Mediterranean diet boosts endurance exercise within days!


In just four days, athletes can improve their endurance exercise performance, via the consumption of a Mediterranean diet as compared to eating a Western diet. That’s the eye-opening conclusions from recent research from Saint Louis University [1].

Before we discuss this further, let’s take a look back at some information from a soon-to-be published article on Hammer Nutrition’s website, “Western Diet Increases Risk of Severe Sepsis and Death.”

In that article, I discuss the Western diet being comprised of:

  • 25% carbohydrates, largely from refined sugar and minimal-to-no fiber
  • 44% fats, with a 5:2 ratio favoring saturated fats over polyunsaturated fats
  • 31% protein

Excess sodium is also noted in the Western diet, with amounts of 7,000 mg daily being common.

Dr. Brooke Napier, the lead researcher in that particular study [2], summarized: “The mice's immune system on the Western diet looked and functioned differently. It looks like the diet is manipulating immune cell function so that you're more susceptible to sepsis, and then when you get sepsis, you die quicker."

By comparison, the Mediterranean diet includes whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil and whole grains, and avoids red and processed meats, dairy, trans and saturated fats and refined sugars. The Mayo Clinic website has excellent information about the Mediterranean diet [3].

Got it! Now tell me what the results were!

In a nutshell, researchers found that participants performed a 5K run 6% faster after eating a Mediterranean diet than after eating a Western diet. That might not seem like a lot until you crunch the numbers:

  • 5K (3.1 miles) at 7:30/mile pace = 23:18 time
  • 23:18 time, with a 6% improvement = 21:54 time, or 1:24 faster

While the participants only performed a 5K run, think of what a 6% improvement would be for longer-duration exercise!

  • 10K (6.2 miles) at 7:30/mile pace = 46:36 time
  • 46:36 time, with a 6% improvement = 43:48 time, or 2:48 faster
  • Half marathon (13.1 miles) at 8:00/mile pace (slightly slower pace) = 1:44:53 time
  • 1:44.53 time, with a 6% improvement = 1:38:25 time, or 6:18 faster
  • Marathon (26.2 miles) at 8:30/mile pace (slightly slower pace) = 3:42:52 time
  • 3:29:30 time, with a 6% improvement = 1:38:25 time, or 13:22 faster

Lead researcher, Edward Weiss, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and dietetics at SLU, says the Mediterranean diet is well-established as having numerous health benefits, and he and his believe that that the diet's potential for improving exercise performance are due to its:

  • Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects
  • More-alkaline pH
  • Higher levels of dietary nitrates (which convert to nitric oxide)

Dr. Weiss states: "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. However, these benefits were also quickly lost when switching to the Western diet, highlighting the importance of long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet."

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

[1] Michelle E. Baker, Kristen N. DeCesare, Abby Johnson, Kathleen S. Kress, Cynthia L. Inman, Edward P. Weiss. Short-Term Mediterranean Diet Improves Endurance Exercise Performance: A Randomized-Sequence Crossover Trial. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2019; 1 DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2019.1568322