Eating to podium while saving the planet

Posted by Simone do Carmo

Food is a major contributor towards greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution, a link that we often don’t realise. And athletes eat more than the average person due to their higher energy demands. 

Busy schedules and the wide availability of packaged food products and bottled drinks might cause them to make less environmentally conscious food choices. Because of the higher protein guidelines perpetuated in the field of sports nutrition, athletes also eat lots of animal protein. But there is still plenty that athletes can do to integrate sustainable dietary choices and practices to offset their burden on the environment, as Meyer & Reguant-Costa so eloquently discuss in their paper (1). Let’s look at some of these ideas.

Athletes consume more protein than the general population, with current recommendations at 1.2 to 2 g/kg body weight – this can even be higher for some strength-based athletes or for those on energy-restricted diets as a means for appetite control and muscle mass preservation. Prevailing norms in the sports nutrition literature suggest that protein from animal-based foods is better than protein from plant-based foods in terms of bioavailability and the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Within an athletic population, this then increases the demand for meat, fish, eggs and dairy, which are also consumed in quantities greater than plant-based protein in the general population.

Animal agriculture has been shown to be the most costly for the environment due to raised greenhouse gas emissions and substantial land and water requirements – not only for the animals, but their feed – which, in turn, compromises other ecosystems.

This begs the question: don’t athletes have the same ethical responsibility as the rest of the general population to eat sustainably by reducing their animal protein consumption? On the flip side, however; could we be compromising athletic performance and recovery if we don’t recommend highly bioavailable protein from animal sources?

Reducing animal protein intake doesn’t mean eliminating it entirely and becoming vegetarian or vegan. What it means is that athletes can be more environmentally conscious by cutting up to a third off their animal protein, particularly meat, and replacing it with a combination of plant proteins (e.g. beans, nuts, seeds) to meet all their essential amino acid needs. Choosing animal protein sourced from grass-fed animals is also essential, as grass feeding dramatically reduces a cow’s carbon footprint, while providing more omega-3s and antioxidants to the athlete – a win-win situation. Grass-fed animals also have less exposure to chemicals. Conventional farming is known for its overuse of antibiotics, which is a concern not only for the surrounding land and water, but because of the global issue of antimicrobial resistance and animal welfare issues too. Choosing grass-fed animal protein is therefore a more sustainable alternative for both the environment and health.

If we look at the world’s longest living cultures, they eat meat sparingly and treat it as a celebratory food, a small side, or to flavour their food. And the same can be applied to an athlete’s plate: instead of having half of their plates filled with meat, they can make it a quarter of meat, with the rest made up of good-quality carbohydrates (e.g. sweet potato, butternut, brown rice), a combination of plant-based, protein-rich sources (e.g. brown rice with beans or lentils or nuts), greens and as many vibrant colourful vegetables as they like – this only brings additional health benefits with a variety of micronutrients, antioxidants and phytonutrients, as well as fibre. Eating fish for omega-3s involves concerns about diminishing wild fish supplies, the rising need for aquacultures and the feed they use. For example, vegetable oils used in salmon feed have been shown to increase the proportion of omega-6s and decrease omega-3s – this is alarming for both fish and human health. A more sustainable solution could be microalgae, so athletes can still benefit from EPA and DHA.

Insects have been suggested as the next sustainable protein source. They are as nutritious as other animal protein, but their greenhouse gas emission rate is much lower due to their reduced water and feed requirements. And they are a convenient option for busy athletes, as insect powder can easily be incorporated into a post-exercise smoothie or bar. But research on their effectiveness is lacking, especially compared to whey protein, which is considered the gold-standard protein source in sports nutrition.

The gold standard perhaps, but dairy production is not blameless when it comes to the environment either. It has been shown that milk produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than cheese and yoghurts because both of these require additional processing (processing generally equates to more energy use), so athletes are encouraged to focus on milk (rich in whey) from grass-fed animals as a post-exercise option. From a health perspective, natural yoghurts and kefir are rich in probiotics for gut health, so we wouldn’t want to exclude them from an athlete’s diet. But they should be natural and not processed with additional sugars and flavours. Generally, athletes can be more mindful of their dairy intake and if they had to reduce one particular type, cheese is recommended because of its greater greenhouse gas emissions.

Athletes and practitioners should also be aware of food quality. Organic agricultural systems, which are more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient, also deliver equally or more nutritious foods than conventional agricultural systems, have no synthetic pesticide residues, and help protect ecosystem services. As practitioners, we should encourage athletes to visit their local farm or food market that engages in organic or other innovative agricultural practices to cultivate the connection between health and sustainability. Plus, by shopping locally, athletes would also support their community and reduce their transport footprint.

We need to educate athletes about food waste, and the polluting effect of plastics on our environment and food chain – that starts with planning ahead for the week, providing input on shopping, cooking and storage of food, and strategies to minimise plastic usage, such as swapping their plastic shake bottle for a plastic-free one, reducing their consumption of plastic-packaged foods or using reusable bags when they go shopping.

Lastly, we should think of the bigger picture. Athletes are considered role models of society and are often great spokespeople. Young people look up to them and imagine themselves being on the podium one day. If we can engage athletes in environmental sustainability and get them to share their lessons, this can only have a positive downstream effect on wider society.

References:

  1. Meyer N & Reguant-Costa A (2017). Eat as if you could save the planet and win! Sustainability integration into nutrition for exercise and sport. Nutrients. 9(4).412.