what you need to know.

Carnivore Diet Pros

best part of the carnivore diet

Perhaps these are a little obvious, but nonetheless:

  • High protein
  • No processed foods (at least those doing it “right”)
  • Weight loss
  • Simple guidelines

The last one there being of particular interest – in fact, it’s the main reason most people would want to go carnivore. The only thing complex about it are whether or not to include dairy, coming to the realization that hot dogs are processed foods, and giving up coffee (nobody does this, though, despite it being a bean). Technically, if you were a hardcore carnivore (what other kinds are there, amirite?), you would also have to exclude just about any seasoning. Sounds like a con – here we go!

Carnivore Diet Cons

reasons to try the carnivore diet

Isn’t this a totally CRAZY idea? Eat nothing but meat? WHAT?! That’s not a big slap in the face to just about every dietary guideline…
It’s not without compromises. Here are the cons:

  • No carbs to fuel performance
  • Potentially longer adaptation window than even with a keto diet
  • Did you read when we said NO COFFEE
    • *nobody actually follows this rule – coffee is an essential nutrient
  • Technically, no seasoning
    • *nobody really seems to follow this rule either
  • Vegetables are good for us
  • Eating nothing but meat would get old fast

Personally, I have 4-5 meals a day that include ~8oz of meat, and it’s not always a cup of tea. In fact, it’s never a cup of tea, it’s always meat, and eating 2+ pounds of meat every day gets obnoxious. But I need muh proteins!

Vegetable-Based Pros & Cons

best reasons to go vegan

With vegetarian or vegan diets, we hear about the pros all the time. Mostly from the vegans themselves who won’t stop talking about how cool it is to be vegan. I’m pretty sure they’re trying to convince themselves, not anyone else. Shout out to all the vegans who do it for themselves and don’t yap about it all the time.

Anyhow, here’s what they told me:

  • Rich in vegetables
  • Humane
  • No shortage of carbs
And a rebuttal with a few cons:
  • Difficult to get complete proteins
  • Frequent B12 and Iron insufficiencies
  • Too strict for many
  • Can still eat a lot of junk food without “breaking the rules”
    • May sound like a pro, but it’s generally not helpful for weight loss or health

One of the most common reasons people try a vegetarian or vegan diet is to feel better or improve their health, but that’s also a reason people go carnivore – the exact opposite diet by definition. How can this be the case? Let’s compare head-to-head.

The Case of Plant V Meat

health benefits of plant based diets

Notice that in any of the above lists, absent are any direct health claims. No mention of heart disease, cancer, or even risk factors like LDL. This is deliberate. Mostly because I want you to keep reading and I’m being a tricky bastard, but also because I want to discuss the topic in light of both diets to draw direct comparisons.

In terms of feeling better, it’s not uncommon for people to instantly “feel better” when the start a new diet based on real food. When you “remove the insult” (e.g., trash, synthetic, almost-but-not-really food), you start to feel better. This is the case whether you switch to real plant food or real animal food.

Heart Disease

Plant-based diets are supposed to be good for heart health, mostly because they remove “harmful” meat from the diet. Butttt, the carnivore diet also claims to reduce risk factors of heart disease. Let’s just skim over the plant-based stuff and accept that there is data to support its heart health claims. By logic, that should mean the opposite is bad, right? Not so fast.

What’s so bad about meat? Well at the top of the naughty list is processed meat with a bunch of additives and the like. Next down the list is red meat, but red meat isn’t “bad” due to its usually high saturated fat content – rather a glycan (sugar) called neu5Gc, which is also present in dairy. This more or less explains the difference between, say, steak and chicken, with chicken being generally inert. And, of course, fish is generally healthy.

Let’s take it to the extreme, eating nothing but bologna is probably bad for your heart. So is eating nothing but French fries. Eating nothing but salmon, probably not that bad. Eating nothing but … ok well eating nothing but one type of plant is poised with all sorts of problems from a nutritional perspective. Anything except for breast milk is, really, but so much so in the case of plants, that I can’t even bring myself to say, “not so bad,” in a hypothetical situation – Sorry.

Anyhow, the science doesn’t support that a high poultry and fish diet would increase risk for heart disease. In contrast, we could expect markers to improve, such as a decrease in LDL or triglycerides.

Cancer

This one is quick. There are no good “indicators” of cancer such as there are for heart disease. We know some things, but there aren’t good blood markers we can just take a quick measure of, so epidemiological data usually looks at incidence or prevalence of cancer within different demographics.

When it comes to cancer risk of a carnivore diet, we simply don’t know. A plant-based diet may reduce risk for some cancers, and that is usually a selling point. However, it also INCREASES risk for other cancers. Thus, cancer is a moot point of discussion between the two.

Oh ya, and f*ck cancer.

Diabetes

Long story short here, both are good, but one is better. Plant-based diets typically remove a lot of fat from the diet, but the guidelines can permit an increase in sugar consumption. Removing the fat component makes things a little easier for the body to balance metabolism and process carbs. However, chronic high carbohydrate exposure is why people get diabetes in the first place.

In this regard, a carnivore diet wins, and it does so easily. Diabetes is not a problem when you don’t eat carbs. It’s really that simple. If you have celiac disease, you don’t eat gluten. If you have diabetes, you take insulin? … I don’t understand the approach, stop eating carbs, that’s the root of the problem.

Performance

For endurance sports, I’d have to give the nod to plant-based because even if you are fat-adapted, carbs will still benefit your performance.

For weightlifting sports, the carnivore diet is better because protein is much more important here.

Conclusion

best parts of being vegan

Spoiler; both approaches are a waste of time for optimal health and performance.
Can you have a spoiler in the conclusion? Oh well. Both are "wrong" per se, in the sense that you should be an omnivore.

If I were forced to choose, carnivore would win. Humans can survive on both food sources, but our biological machinery dictates we have protein and fat. A diet that makes obtaining both difficult seems incompatible.