Athletes looking for something to boost their endurance may want to try following the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet).

A new study found participants who adhered to this eating plan had a six-percent faster speed in a five kilometer (5K) race than those who consumed a Western diet. The improvement was noted after only four days. However, no difference in the two diets was found in aerobic exercise performance after four days.

This study provides evidence that a diet that is known to be good for health is also good for exercise performance.- Edward Weiss, professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University

Most experts believe the health value of the MedDiet is superior to other diets. The eating plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fatty fish, whole grains and olive oil while avoiding refined sugar, red meat, processed meat and saturated fat.

In contrast, the Western diet involves a low intake of fruits and vegetables, along with a high intake of processed foods, refined sugars, highly processed vegetable oils, sodium and unhealthy fat.

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The researchers enrolled four men and seven women in a randomized-sequence crossover study. Participants ran two kilometers (1.2 miles) on a treadmill twice – once after four days on a Western diet and another time after four days on a MedDiet. Nine to 16 days separated the two tests. Despite similar heart rates and levels of perceived exertion, the 5K running time was six-percent faster after consumption of the MedDiet.

According to senior researcher Edward Weiss, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, studies show the MedDiet has many health benefits. He and his colleagues theorized that its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as the nitrates’ content and more alkaline pH might improve exercise performance.

In discussing the results, the research team said systemic inflammation impairs physical performance; therefore, the anti-inflammatory foods of the MedDiet and pro-inflammatory foods of the Western diet may have been a factor.

Moreover, because oxidation stress can hinder physical performance, the antioxidants in the MedDiet probably played a role. Dietary nitrates may also enhance performance, and many vegetables are nitrate rich.

Some studies suggest alkalinity may boost performance. Although systemic pH was not measured in the study, fruits and vegetables are alkalinizing; but foods in the Western diet, such as meat and refined grains, tend to be acidic.

“Many individual nutrients in the Mediterranean diet improve exercise performance immediately or within a few days. Therefore, it makes sense that a whole dietary pattern that includes these nutrients is also quick to improve performance,” Weiss said. “However, these benefits were also quickly lost when switching to the Western diet, highlighting the importance of long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet.”

“This study provides evidence that a diet that is known to be good for health is also good for exercise performance,” Weiss added. “Like the general population, athletes and other exercise enthusiasts commonly eat unhealthy diets. Now they have an additional incentive to eat healthy.”

Weiss told Olive Oil Times he suspects that replacing a Western diet with the MedDiet not only benefits athletes, but also regular people going about their everyday lives.

“I think it would be fair to speculate that daily activities requiring sustained physical exertion, such as mowing the lawn or chasing around children and grandchildren, might be accomplished a bit more quickly and vigorously or possibly with less fatigue,” he said. “However, I would caution that any benefit would likely be small to modest.”

“While this is certainly worthwhile, especially considering the fact the diet is also very good for health, fitness for life’s activities can be improved substantially by performing regular exercise training,” he added. “At the end of the day, I’m a big proponent of encouraging a lifestyle that includes eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise.”

The study was published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

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