Supporting the Athlete in All of Us


The Mediterranean Diet can potentially boost exercise performance in just four days.

By now you are probably somewhat familiar with the components of the Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. It also allows for a modest consumption of fish, dairy and red wine. While this diet has been touted for all of its health benefits, frequently with respect to heart health, all of its recommended dietary components contain various compounds that can boost athletic performance, as well. Sticking to this primarily plant-based diet could potentially have a positive impact on your ability to exercise.

Many of the foods within this diet contain antioxidants and nitrates, as well as anti-inflammatory and alkalizing properties. Bearing that in mind, would it suggest adhering to this diet will allow you to experience improved exercise and endurance performance? A team of researchers at Saint Louis University wanted to know, so they rolled up their sleeves and dug into the question.

Through its investigations, this team discovered that eating a Mediterranean diet could have benefits with respect to increased exercise performance. Through a small study that was published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers observed seven women and four men, each of whom ran five kilometers on a treadmill on two separate occasions: once after consuming a Mediterranean diet for four days and on another occasion after consuming a Western diet, which is characterized by a low intake of fruit, vegetables and minimally processed oils, and leans heavily towards trans and saturated fats, dairy, refined sugars and highly processed vegetable oils, sodium and processed foods, for the same amount of time. There was a nine to 16 day separate period between the two tests.

What the study revealed was the individuals who followed the Mediterranean diet as opposed to the Western diet, despite similar heart rates and ratings of perceived exertion, ran the 5k six percent faster. In short, this study set forth some evidence that a diet already known to promote good health can also be quite beneficial for exercise performance.

Edward Weiss, Ph.D., the Senior researcher on this project, proposed the diet’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, coupled with more alkaline pH and dietary nitrates, could potentially lead to improved exercise performance. He indicated many of the individual nutrients in the Mediterranean diet improve exercise performance immediately or within a few days. As such, he concluded it made sense that a whole dietary pattern that includes these nutrients would also aid in quickly improving performance. On the flip side, such benefits were negated when a switch was made back to the Western diet, thus suggesting the importance of sticking to the Mediterranean plan on a long-term basis.

As a general rule, athletes need a great deal of complex carbohydrates, as carbs are the main source of fuel for the body. Sweet potatoes are approved for this diet and are packed with nutrition. Whole wheat pasta and bread are also good options, as are beans, yogurt and eggs. The dairy and the beans give the body both carbs and protein.

The Mediterranean diet can also aid in optimizing muscle gain. To achieve this goal, it is important to focus on the protein intake. This eating plan encourages three or more weekly servings of fish/seafood and some added protein while limiting the consumption of red meat. Some nutritionists recommend getting about 20% of your diet from protein sources to help build muscle. Since this diet does limit red meat, the focus for increased protein should come from foods such as poultry, fish, yogurt, eggs and cheese. In addition to protein, there should be a balance of healthy carbohydrates and some healthy fats. Some of the best nuts to eat on this plan are almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

Also, when considering the Mediterranean diet to improve your exercise performance, aim for higher quality foods to meet your daily requirements. If fish is on the menu, choose a nutrient-dense fillet of wild Alaskan salmon. Use extra-virgin olive oil as the main fat component in the diet. And if you love the kick of spices to flavor your food, consider cumin, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon and coriander.

Although touted as primarily a heart-healthy, weight-loss diet, the Mediterranean diet can be ideal for athletic performance, with some higher carb Mediterranean diet acceptable foods added into the mix. This diet is one of the best ways to eat and live well.